A Bit of Ancient Europe, by Way of Vermont

January 27, 2019

By Volunteer Docent Robin Hazard Ray

In any season of the year, the serpent-green pillar mounted on the Bridge family lot at the corner of Fir and Spruce Avenues stands out. In summer, it towers over with the pale marble headstones of its neighbors. In winter, it provides a splendid color contrast to the snow and ice on the ground. Its unusual hue ranges from a dark pine green at the top, which is shaped in imitation of an urn, to a paler sea green toward the base.

Close examination of the pillar reveals it to be made from a rather messy metamorphic stone. Swirls of green serpentinite are shot through with white veins; this handsome combination is broken into chunks that swim in a finer gray-green matrix along with half-melted blobs of pale pinkish calcite. Here and there are flakes of a black mineral, identified as magnetite. This kind of rock is called “breccia” (Italian for “broken”) or breccia-conglomerate; breccias, which may be green, yellow, gray, or multicolored, are prized in the stone trade for their rough beauty and range of colors and textures.

This particular breccia type—the only example of its kind in Mount Auburn, to my knowledge—comes from a strip of rock no more than 60 feet wide but running north–south for many miles in western Vermont. The company that quarried it in Roxbury, Vermont, starting in the 1850s, marketed it as Verde Antique (ancient green) Marble, though the geologist who reported on it for the U.S. Geological Survey sniffed that it was “a marble only in a commercial sense.” True marbles, according to him, are more than 90 percent calcium or magnesium carbonate, with just a few percent of other minerals. He admitted that “its striking contrasts of shade and color and the irregularity of its veining make it a very attractive ornamental stone for interior work.”

Verde Antique is of Ordovician age (ca. 440–498 million years before present). Before its extensive metamorphosis during the violent events that built the Green Mountains, this long, thin layer of rock was probably a volcanic “dike”—a layer of hot magma that slips into extant rocks and cools before reaching the surface. This dark mineral-rich layer was mashed together under heat and pressure with an ancient limestone or dolomite: hence the “broken” texture and the lumps of pink and white.

Breccia pillar at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

The Vermont Verde bears some resemblance to one of the most prized marbles of antiquity, the Verde Antico. This green-and-black breccia was extracted from quarries in Larissa, Greece, beginning in the first century A.D. As marble historian Monica T. Price notes, the Verde Antico had such prestige that “nine of the Byzantine emperors chose this stone for their coffins.” Massive pillars of it decorate the great Orthodox church (later a mosque and now museum) of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and bits of it were worked into decorative schemes all over the Roman world. Every nineteenth-century traveler on their Grand Tour of Europe would have seen it in Rome, Florence, or Venice, and Isabella Stewart Gardner worked columns of it into her eccentric palace museum on the Fenway.

Pillars of breccia verde antico in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

At the time the Vermont quarry was opened in the mid-nineteenth century, the United States was anxious to prove itself a match, commercially and culturally, with the Old World. Calling their homegrown green breccia by the name Verde Antique, and marketing their own white(ish) marble from the quarries in Dorset, Vermont, as the peer of Italy’s famed Carrara marble, was a way of claiming cultural parity with Europe. These native stones were given pride of place in prominent buildings and monuments. The Verde Antique, for example, adorns the base of the statue of Benjamin Franklin in front of Old City Hall in Boston, erected in 1856. (The sculptor was American artist Richard Saltonstall Greenough, whose brother Horatio Greenough carved our beloved Perkins dog, Lot 108 Central Ave.)

Verde antique base of the Franklin statue, with bas-relief by Richard Saltonstall Greenough, Old City Hall, School Street, Boston.

The Bridge family pillar has a peculiar history. Though members of the family had been buried at Mount Auburn since 1847, the pillar was not erected until 1920. There’s an informative letter in the lot file from George Sands, the former proprietor of the memorial business across the street, forwarding to Cemetery Superintendent James C. Scorgie a bill of $28 for setting the pillar in August of that year:

“I suppose you remember a green marble column (near the Scotch Charitable lot) for the Van Amringe Granite Co. [167 Tremont St, Boston].
I sold it cheap to get rid of it to this party Arthur J. Bridge for Lot 1498 Spruce Ave.

I only send a rough outline [ ] to give height as suppose that is what you wish . . .”

A further letter from Hern & Rossler Co. Marble Granite & Bronze, Woburn, to Scorgie, about two grave markers for the Bridge lot, mentions “Blue Rutland marble to match Verde Antique monument.”

Next time you pass the intersection of Fir and Spruce Avenues, have a look at our piece of antiquity, by way of Vermont.

[1] T. Nelson Dale, The Commercial Marbles of Western Vermont, USGS Bulletin 521 (Washington, DC: USGPO, 1912), pp. 49–50. He defines his terms on pp. 11–16.

[2] Dale, ibid. See also Monica T. Price, The Sourcebook of Decorative Stone, p. 181.

[3] Price, Sourcebook, p. 186–87.

6 Comments

  1. Hi Jen- and Robin;
    We Leslies, in Rochester Vermont ALSO live beside a still active Verde Antique quarry and have counter tops made of what we locals call- serpentine marble- not serpent….You’re right, not a true marble; another chemical combination. A very beautiful stone now the quarry folk are saying less “fashionable” as demand is now for white- again…

  2. Carolyn Ferrucci says:

    Robin, thank you for this information! I will look more closely at the columns that Mrs. Gardner installed around her courtyard!

    Carolyn Ferrucci

  3. David Russo says:

    Another great article, Robin. I’d noticed the unusual green monument as I happened by and knew there was a story. Thanks for telling it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.