The Car­rara mar­ble quar­ries

The mar­ble quar­ries of Car­rara have been mined for thou­sands of years, and dur­ing that time have had many fa­mous vis­i­tors from Michae­lan­gelo to Dick­ens. Carol Faenzi tells their story

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Along the coast­line of Italy, on the north­ern bor­der of Tus­cany, lies the city of Car­rara and its fa­mous quar­ries of white mar­ble. They are hard to miss, yet many of the thou­sands who zip by on the au­tostrada ev­ery day mis­tak­enly be­lieve they are see­ing snow-capped moun­tains. Few ven­ture into them and the few who do, fol­low in the foot­steps of artists, writ­ers and trav­ellers.

Stones are also repos­i­to­ries of mem­o­ries. They are silent wit­nesses to his­tory and the peo­ple who dwelt among them. Long af­ter the hu­mans leave, the mem­ory of their pres­ence still finds a place to re­side and that is what we sense when we are in these places. The most fa­mous per­son who felt the se­duc­tive draw of these stones was the divine Michelan­gelo. His quest for ex­cel­lence in him­self and his art was per­fectly mir­rored in these moun­tains. It was an ag­o­niz­ing pas­sion. “If in my youth I had re­al­ized that the sus­tain­ing splen­dour of beauty with which I was in love would one day ood back into my heart, there to ig­nite a ame that would tor­ture me with­out end, how gladly would I have put out the light in my eyes.”

The Ac­cademia di Belle Arti

Michelan­gelo made many trips to Car­rara and to­day, walk­ing around the town, one can see the places and sights that would have been fa­mil­iar to him such as the 11th cen­tury duomo and pi­azza where the Apothe­cary Pel­lic­cia’s house was (and where Michelan­gelo lived) and the

Ac­cademia di Belle Arti.

The Ac­cademia was once the res­i­dence of Prince Al­berico Cybo-Malaspina, friend of Michelan­gelo (who later felt be­trayed when Michelan­gelo was forced by the Medici Pope Leo to quarry mar­ble in nearby Pi­etrasanta).

In the early 1800s, the French ruled Car­rara and Napoleon Bon­a­parte’s sis­ter, Elisa Ba­cioc­chi, cre­ated the Academy of Fine Arts at this princely res­i­dence. This trans­formed Car­rara from be­ing known only as the source of min­ing, into a cen­tre that at­tracted fa­mous artists and stu­dents.

The Ac­cademia is a thriv­ing school to this day and it is where my great grand­fa­ther, Aris­tide Gio­van­noni, learned the skill of gothic trac­ery.

The court­yard is fas­ci­nat­ing. It is filled with stone rem­nants that date back to the Ro­mans, found in the Fan­tis­critti quar­ries. The Ro­mans were there 2,000 years ago and as Au­gus­tus Cae­sar fa­mously said, “I found Rome a city of mud and left her clothed in mar­ble.”

Sar­gent and Dick­ens vis­its

Turn of the cen­tury artist John Singer Sar­gent vis­ited the Car­rara moun­tains circa 1911, en­dur­ing con­di­tions so prim­i­tive that his as­sis­tants fled. For an artist who was fas­ci­nated by “white and light” it is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that he was at­tracted to Car­rara.

His paint­ings cap­ture the du­al­ity in­her­ent in the quar­ries: the beauty of the place and the bru­tal­ity of the con­di­tions en­dured by the min­ers. Sar­gent’s im­ages cap­ture sim­ple mo­ments like the daily lunch, or men car­ry­ing ropes that are used to har­ness the mar­ble. It is tes­ta­ment to the lives lived in more or less the same way for cen­turies. As an artist who wished to achieve per­fec­tion, he chose to use wa­ter­colours to paint these scenes, which demon­strated a very dif­fer­ent as­pect of his artistry.

Another fa­mous trav­eller wrote of how he came to view the Car­rara quar­ries as a metaphor for the heart. Charles

Dick­ens went to Italy in 1842 and his book, Pic­tures from Italy, in­cludes this in­sight­ful es­say on his visit to the Car­rara quar­ries:

In good time next morn­ing, we got some ponies and went out to see the mar­ble quar­ries. he quar­ries, or ca es as they call them here, are so many open­ings, high up in the hills, on ei­ther side of these passes, where they blast and ex­ca­vate for mar­ble. Some of these caves were opened by the an­cient Ro­mans and re­main as they left them to this hour. any oth­ers are be­ing worked at this mo­ment, oth­ers un­thought of and mar­ble enough for more ages than have passed since the place was re­sorted to, lies hid­den ev­ery­where; pa­tiently wait­ing its time of dis­cov­ery.

