Michelangelo’s un­re­al­ized mar­ble dream comes true

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

In 1517, Michelangelo climbed Mount Altissimo in Tus­cany and found the mar­ble of his dreams. It was, the Re­nais­sance master wrote, “of com­pact grain, ho­mo­ge­neous, crys­talline, rem­i­nis­cent of sugar”. He deemed it per­haps even more precious than that from nearby Car­rara, where he had ob­tained mar­ble for some of his most fa­mous stat­ues. With the bless­ing of Pope Leo X, Michelangelo de­signed a path that could get blocks of the white mar­ble down from the moun­tain to be trans­ported to Florence to be used to dec­o­rate the fa­cade of the church of San Lorenzo.

In ex­change for get­ting a quarry oper­a­tion go­ing, Floren­tine au­thor­i­ties granted Michelangelo the right to take as much mar­ble as he wanted from Altissimo which in Ital­ian means both “most high” and “God” - for his use for the rest of his life. “There is enough here to ex­tract un­til Judg­ment Day,” he wrote to a con­tem­po­rary. But it was never to be.

Af­ter sev­eral years of work to carve out a road, Pope Leo, who was of Florence’s Medici fam­ily, relieved Michelangelo of his com­mis­sion and the project was aban­doned. The church of San Lorenzo still has no fa­cade. To­day, the quar­ries of 1,589-m-high Altissimo, in Italy’s Apuan Alps, buzz with the kind of ac­tiv­ity that even a ge­nius like Michelangelo prob­a­bly could not have fore­seen.

Mod­ern cut­ting and ex­trac­tion tech­niques have pro­duced a sur­real land­scape sim­i­lar to some Cu­bism paint­ings, a dizzy­ing ar­ray of up­side down stair­cases and sugar-cube struc­tures look­ing heav­en­ward. “The prim­i­tive tech­nol­ogy con­sisted of hu­man labour and beasts of bur­den,” said Franco Pierotti, direc­tor of ex­trac­tions. “The pri­mor­dial in­stru­ments such as levers, chis­els and ham­mers later evolved with the in­tro­duc­tion of he­li­cal wires in the 19th cen­tury and now we have di­a­mond-tipped wires and saws and heavy earth-mov­ing equip­ment,” he said.

Be­fore the ex­tract­ing be­gins, ex­perts known as “tec­chiaroli” hang on ropes from the sides of the moun­tain and pick at its sides with pointy iron bars to re­move loose rock that could fall and hurt work­ers in sub­se­quent phases of the ex­trac­tion. In the three cen­turies fol­low­ing Michelangelo’s time, the Altissimo quar­ries went through cy­cles of aban­don­ment and re-discovery.

In 1821, Marco Bor­rini, a lo­cal landowner, teamed up with French­man Jean Bap­tiste Alexan­dre Hen­raux to start a new com­pany and it has been ac­tive in the area ever since. The ven­ture brought new life to the eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed area, em­ploy­ing hun­dreds of quar­ry­men, squar­ers, sled men, stone cut­ters and cart driv­ers, who guided oxen trains. In the 19th cen­tury, the tsars of Rus­sia chose Altissimo mar­ble for the con­struc­tion of St Isaac’s Cathe­dral in St Peters­burg and more re­cently, it was used in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2007.

To­day, the Hen­raux com­pany owns the en­tire moun­tain, em­ploys about 140 peo­ple and ex­tracts mar­ble from five ac­tive quar­ries. Over the years artists such as Au­guste Rodin, Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Isamu Noguchi have used Altissimo mar­ble for their sculp­tures. Michelangelo would be proud. —Reuters

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