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Michelangelo's Marble Mountains: Part 1


There are not many human endeavors that can claim to stretch back to antiquity in an unbroken chain of activity but the marble quarries of Carrara certainly can, with almost 2,200 years of continuous production since they were first mentioned in historical documents.

Michelangelo's marble mountains in Carrara, Tuscany

They became widely known and appreciated in Roman times and supplied material to the Pantheon and Trajan’s column among many other surviving structures. So many in fact that the Emperor Augustus Caesar remarked “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”.

When you see the mountains above Carrara up close it is hard to imagine how these massive blocks of marble were extracted and transported in ancient times but of course the Romans were never short of Christians, prisoners of war and slaves to do the heavy lifting getting them down to the port of Luni (now just an archeological site) for the onward sea voyage to Rome.

marble quarries above Carrara, Italy

The 12th century saw the construction of the four marble buildings of the stunning Piazza dei Miracoli that include the leaning Tower of Pisa, all still a brilliant white, and then with Michelangelo’s David in 1504 the position of Carrara as the world’s pre-eminent source of marble was firmly established. By an accident of geology the Carrara marble turned out to be the perfect grain and density for sculptors, soft enough to work into gentle shapes yet durable enough to withstand exposure to the elements for centuries.

David was made out of a single block of the whitest marble and was placed outside in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence from its completion until 1873, a period of almost 400 years. It remained in remarkably good condition with the tiny fissures in the lower part being entirely due to uneven settlement beneath the enormous statue which weighs over six tons.

Ponte di Vara, Carrara in Italy

The town of Carrara is in the north-west corner of Tuscany about 30 miles from Lucca and about the same distance from Pisa. You can travel the whole way on the autostrada so it’s very quick and easy to reach. From the Carrara autostrada exit you head east towards the mountains on the main road and you’ll quickly see signs for the Cava di Marmo which will take you up to the Ponti di Vara bridges (the above photo is the main bridge).

They were built in the 1870s together with a series of tunnels for the Ferrovia Marmifera train to transport the marble to the port. Prior to the train, greased wooden slats were used to get the marble down from the mountain and then teams of oxen to pull it to the port. The last train shipment was in 1964, replaced in turn by trucks.

Just past the main Ponte di Vara bridge there’s a coffee shop on the left, Bar L'Incanto, at which point you turn right to a cluster of buildings where you can have lunch, visit the outdoor museum and take one of the various tours that are offered. Unless you’re James Bond in the opening car chase from Quantum of Solace the road from here to the top at 3,300 feet is only open to to 4x4 Landrover tours, but you will cover the same dirt and scree road as he did, hopefully without all the collateral damage.

There are a few different tours, the main ones being the MarmoTour Michelangelo and the Carrara Marble Tour. Both are normally closed for four months in the winter but in Italy, as in most countries, private enterprise can be very flexible whereas public entities tend to be very rigid. The tour guide at Carrara Marble Tour happily agreed to take us a month before their official reopening and as a result we got a one hour private tour for two people for 24 euros total. This is one of those excursions, like our recent trip to San Gimignano, that is best done in the offseason to avoid the crowds.

jeep tour of the marble quarries above Carrara

The tour takes you through working quarries, much of it on an unpaved road, and it’s crowded enough just sharing the road with massive trucks laden with marble, so if you’re here in the summer there will be nine other tour vehicles also competing for road space and the ability to stop and take photographs at will along the road will probably be non-existent.

You will also be squeezed into the vehicle with 6 other people. For us in early February, as the only two people in the only tour vehicle on the whole mountain we could stop whenever and wherever we wanted, so it felt like the whole mountain was private. A completely different experience and one that we would unreservedly recommend, and if not February then March.

Charles Dickens also took a tour of Michelangelo's marble mountains back in 1844, on horseback, when he visited Carrara. He later wrote about his Italian travels in 'Pictures from Italy' and helped put Carrara on the map as a side trip on the European Grand Tour, though by then it was already famous for both the marble and its sculptors. To this day there is still a branch of the Dickens Fellowship in Carrara.

view of the coastline from the top of the marble quarries above Carrara

This is an excursion that requires a sunny day to see the marble at its most brilliant white and also to appreciate the views from the summit across Carrara to the Ligurian sea and Cinque Terre. Our weather was intermittently sunny and foggy which lent an ethereal and slightly grim tone to many of the photographs (especially in Part 2), creating an atmosphere perhaps more in tune with the harsh unpleasant life experienced by generations of cavatori (quarrymen) over the centuries.

There are three contiguous areas of marble excavation in these mountains. The first, known as Fantiscrtti in the Bacino (basin) di Miseglia, is the area described here, next is the Bacino di Torano to the north and the final one is the Bacino di Colonnata a couple of miles south which is described in Part 2 of this article.

extraction of marble blocks in the Carrara quarries

In Fantiscritti there are currently thirty excavation points high up the mountain from where the marble is extracted in the open in a stair step function, clearly visible in these photographs.