As you toil and clam­ber up one of these steep gorges, you hear, e ery now and then, echo­ing among the hills, in a low tone, more silent than the pre ious si­lence, a melan­choly warn­ing bu­gle, a sig­nal to the min­ers to with­draw. hen, there is a thun­der­ing, and echo­ing from hill to hill and per­haps a splash­ing up of great frag­ments of rock into the air.

here were num­bers of men, work­ing high up in these hills – on the sides – clear­ing away and send­ing down the bro­ken masses of stone and earth, to make way for the blocks of mar­ble that had been dis­cov­ered.

ut the road, the road down which the mar­ble comes, howe er im­mense

the blocks on­cei e a chan­nel of wa­ter run­ning o er a rocky bed, be­set with great heaps of stone of all shapes and si es, wind­ing down the mid­dle of this val­ley and that be­ing the road – be­cause it was the road fi e hun­dred years ago Imag­ine the clumsy carts of fi e hun­dred years ago, be­ing used to this hour and drawn as they used to be, fi e hun­dred years ago by oxen, whose an­ces­tors were worn to death fi e hun­dred years ago, as their un­happy de­scen­dants are now, by the suf­fer­ing and agony of this cruel work.

When we stood aside to see one of these carts drawn by only a pair of oxen com­ing down, I hailed in my heart the man who sat on the hea y yoke, to keep it on the neck of the poor beasts and who faced back­wards, not be­fore him as the ery Devil of despo­tism. He had a great rod in his hand, with an iron point and when they could plough and force their way through the loose bed of tor­rent no longer and came to a stop, he poked it into their bod­ies, beat it on their heads, screwed it around and around in their nos­trils, got them on a yard or two, in the mad­ness of in­tense pain.

Stand­ing in one of the many studii of Car­rara that af­ter­noon – for it is a great work­shop, full of beau­ti­fully fin­ished copies in mar­ble it seemed at first so strange to me that those ex­quis­ite shapes, re­plete with grace and thought and del­i­cate re­pose, should grow out of all this toil, and sweat and tor­ture ut I soon found a par­al­lel to it, in e ery irtue that springs up in mis­er­able ground and ev­ery good thing that has its birth in sor­row and dis­tress. And look­ing out of the sculp­tor s great win­dow, upon the mar­ble moun­tains, all red and glow­ing in the de­cline of the day, but stern and solemn to the last, I thought, my od ow many quar­ries of hu­man hearts and souls, ca­pa­ble of far more beau­ti­ful re­sults, are left shut up and moul­der­ing away.”

About sixty years af­ter Dicken’s visit, an artist of a dif­fer­ent sort ap­peared on the scene: a pho­tog­ra­pher named Vit­to­rio Valenti. His pho­to­graphs show ex­actly what Dick­ens had wit­nessed be­cause noth­ing had re­ally changed. The old meth­ods of saw­ing and blast­ing, man­u­ally mov­ing the blocks with the help of ropes, a wooden sled called a liz­zatura and the strength of oxen, would not un­dergo mod­ern im­prove­ments un­til the 1930s, when the mar­ble rail­way tun­nelled through and later, the era of the he­li­coidal wire and di­a­mond saw.

To the New World & Opera

It was about the time that Valenti was tak­ing his pho­to­graphs that my great grand­fa­ther em­i­grated to America. He dreamed of us­ing his carv­ing skills in the New World.

Aris­tide worked as a quar­ry­man for decades from Ver­mont to Colorado and it was not un­til the dawn­ing of a re­nais­sance of gothic ar­chi­tec­ture rose in the United States that his tal­ents were put to use: carv­ing In­di­ana lime­stone for the Na­tional Archives Corinthian col­umns in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., the gothic Cathe­dral of Learn­ing in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia and Duke Univer­sity’s Gothic Chapel in Durham, North Carolina.

” hen I was car ing in lime­stone, or the rare times I had my hands on a piece of mar­ble, I would al­ways do the ery best work I was ca­pa­ble of, be­cause of ar­rara. I would day­dream, think­ing of how new America was and how I was part of mak­ing beau­ti­ful art that would be here for years af­ter I was long gone. ichelan­gelo said, Art li es fore er. is mas­ter­pieces came from moun­tains that held my soul and I put my soul into ev­ery car ed face, hand and wing.” (Aris­tide, The Stone­cut­ter’s Aria)

Long af­ter his death, I sought my an­ces­tor’s sto­ries in the moun­tains of Car­rara. I found traces not only in archival doc­u­ments, but in the leg­ends as well. One leg­end says that one night the stars melted and fell upon the moun­tains. Another says that the god­dess Min­erva, in a state of anger, threw down a bolt of light­ning and cre­ated the white gold. No won­der the Ital­ian masters of stone car­ried with them such a pow­er­ful and rev­er­ent drive to cre­ate beauty in America.

