Corsi Collection of Decorative Stones

Class VII
Serpentines (Serpentine)

This stone, of which large and uninterrupted mountains are found, is unvaryingly of a dark green with waves, veins, spots, and bands of a different green that often shade into faded yellow, and also deep blue, but seldom red, or purplish. It is said to be serpentine because the combination of colours resembles the skin of snakes. We ourselves shall not make the distinction made by some mineralogists between the serpentines, correctly so-called, and the gabbros, but we shall include them both in this class. Serpentine is sometimes absolutely hard, and sometimes it is very soft, but in general it tends rather to hard than soft. The greatest hardness is due to the presence of feldspar. In these stones amphibole, diallage, and asbestos are often found together; the last two substances give the cat's-eye effect that shows at different points [p142] when they have been polished. Mineralogists divide the serpentines into the 'noble' ones and the 'common' ones. The noble serpentines are dry to the touch, take a fine polish, and in colour and in the shape of the markings resemble verde antico more than the others. Among the noble serpentines are included also those containing garnets. The common serpentines are of a very deep green, greasy to the touch, and when they are cut leave the water unctuous, similar to lye-washings.

Corsi has included various kinds of green rock in this class. Those composed mainly of the serpentine minerals (antigorite, chrysotile, and lizardite) are called serpentinites. They are formed by low-grade metamorphism of igneous rocks rich in magnesium and iron. Varieties that are brecciated and cemented with carbonate minerals (calcite, dolomite), are traditionally termed 'ophicalcite', and can be particularly decorative. Serpentinites usually contain abundant grains of metal oxides, and when grey magnetite weathers to red hematite, the colour permeating through the stone can have a strikingly beautiful effect.

The name serpentina for stones in this class takes the feminine gender from the word 'pietra'. The green porphyries (nos. 797 to 812), which Corsi says are commonly called serpentine (volgarmente detti Serpentini), take the masculine gender (serpentino) from the word 'porfido'. Both names mean 'snake-like', and their use in these ways is documented by others, for example, Baldinucci in his 1681 Vocabolario toscano dell'arte del disegno i .

i. Baldinucci (1681)

§ I Noble serpentines (Serpentine nobili)


565. (142.1) Verde antico. Marmor Atracium. One gets the same impression by seeing a sample of verde antico as from reading a description of Atracian marble (marmo atracio) by Paulus Silentiarius. 88 He expresses it thus, 'The Atracian marble is of a green, not very far from that of the emerald, and it contains markings of a deeper green that often verges on [p143] cerulean, others are of a snow white, and others of a shiny black.' It was called Atracian because it used to be quarried near the city of Atrax in Thessaly, for which reason Pollux 89 called it also 'Thessalian' (Tessalico). The Romans held it in very great esteem for its beauty and its rarity. The Basilica of S. Giovanni in Laterano, where twenty-four columns of it can be seen in the niches of the twelve apostles, is very rich in this marble. Also magnificent are those ornamenting the high altar of S. Agnese in Piazza Navona. (Very rare).

The ancient city of Atrax has not been localised exactly, though it is thought to be near Lárisa. Three of the ancient quarries, Chasampalis, Kastri and Tisaion, were studied in 1963 by J. Papageorgakis i . Corsi's samples 565 and 566 come from different quarries in the area. The pillars in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, so graphically described by Paul the Silentiary, are particularly good examples of this stone.

The ancient quarries were rediscovered and re-opened by William Brindley late in the 19th century and the deposit has been worked sporadically on a commercial scale right up until the end of the 20th century, victims of competition from the newly emerging Indian 'green marble' industry.

i. Gnoli (1988) 163, note 1

566. (143.2) Another of a lighter green, with white and more definite black markings. The two amazing tables in the Galleria degli Animali in the Vatican Museum are of this type. (Very rare).

567. (143.3) Verde ranocchia. Marmor Ophite. Besides the stone from Atrax many other serpentines were known and used by the ancients. Few fragments remain to us of these stones, which the stonemasons vaguely call verde ranocchia, because its greenish [p144] colouring resembles the skin of the frog. Such marble can be no other than the Ophite (Ofite) that Pliny 90 mentions. He says that 'ophite is similar to the markings of snakes from which it takes the name' because the Greek word ophis (οφις) means snake. Consequently as mineralogists call serpentine the stone that resembles the sloughed skin of a snake, one must believe that it corresponds to ophite. Pliny also says that only a few very small columns of ophite were to be seen in Rome; and that in fact such stone is seldom found in excavations, and always in small pieces. In the villa of Lucullus near Frascati I have found the rim of a tazza no larger than a common salt-cellar which proves that this stone was rare, since even the small pieces used to be worked. Pliny once assigned it to Egypt, but Lucan 91 with greater accuracy says that it used to be found in the Thebaid. And in fact there is a small carved Egyptian idol of this stone in the Galleria de' Candelabri in the[p145] Vatican Museum no.1320.

