Verdigris strikes a commanding pose in a designed space—a statue in the garden, a vintage door, a chandelier focal point in the dining room. The look has lived on long past its origin in the 14th century. Until the 19th century, verdigris (which translates to green of Greece) was the most vibrant green available. Painters from Europe to Egypt to China valued it for its rare luminescence, despite its high cost, inconsistent behavior, and toxic composition.
Verdigris in Art Through the Ages
In Renaissance Italy, verdigris was available to only the most esteemed painters, like Botticelli and Giovanni. Unfortunately, over time, verdigris’ mercurial nature has diminished the brilliant luminescent green of these Renaissance paintings into a dull brown. From the 15th through 17th centuries, however, Flemish painter Jan Van Eyke and Dutch painter Jan Vermeer perfected Verdigris in oil painting with better results. (Chemistry geeks will want to see the French research on this subject in the September 2019 issue of Inorganic Chemistry.)
Verdigris in Historic Architecture
Verdigris has earned a similar reputation for its mercurial nature in architecture. Like the look of a verdigris copper roof? Be ready to wait 20 years for the privilege, as the natural process requires a prolonged period of moisture. Prague offers some beautiful examples of verdigris rooftops and domes, such as the plucky verdigris rooster that sits atop St. Vitus Cathedral. And of course, one can’t miss the majesty of the dome at Trafalgar Square in London.
Verdigris in Historic Decor
One of the more interesting historical accounts of verdigris’ use in interior decor centers on George Washington’s Mt. Vernon dining room. Verdigris was all the rage in Europe and America in the latter part of the 18th century. Describing the patina’s difficult nature, he wrote from the battlefield in 1787, “[I am ] sorry to find that the Green paint which was got to give the dining room another coat should have turned out so bad.” Within a few months, the brilliant green hues had darkened and had to be replaced—apparently just in time for his appointment as our nation’s first president.
Recently, Mt. Vernon’s Preservation Trust discovered that the original room’s color scheme was much more complex than imagined. A microscopic examination of the paint samples by conservator and paint analyst Dr. Susan Buck found two distinct copper-based pigments: a sea-green verditer for the walls and a glossy verdigris, which was used on the friezes above the doors, the Venetian window panels, and around the top.
How Verdigris is Made
Verdigris is copper acetate— a bluish-green patina that naturally forms on copper, brass, and bronze when it has been exposed to air and moisture over decades. It was originally made by hanging copper plates over hot vinegar in a sealed pot. A later technique in the Middle Ages involved attaching copper strips to a wood block with acetic acid, and burying it in dung for a couple of weeks. By the 18th century, the French were manufacturing it in household cellars, where copper plates were placed in clay pots filled with distilled wine. To make your own, simply place metallic copper in vinegar for 3-4 weeks to achieve a blue-green copper acetate effect. But beware—this gorgeous concoction is toxic, so don’t try this at home! Thankfully, there are some crafty painting techniques that mimic the look.
For an interesting take on color throughout history, read The Brilliant History of Color in Art by British writer and journalistVictoria Finlay.