Marble Is Life: The Quarries of Carrara, Tuscany

By Gani, Martin | The World and I, May 2004 | Go to article overview
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Marble Is Life: The Quarries of Carrara, Tuscany

Gani, Martin, The World and I

Martin Gani is a freelance writer based in Como, Italy.

From a distance, it seems as if avalanches of snow have slipped down the hillsides of Tuscany's Apuan Alps. Seen at closer range, the image solidifies into marble quarries that surround the city of Carrara. Closer still, I find myself squinting from the glare reflected off tall piles of pure white stone in the valley of Fantiscritti. One of Carrara's three arteries, the valley is laden with top-quality marble that has made the city famous around the world. Nearby is an open-air museum tracing the history of marble quarrying in the area. Augusto Danesi, a sculptor and the museum's curator, agrees to guide me through this fascinating world.

"My father, the founder of this museum, used to say, 'Marble is life,' " begins Danesi, whose family has been in marble excavation and sculpturing for generations. "Although in recent years the actual number of people directly working in the quarries has gone down to about a thousand, for each quarryman there are probably no fewer than a thousand others who work in the transportation, transformation, and commercialization of Carrara marble."

Contemporary sculptors no longer turn up at the quarries to select the raw material for potential masterpieces; instead, they put in orders through intermediaries. Today, the United States and the European Union alone absorb half of all the marble exported from Carrara. Historically, Danesi explains, "Some of the most famous sculptors, from Michelangelo to Antonio Canova to Henry Moore, have all used our marble to execute masterpieces. Many twenty-first-century sculptors continue asking for Carrara marble, keeping the demand high."

From mountain to masterpiece

Marble is limestone containing the mineral calcite that has recrystallized under heat and pressure. Carrara's famed ivory white statuary marble is 98 percent calcite. However, there are several other types of Carrara marble, notable bianco (ordinary white), venato (white- gray with gray veins), arabesco (bearing gray arabesques), and cipollino (literally, onion, with gray and green striations). Embedded impurities have produced many other types of colored, veined, and variegated marble. As its name implies, statuary is the marble of choice for statues because of its uniformly fine grain and luminous whiteness, qualities created by light that penetrates the first inch or two of the surface and is reflected by the underlying layers.

One of the earliest references to Carrara marble was made by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century a.d. "Sculptors employed only white marble from the island of Paros [Greece]. ... Subsequently many other varieties of white marble have been found, some indeed very recently in the quarries of Luni [Luna]." Luni was a city founded in the second century b.c. by the Romans in the vicinity of Carrara. Pliny goes on to quote a Roman historian, Cornelius Nepos (99-- 24 b.c.), informing us that a certain noble, Mamurra, "was the first to build a house where all the columns were made out of marble imported from Caristo or Luni."

Apuan marble, primarily a decorative material, was largely ignored by the local populations that inhabited the area before the Romans. Before the first century b.c., Romans imported marble from Greece and Asia Minor to build villas, monuments, temples for their gods, and statues. When Luni emerged as an urban center, the Romans began exploiting the valley's marble source. The quality of Luni marble matched that of Paros Island, the Attica Mountains near Athens, and Marmara Island of Turkey. Slabs were transported by sea and along the Tiber River to reach the heart of Rome.

After the Romans were defeated by the Visigoths in the fifth century, quarrying in the Luni region came to an abrupt end. It restarted some six hundred years later. The construction of religious buildings, such as the eleventh-century Modena Cathedral, utilized white marble from Carrara.

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