For a long time explosives were used but this created a lot of waste and too much random and uncontrollable fracturing. The invention of the helical steel wire at the end of the 19th century was a real revolution, completely eliminating explosives and allowing the mountain to be cut with precision resulting in the strange unnatural look of flights of giant steps and platforms known in Italian as piazzali di cava.

steel wire for cutting marble at the quarries

The current method, in use since the 1970s, employs a steel wire with pulverized diamond nodules at regular intervals along its length (above photo). It is used in a sawing motion under constant tension and produces perfect blocks with sharp edges (see Gemeg video at the end). Before this can be used a pneumatic drill creates the entry points according to the size requirement of the block to be excavated. The typical size is 3 meters high by 2 meters wide and 2 meters deep and a block this size will weigh over 30 tons.

The quality of the marble will determine the size of the block and though the Carrara marble can also be of the Calacatta type with beige, brown or gold seams, where there is widespread fractured discoloration (photo below) it is due to oxidized iron particles and is a flaw that will require more work to remove otherwise the ultimate buyer isn't going to be happy when his expensive white marble kitchen or bathroom turns a yellowish brown.

finished Carrara marble block for export

Excavating is an efficient skilled business these days and there are only about 100 people employed directly on Fantiscritti and no more than 500 spread over the three basins.

Many more are employed in transportation, sales and export but not everything is hunky dory in Carrara. The town’s relationship with its marble has never been an easy one.

The problems are twofold. The first, described to us by our tour driver Davide, is that much of the ancillary industrial and commercial work with the raw slab of marble now takes place abroad in the export market and Carrara has lost a lot of jobs as a result. You can see hundreds of giant raw blocks of marble down at the docks ready for export (photo below) and very few are now cut and custom finished in Italy.

These are skilled craftsmen jobs that traditionally belonged in Carrara and are essential for Carrara to extract the appropriate economic benefit from its mountains. Carrara is a town of over 60,000 people and is quite poor by Tuscan standards which suggests that something is not quite right. Things move slowly in Italy but recently the Italian state, which technically owns the marble and sells concessions for its exploitation, is starting to address this by mandating that at least 50% of the processing work on marble exports must be done locally. Passing a law in Italy and having it be implemented without someone finding a loophole is often no easy matter so we’ll see how things develop.

large white blocks of Carrara marble at the docks

The second problem concerns the impact of 2,200 years of less than ideal stewardship of this incredible natural resource. There is no doubt that these mountains are literally made of marble and you can see that from the very first photograph at the top where everything under the thin outer surface is white. But for centuries the waste from the primitive excavation methods just piled up all around and is so deep in places it physically impedes further discovery and exploitation.

What rankles the citizens of Carrara is that the massive increase in production in recent years, thanks to technology and the desirability of Carrara marble, continues to add to the waste and their mountains are being dismantled and disfigured piece by piece with little economic benefit accruing to the town. Good but not perfect marble lies scattered around everywhere and there are even huge chunks, that any of us would happily make an entire kitchen out of, used as simple barriers along the dirt track up to the summit (see the photo above taken through the Landrover windscreen and the photo below left where blocks of marble are used as retaining walls).

And there are rivers of debris and enormous piles of stones and waste material (visible in almost every photo), effectively tailings, that lie everywhere and could and should be ground down into calcium carbonate for a myriad of industrial and cosmetic purposes like toothpaste. It is being done to a degree of course because the calcium carbonate finished product fetches a good price but the mountains here are a bit like the upper reaches of Mount Everest with its dead bodies from every decade strung along the road because nobody has the energy or oxygen to take them down.

Before leaving the mountain you should allocate twenty minutes for the small but interesting Fantiscritti museum which is right next door to the Carrara Marble Tour and parking lot. You’ll learn how Fantiscritti got its name and you'll see the primitive tools used through the ages to extract the marble from the mountain.

There is also an interesting exhibit describing how the expert marble cutters from Carrara were sought out by the Egyptians to cut the ancient temples of Abu Simbel into 1,070 sandstone blocks to be reassembled on higher ground during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in lower Egypt in the 1960s.

Behind the car park we stumbled on a large marble carving now being done by 3D modeling software and robotic technology. Now everyone can pretend to be Michelangelo, but as Franco Cervietti (of the sculpture studio in Pietrasanta bearing his name) said, the resulting sculpture "is as inexpressive as its maker".

robot sculpting marble

Below is the entire winding road to the top of the mountain and the main Fantiscritti production zones in one glance.

the Fantiscritti marble quarry above Carrara

White Carrara marble is prized all over the world, including by architects who want to make a statement by cladding the exterior of their new building designs with this material and because it is so heavy they often trim the panels down to less than an inch thickness.

The Amoco building in Chicago (now the Aon building) in the 1980s showed the folly of slicing it too thinly or perhaps even of using it all for the outside of a building in a location with significant temperature changes. At that time it was the fourth tallest building in the world and replacing all 43,000 panels of warped marble came at a price that was almost as much as the original cost of the entire 1,136 foot structure. An expensive lesson indeed.

In the short video below the Carrara marble company Gemeg shows the extraction and cutting of a solid block of marble at the quarry with further cutting at their premises.


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