Some people have thought that ophite might possibly be the green porphyry with dull yellowish crystals commonly called serpentino, but it is found in Greece, as will be seen shortly, and it is consistently hard. Pliny, on the contrary, says that ophite is very soft when it is veined with white, and hard when verging on blackish, and this variation of cement occurs frequently among the serpentines, as has already been observed. The present specimen has a light green ground with whitish waves verging on faded yellow. (Very rare).

568. (145.4) Another verdi ranocchia. A little richer in colour. There is a small vase of this type in the Galleria de' Candelabri no.1347. (Very rare).

569. (145.5) Verde di Varallo in the Piedmont. Apple green ground with white markings and others black. Much experience is required to distinguish it from the ancient. A vase can be seen in the Galleria de' Candelabri in the Vatican Museum. (Not common).

570. (145.6) Another variety of a lighter green[p146] with markings of white, and less defined black. (Not common).

571. (146.7) Verde di Susa in the Piedmont. Light green ground with markings of a different green that shades into cerulean with a similarity to the ancient. (Not common).

572. (146.8) Another variety, in darker shades. (Not common).

573. (146.9) Verdi di Calabria. It seems similar to the ancient except the white is not in patches but in bands. (Rare).

574. (146.10) Pietra Braschia. So called because it was found during the pontificate of Pius VI, and honoured with his family name. It has a dark green ground and many large garnets similar to rubies. Two vases can be seen in the Galleria de' Candelabri in the Vatican Museum nos.1520 and 1518. (Very rare).

Count Giovanni Angelo Braschi (1717-1799) became Pope Pius VI in 1775. He was a great lover of ancient marbles, and he had two large vases of this stone made for the Vatican, which can be seen in the Galleria de' Candelabri i , ii .

i. Napoleone (2001) 132, note 123
ii. Gnoli (1988) 160

575. (146.11) Serpentina di Valsabbia in the Brescian area. Green ground, freely seeded with small red garnets. (Very rare).


962. (Suppl.21.1) Verde antico. Dark green ground with many small black, and greenish-white markings. (Very rare).


§ II Common serpentines (Serpentini comuni)

576. (147.1) Serpentina dell'Elba. Dark green ground marked with a lighter green. (Rare).

577. (147.2) Verde ragano dell'Elba. Green ground verging on black with markings of light green similar to the skin of the ragano type of lizard. (Rare).

578. (147.3) Verde ranocchia di Genova. Black ground minutely marked with green, similar to the skin of frogs. (Rare).

579. (147.4) Nefrite di Cararra. Green ground verging on purplish with many small black markings. It is called nephrite because it resembles that stone, except that it is very soft. (Common).

580. (147.5) Another variety, with a dark purplish ground and green markings. (Common).

581. (147.6) Another variety, with a deep green ground with many very glittering spots. (Not common).

582. (147.7) Verde tenero di Corsica. Apple green ground with white, and some reddish markings. (Very rare). [p148]

583. (148.8) Verde dell'Elba. Dark green ground with blackish markings in the shape of stars. (Rare).

584. (148.9) Verde di Ponsevre in the Genoan area. Light green ground verging on grey, with white and dark green markings. (Common).

585. (148.10) Another variety with a dark green ground and white angular markings. (Not common).

586. (148.11) Another variety with a peachy coloured ground, marked by white, and green mixed with red. There is a vase of this beautiful stone in the Galleria de' Candelabri in the Vatican Museum no.1434. (Very rare).

587. (148.12) Another variety with a light green ground marked by purple, and a little white. There are four large columns of this stone in the high altar of S. Maria di Monte Santo al Popolo. (Rare).

588. (148.13) Serpentina di Corsica. Ground dark green mixed with purple, with lighter green striations. (Very rare).


589. (149.14) Marmo di S. Cattarina dell'Elba. Blackish green ground with small markings of apple green. (Rare).

590. (149.15) Serpentina di Carrara. Deep green ground with small markings of greenish white. (Common).

