It's unstable, reactive and even toxic but that hasn't tempered our obsession with the fragile beauty of Verdigris.
If you've seen an old, rusty penny, you've seen verdigris in nature; it's the greenish-blue patina that forms on copper, bronze or brass when it's exposed to moisture. Just take a look at this artist's reproduction of what a brand new Statue of Liberty must have looked like.
Statue of Liberty, copper construction. Photographed at the Musee des Arts et Metiers
Lady Liberty's thin copper skin has changed quite a bit since her birthday in 1886, growing a gorgeous layer of verdigris patina, helped along by the salty ocean air she's exposed to day after day.
The most vibrant green available to artists for much of history, verdigris was used throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance and all the way up until the 19th century. But it's a fickle color — transparent with a tendency to turn brown or black over time. It was most common in manuscripts and oil paintings where artists tried to keep it stable, often using it over a base of lead white, and layered with yellow ochre, transforming the bluish-tint into a vibrant, true green.
The name comes from the French "vert de gris," which roughly translates to "green of Greece," and in fact, recipes for verdigris are found throughout ancient literature and include ingredients like salt, honey, vinegar and even urine to be applied to copper plates in order to cause the necessary chemical reaction. In France, verdigris pigment was produced in conjuction with wine, as the acetic acid of fermenting grapes was found to be an efficient catalyst to quickly rust copper. The bluish green patina was then scraped off the metal and ground into pigments.
Interestingly, the French verdigris industry of the Middle Ages was almost exclusively controlled by women. Despite the stringent guild guidelines of the time that normally excluded women from becoming skilled laborers, the production of verdigris thrived as a successful matriarchy, even becoming the main supplier of verdigris pigment for most of Europe. Centered in Montpellier, copper plates were imported from Sweden, and alongside the wine industry of the area, verdigris was produced and ground with expert timing and skill. No one is sure why this trade in particular fell to women, but it's well documented that the practices were passed down from mother to daughter, growing an industry in which women could support themselves.
Another surprising tidbit about the women of Montpellier: while increased verdigris use meant poisoning was becoming increasingly common — causing symptoms of nausea, anemia, or even death — when 19th century scientists went to the source of the verdigris to study the health of the women who produced it, they found nothing. The women who spent every day dusted in verdigris powder were perfectly healthy. One scientist hypothesized that the fumes of wine that women were exposed to daily helped them develop an immunity to the toxicity of verdigris, but nonetheless, these industry-creating, toxicity-defying women were anomalies to be sure.
Although we now have non-toxic substitutes for the mineral, the beautiful blue-green remains one our favorite relaxing palettes and we always appreciate it more when we remember how numerous civilizations have also enjoyed its cool beauty.
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