The Ligurian Viewing Stones of Italy
Some of the finest viewing stones ever discovered outside Asia are found in the small Ligurian mountain range in northwestern Italy that extends slightly into neighboring France. These natural-formed stones are from ancient limestones deposits, similar to those in other parts of the world that have produced the famed Taihu and Lingbi stones of China. These stones, weather-worn fragments of an extensive deposit known as Palombino limestone, are removed from the earth and cleaned to remove a thin whitish coating on the surface of the stones. They are also similar in appearance to the Furuya stones of Japan when collected in nature.
Liguria is a small coastal region known for its beautiful seaside resorts, Cinque Terre, and for its capital Genoa, home of Christopher Columbus. But viewing stone enthusiasts know Liguria for the extraordinary limestone Palombino viewing stones that are found in the mountains near the coast. Millions of years ago these mountains were formed when calcareous and clay-schist layers of an ancient sea floor where uplifted. This eventually formed a limestone layer that was exposed with time and as an aftermath to the construction of roads and reservoirs. Ground water flowing through cracks in this layer eroded away softer portions of the stone. As a result, many mountain-shaped stones were formed along with some interesting figures and abstract-shaped stones. Often, Palombino stones are gray in color, but the presence of other minerals such as manganese, copper, magnetite, and chlorites will produce variations in color including darker colored stones.
Palombino stones are eroded in their natural locations so the mountain-like features of these stones face downward. The upper part of the limestone lens is typically flat where it meets an overlying stone or dirt. As a result, these stones have a naturally occurring nearly flat bottom. If the limestone layer reaches the surface, it will gradually break apart leaving stones scattered on the ground. A metal bar or strong stick is sometimes needed to pry stones loose from a lake side limestone lens that is still intact.
Attractive pieces of Palombino stones were first collected by farmers and used to decorate their homes and barns. Many were altered and used to construct walls and fences, although some enthusiasts began collecting them for their attractive features. In 1980 and 1981 when Italians began learning about bonsai and occasionally saw photographs of a Chinese or Japanese stone included in a display or exhibition. The development of a true stone appreciation culture came along with the introduction of the art of bonsai in Italy. In 1989, Luciana Quierolo, Sergio Malpeli, and Luigi Noviero exhibited stones along with bonsai in an April exhibition held in Genoa—the first exhibit of viewing stones in Italy. That same year the book The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation by Vincent Covello and Yuji Yoshimura was translated into Italian. This served as a great stimulus for the rapid development of a stone appreciation culture in Italy based upon Japanese suiseki practices.
The reliance on Covello and Yoshimura’s book explains the preference of Italian stone collectors for diverse types of landscape stones. Information about abstract stones based upon Chinese stone culture was largely absent among new stone enthusiasts. The focus on landscape-type stones produced an array of exceptional Palombino stones that have been displayed over the last three decades. The Unici de Liguria, the first club devoted to stone appreciation in Italy, was established in January 1991, followed by the formation of the Associazione Italiana Amatori Suiseki (Italian Association of Suiseki Lovers) in 1997.
Italian Palombino stones have been admired by stone enthusiasts throughout the world. A few collectors criticize these stones because of their lighter color and what they consider to be an insufficient appearance of “oldness.” Japanese stones that are dark and look old, not because of the age of the stone, but because of an aged appearance are prized in Japan. The aged appearance comes from the patina and texture on the surface of the stone. In both China and Japan, stones that have been displayed and admired for centuries are held in very high esteem.
Stone appreciation cultures have only developed in Western countries in the last three to five decades; thus, Western stones will not have the aged appearance of many Asian stones. If the criteria were applied to Western stones, few if any stones would be acceptable. Stones can be enhanced to create an older appearance as is done in both China and Japan. Despite that, Western collectors of stones should not resort to these practices.
We think this criticism of Ligurian Palombino stones is unjustified. Evaluation criteria should be flexible enough to adopt to conditions in other countries. An evaluation of Italian stones should be based upon the internationally-accepted criteria (shape, color, texture, and composition) and take into consideration the geology and cultural history of this country. Italy has a long, rich, and important history. The use of native stones—limestone, alabaster, marble—is an integral part of their history. Visits to Roman ruins and archeological sites throughout Italy quickly reveal the extensive use of lighter colored stones. Thus, in keeping with Italian culture, we believe these light-colored stones make excellent viewing stones.
There are other attractive viewing stones besides Palombino limestones in the Ligurian mountains. Geologically more recent layers of sandstones sometimes occur above the layers of Palombino limestone. In such cases, sand stone rocks, known as Arenaria, are formed. These are sometimes collected and appreciated as viewing stones, but they are a softer stone which makes them somewhat less desirable.
Fascinating rounded basalt stones, and some serpentinite and gabbro type stones are found in this region. Many of these are not well-defined landscape stones, but may represent some exciting additional types of viewing stones from Liguria.