591. (149.16) Serpentina di Corsica. Blackish ground with light green waves, and apple green lines. (Rare).

592. (149.17) Serpentina di Corsica. Purplish ground with emerald green markings, and some gleaming white lines. (Very rare).

593. (149.18) Marmo di S. Cattarina dell'Elba. Minute mixture of white, green, violet and dark blue. (Very rare).

594. (149.19) Verde di Genova. Violet ground with apple green waves. (Rare).

595. (149.20) Serpentina di Chiavari. Deep green ground with black markings. (Rare).

596. (149.21) Verde di Piombino. Dark green ground with greenish white bands. (Not common).

597. (149.22) Verde di Genova. Ground green [p150] shading into dark grey with markings of emerald green. (Rare).

598. (150.23) Serpentina di Corsica. Mixture of various greens, with some deep blue markings. (Very rare).

599. (150.24) Serpentina delle Alpi. Grass green with markings of dusky grey. (Very rare).

600. (150.25) Serpentina delle Alpi. Green ground with black, yellow, and violet markings. (Very rare).

601. (150.26) Serpentina dell'Elba. Entirely dark green, and almost monochrome. (Very rare).

602. (150.27) Serpentina di Cagliari. Light green ground reticulated all over with white. Very beautiful and (very rare).

603. (150.28) Serpentina di Cagliari. Dark green ground reticulated all over with apple green. Very beautiful and (very rare).

604. (150.29) Nefrite dell'Elba. Deep green ground with lighter markings similar to the ancient nefrite. (Rare).

605. (150.30) Serpentina dell'Alpi. Dark [p151] green ground with markings of yellow, and another lighter green. (Rare).

606. (151.31) Serpentina delle Alpi. Purplish ground with markings of emerald green. Beautiful and (rare).

607. (151.32) Serpentina delle Alpi. Deep green ground waved by black. (Rare).

608. (151.33) Serpentina delle Alpi. Grey ground with dark markings that shade into violet. (Very rare).

609. (151.34) Verde di Sardegna. Black ground with large markings of grass green. (Rare).

610. (151.35) Serpentina dell'Elba. Apple green with black yenite in rays. (Very rare).

Yenite was so-called in commemoration of the Napoleonic battle of Jena; this ended in a rout of the Prussians, see Mclynn i . According to Brongniart ii it was called lievrite in honour of M. Lelièvre, who found it at Rio-la-Marine and at Capo Calamite on the island of Elba. The name was changed to that in modern use, ilvaite, in 1811 because it was considered undesirable to have a mineral commemorating a battle iii .

i. McLynn (1998) 356
ii. Brongniart (1807) 401
iii. Clark (1993) 322, 399, 766

611. (151.36) Serpentina delle Alpi. Deep green ground veined with white. (Rare).

612. (151.37) Serpentina dell'Alpi. White ground flowered with emerald green. (Rare).

613. (151.38) Serpentina dell'Alpi. Light green ground striped with black. (Very rare).

614. (151.39) Serpentina dell'Alpi. Deep green ground with small grass green markings, and other whitish ones. (Rare).


615. (152.40) Serpentina dell'Alpi. Apple green ground with peachy coloured waves edged with deep green. (Rare).

616. (152.41) Serpentina dell'Alpi. White ground with emerald green markings. (Rare).

617. (152.42) Serpentina dell'Elba. Deep green ground flowered with green verging on blackish, and with white. (Rare).

618. (152.43) Serpentina di Genova. White ground marked by deep green that verges on emerald green. This type of stone used to be utilised by the ancients, since it is found in excavations. (Very rare).

619. (152.44) Serpentina di Corsica. Grass green ground veined by yellow and black. (Rare).

620. (152.45) Serpentina di Genova. Greenish white ground veined by dark purplish. Very beautiful and (very rare).


963. (Suppl.22.1) Serpentina di S. Caterina on the island of Elba. Purplish ground with white and green markings. Beautiful and (not common).


964. (Suppl.22.2) Serpentina di Corsica. Rose-coloured ground waved with green similar to the emerald. Very beautiful, and (rare).

965. (Suppl.22.3) Serpentina di Carrara. Grass green ground with some markings of pea-green and others of red. (Rare).

966. (Suppl.22.4) Another from the same place. Purplish ground covered with faded yellow, and grey, markings. (Very rare).

967. (Suppl.22.5) Another from the same place. Deep green ground with small, very light green markings. (Rare).