Corsi Collection of Decorative Stones


[p3] The fondness the Romans developed for decorative stones grew proportionately with their greatness. As soon as they had conquered Asia, Africa, and Greece they imported the most famous blocks of stones from these countries. At first these marbles were used to ornament public places: but as is usually the case, the extravagant taste of the government was soon shared by the people. A magistrate on taking his office did not fail to adorn Rome with beautiful varieties of new marbles. The basilicas, temples, courts of justice, baths, villas, nymphaea, palaces, houses, and streets were alike enriched with marbles. As the quarries already known were exhausted, new ones were opened worked by condemned prisoners.

[p4] Eventually these costly marbles became scarce, and Ovid said that 'as the marble is quarried the mountains shrink.' The Romans, at last despairing of getting marble from the exhausted quarries, tried to procure it in Rome itself. To obtain the basin of a fountain, or a perfect column, they would buy and destroy an entire house: but fortunately the Senate interfered, refusing to allow the city to be disfigured with ruins. Later, in order to gain novel effects in marbles they resorted to art, introducing the practice of inlaying. When fine marbles entirely gave out the common kinds were painted, imitating the stains of the rarer ones. [p5] As Pliny himself relates 'this art was invented in the reign of Claudius, but it was in the time of Nero that we discovered the method of inserting, in marble, spots that do not belong to it, and so varying its uniformity; and this for the purpose of representing the marble of Numidia variegated with ovals, or that of Synnada veined with purple, just, in fact as luxury might have willed that nature should produce them.' (Pliny, Book 35, chap. 1.)

The Romans, as they increased in power, strength and riches, collected so many valuable stones that there were no new ones to be obtained, so I felt certain that in Rome one might find all the marbles of Asia, Africa, and Greece, and believed that an interesting collection could be made of the different species, and varieties. Fortunately the first specimens of my collection were offered me, and it was not difficult to secure the rarer, as well as the more ordinary ones, in a quantity important as to length, breadth, and thickness. Having settled upon the size of the specimens I could not vary it, and so found myself compelled to continue making my collection of ancient marbles in specimens a size larger than any one had imagined, or attempted to obtain. At first the work seemed easy, but during my explorations I found many marbles that were absolutely new to me. Determined, however, to carry out my design, without flinching in the face of difficulties, trouble or expense, I finally succeeded in procuring good specimens, [p6] even of those marbles which hitherto I had only seen in small fragments.

Through study of the classics, and by observation, I discovered that the Romans also made use of many Italian marbles which were called Marmor Ligustica, Lunense, and Tauromenitana. These I managed to procure from excavations and quarries which are still open. As is common with collectors, my desires increased, and my views expanded as I went on, naturally therefore while hunting for the ancient Italian marbles I was tempted to collect the so-called modern marbles, merely because the Romans did not make use of them.

I established relations in all the capitals, and other places which could be of use in my pursuit, and my correspondents and friends, unknown to each other, agreed in telling me that my intentions were of too 'colossal' a character. They all made use of this expression. However I did not lose courage, and by dint of research, enthusiasm, and persistency succeeded in carrying out my intentions, [p7] and completed a collection of the most beautiful and famous Italian marbles. In this collection I have also added the feldspars of Labrador, Amazon stone, Derbyshire fluorspar and many other interesting stones.

Knowing that a collection arranged without method would be of little value, I applied myself to this necessary work. To have grouped the stones of one country together or with reference only to their colour or stain would have been to detract from their interest. Mineralogy justly holds that the classification of the stones should be made according to their substances and principal constituents. I have followed this rule as far as possible; and this is the only connecting link with mineralogy proper which this collection affords. Otherwise it is to be looked upon solely as a display of decorative marbles, for the purpose of showing the varieties of stain and colour and for this reason all the specimens have been cut and polished alike.

[p8] After the classification came the description, and in doing this part of the work my first care was to give the common name of the stone, and that of the place where it was quarried. It was easy to obtain this information concerning the Italian stones, but most difficult in case of the ancient stones. Writers who incidentally mentioned the subject, and those who specially treated it, failed even to inform us of what substance the stone consisted, or of any of its characteristics. They gave only a dry description of the colour, and the form of the stain. The names used were generally derived from the location of the quarry, and as these were written in Latin or Greek, it was necessary to compare them with the common names invented by the stonecutters. The learned Blasius Caryophilus wrote a treatise De marmoribus antiquis in which he condensed all the scattered information given in the classics about stones but as he wrote in Latin, the nomenclature of stones remains in that language.

[p9] Professor Nibby threw the first light on this subject in his book on the Roman Forum. I have followed him somewhat, and aided by my practical knowledge have obtained as far as possible the common, and Latin name of every stone. To this comparison of names I have added the information given by the ancient writers. In this catalogue is mentioned some of the finest examples of every species of stone that can be seen, in the churches, museums, palaces, and studios of Rome. I have visited all these places in person, and have neither followed the writing, or the word of any one in this particular. Finally I have enumerated, and described all the varieties of every species and mentioned their degree of rarity. The catalogue finished I sent it to the press, flattering myself that it might be interesting on account of its novelty. The frontispiece of this book shows [p10] a model of one of the specimens of the collection, giving an idea of their size, and character. I chose bianco e nero antico for this purpose because it is the only marble of which a precise idea can be given in black and white

I have mentioned many authors in this catalogue, and to avoid filling the pages with dry quotations have placed an index of them at the end of the book with the corresponding number. There are three other indices. The first contains the classes, sections, species, and paragraphs. The second the Latin names parallel with the common names. The third includes the collective number of the nine hundred varieties of marble composing the collection.

A nymphaeum was a room in ancient Roman villas marble-lined with recesses for plants and statuary.