TIVOLI, Italy — Although most people think of ancient Rome as a blindingly white tribute to marble, much of the stone used for Roman buildings was, in fact, travertine.

And travertine, a warm honey-colored stone quarried for thousands of years in Italy, continues to be chosen by some of the world's best-known architects for their most prestigious commissions: Richard Meier for the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles; Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for the Sears Tower in Chicago; and I.M. Pei and his Pei Partnership Architects for the Bank of China headquarters in Beijing.

At the other end of the building spectrum, many developers also choose the stone for high-end housing projects.

The Mariotti company, generally considered the source for high-quality travertine, is in Tivoli, a town about half an hour's drive outside of Rome that is better known for the Villa d'Este and Emperor Hadrian's villa. The area has been quarried for travertine since Roman times, and the Mariotti family has been digging and cutting stone there since 1895.

"I am part of the fourth generation," said Fabrizio Mariotti, who runs the business along with his two brothers, Primo and Stefano, and their sister Carla.

"The area is historically known for travertine, specifically a type called travertino romano," he said. "This stone has been used since Roman times, and is the white stone you still see today facing parts of the Colosseum. Although obviously weathered by time, the fact that it is still in place attests to its great resistance and strength."

Travertine is considered suitable for a variety of architectural styles. "That's not to say that it's always in style," Fabrizio Mariotti said. "Stone is to architecture much like fabric is to fashion design. Styles come and go. But all it takes is one well-known architect to use travertine in a successful project to convince everyone of its timeless beauty."

The company's contribution to large projects is renowned. "This is mostly because of the extremely high quality of our stone," Mariotti said. "But it is also due to the fact that we have developed a very sophisticated team of workers that can craft the stone into almost any shape or form."

The company has done its share of private homes. "We have worked on many stunning villas but always where the travertine becomes part of the architectural statement," Mariotti said. "If all you want is a travertine bathroom, then there are smaller firms for that."

Recently a U.S. architect, Ron Krueck, chose Mariotti to supply the cladding and flooring for a home he had been commissioned to built in Florida. Each slab was hand cut and polished so that the subtle veining in the stone would match from square to square. The technique, called bookmatch, ensures that the final effect is seamless, as if the quarry walls had been polished and transferred to the house as a single piece.

"It's almost like a work of art," Mariotti said. "And very complicated to execute. All the slabs had to be laid out here in Tivoli, to make sure they matched up correctly, before being shipped to Florida."

Such attention to detail is not cheap; it costs E350 a square meter, or about $39 a square foot. "I would say about 90 percent of the major travertine projects in the world end up coming to us," Mariotti said. "Whether or not they end up using us - well, they all do, if they can afford to."

Source: The New York Times, By ELIZABETH HELMAN MINCHILLI - FEB. 16, 2006
P.I. 02090331006
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