Corinthian bronze


Corinthian bronze

Corinthian bronze, also called Corinthian brass or æs Corinthiacum, was a highly valuable metal alloy in classical antiquity. It is thought to be an alloy of copper with gold or silver (or both), although it has also been contended that it was simply a very high grade of bronze, or a kind of bronze that was manufactured in Corinth.[1] It is referred to in various ancient texts, but no known examples of Corinthian bronze exist today.

Contents

Classical antiquity

Of the known types of bronze or brass in classical antiquity (known in Latin as aes and in Greek as χαλκός), Corinthian bronze was the most valuable—even more valuable than gold. Statues, vessels, or other objects that were formed of this metal were priceless.[2] Vases and other ornaments that were made by the Romans of this metal were of greater value than if they had been made of silver or gold.[3] Those who accurately documented this metal, including Pliny the Elder, distinguished it into three kinds, depending on the metal that is added to the copper base: in the first, gold is added (luteum); in the second, silver (candidum); in the third, gold, silver, and copper are equally blended.[2][4] Plutarch and Cicero both comment that Corinthian bronze, unlike many other copper alloys, is resistant to tarnishing.[5] Pliny also refers to a fourth, dark alloy, known as hepatizon.

According to legend, Corinthian brass was first created by accident, during the burning of Corinth by Lucius Mummius Achaicus in 146 BC, when the city's immense quantities of gold, silver, and copper melted together. Pliny (HN, xxxiv. 7), however, remarked that this story is unbelievable, because most of the creators of the highly-valued works in Corinthian brass in Ancient Greece lived at a much earlier period than second century BC.[4] According to Pliny, the method of making it had been lost for a long time,[6] although some sources describe the process by which it is created, involving heat treatment, quenching, leaching, and burnishing,[7] in a process similar to depletion gilding.[5] The lost ability to give an object made from bronze the appearance of gold or silver may be one strand behind the later alchemical quest to turn base metals into precious metals.

Outside classical antiquity

Articles made of Corinthian brass are mentioned in the Bible. The Beautiful Gate (or Nicanor Gate) of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, mentioned in the Book of Acts 3:2–10, was a large, 18 metre (60 feet) wide structure said to be either solid, or covered in plates of, Corinthian brass. Another Biblical reference, in Book of Ezra 8:27, is usually translated "fine copper [or bronze], precious as gold".

Similar alloys are found outside Europe. The Hông-hee vases (1426) of China were said to be made of a similarly-mixed metal allegedly formed when the Imperial palace was burnt to the ground. These vessels are of priceless value.[3] An alloy of gold and copper, known as tumbaga was in widespread use in Pre-columbian Mesoamerica, and has an essentially identical composition to Corinthian brass.[7] A similar metallurgical process for "the colouration [chrôsis] of gold" is described in the 15th recipe in the Leyden papyrus X, from Thebes in Egypt, dated to the 4th century AD.[5]

Quotations

I think it may be of Corinthian brass
Which was a mixture of all metals, but
The brazen uppermost.
——Byron, Don Juan, vi. 56.
Man is the most composite of all creatures.... Well, as in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed; so in this continent,--asylum of all nations,--the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes,--of the Africans, and of the Polynesians,--will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages, or that which earlier emerged from the Pelasgic and Etruscan barbarism.
——Ralph Waldo Emerson, describing American Culture as a melting pot in a journal entry, 1845

See also

  • electrum - a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, often with trace amounts of copper, often used in antiquity
  • orichalcum - another metal mentioned in ancient texts, later used to refer to brass
  • shakudō - a Japanese billon (alloy) of gold and copper with a dark blue-purple patina
  • thokcha - an alloy of meteoric iron or "thunderbolt iron" commonly used in Tibet

References

  1. ^ Aes, from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.
  2. ^ a b  This article incorporates content from the 1728 Cyclopaedia, a publication in the public domain.
  3. ^ a b Brewer, E. Cobham. "Corinthian Brass." Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. 1898.
  4. ^ a b Pliny's chapter on Corinthian Brass from Natural History. English translation.
  5. ^ a b c Corinthian Bronze and the Gold of the Alchemists, David M Jacobson, Gold Bulletin 2000, 33(2), note 6. (PDF).
  6. ^ Yeo, Richard. "Brass". The Edinburgh Encyclopedia. 1999. p 435. ISBN 0-415-18026-0.
  7. ^ a b What Was Corinthian Bronze?, D.M. Jacobson and M.P. Weitzman, American Journal of Archaeology, Volume 96 No. 2, April 1992. (abstract, JSTOR)

External links

  • Aes, from Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)

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