Not only did they bring their fine hands, many brought their voices also.

Sar­gent’s paint­ings cap­ture the du­al­ity in­her­ent in the quar­ries: the beauty of the place and the bru­tal­ity of the con­di­tions en­dured by the min­ers...it is tes­ta­ment to the lives lived in more

or less the same way for cen­turies

Opera arias con­jured up al­most as much pas­sion within them as did the stone. Gi­a­como Puc­cini, who was in the early 1900s be­com­ing world fa­mous for his works, com­posed many of the breath­tak­ing arias just down the road from Car­rara, at Torre del Lago. When Tosca’s first per­for­mance was booed by the Ro­mans, Puc­cini brought the sec­ond per­for­mance to Car­rara, pre­sum­ably to work out the bugs. The love af­fair the Car­raresi had with Puc­cini and all the Ital­ian opera maestri made this small but so­phis­ti­cated town the per­fect place to re­vise the per­for­mance.

It is well known that the quar­ry­men would join their more af­flu­ent neigh­bours to at­tend the opera, go­ing with­out din­ner if nec­es­sary to af­ford ad­mis­sion and spon­ta­neously per­form them­selves! To quote again Charles Dick­ens, who at­tended a per­for­mance of Bellini’s ‘Norma’ at the Teatro An­i­mosi (one of two opera houses in Car­rara): “It is an in­ter­est­ing cus­tom there, to form the cho­rus of labour­ers in the mar­ble quar­ries, who are self-taught and sing by ear. I heard them in a comic opera and in an act of orma and they ac­quit­ted them­selves ery well un­like the com­mon peo­ple of Italy gen­er­ally, who with some ex­cep­tions among the Neapoli­tans sing vilely out of tune.

Opera was not con­sid­ered an elit­ist art form. It was for ev­ery­one and the op­eras that were writ­ten dur­ing the time of the huge Ital­ian di­as­pora to America at the turn of the cen­tury were not the tra­di­tional sto­ries of mytho­log­i­cal he­roes or no­bil­ity, but sto­ries about the com­mon man who got caught up in life’s dra­mas: Opera Verismo.

The Ital­ian masters of stone car­ried these sto­ries with them and the singing of the mu­sic sus­tained them, whether they were slav­ing away in a quarry, or carv­ing the façade of a mon­u­ment. Sadly, opera is rarely per­formed to­day in those grand houses in Car­rara. The Teatro An­i­mosi is un­der­go­ing restora­tion and the gleam­ing white mar­ble the­atre will hope­fully

en­joy a resur­gence of opera in the near fu­ture. Re­sources are a chal­lenge for this ex­pen­sive per­for­mance art.

Mar­ble is also not an in­fi­nite re­source and at the cur­rent rate of re­moval, there is no longer as Dick­ens thought – “mar­ble for more ages than have passed.” There is to­day a con­tro­ver­sial en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis with no so­lu­tion in sight. The de­mand for mar­ble has never been higher. It is lu­cra­tive, but the land­scape is dra­mat­i­cally chang­ing and there is a lot of waste. New tech­niques now al­low for the mar­ble to be cut from the in­side, out.

In the an­cient Fan­tis­critti quar­ries, it is now pos­si­ble to go into the in­te­rior of the moun­tain. Not just in­side a cave that is open to the sky but rather a ride through a nar­row tun­nel takes you deep into its very heart. Sur­rounded by mar­ble, it is a ra­di­ant cathe­dral. Walls of mar­ble soar above you and around you. You walk on a floor of mar­ble that at a deeper level is another room of ex­ca­va­tion wait­ing to be opened.

No out­side light pen­e­trates, yet in­stead of en­tomb­ment, it feels like a por­tal – a por­tal of the heart into an­cient mem­ory that goes back 200 mil­lion years to a com­mon orig­i­nal home, the sea. In­ver­te­brates, al­gae and sin­gle-cell crea­tures ac­cu­mu­lated and meta­mor­phosed into mar­ble caused by the up­heaval of tec­tonic plates and in­tense heat.

The great mar­ble mas­ter­pieces we view in mu­se­ums by Michelan­gelo, Bernini and Canova are awe-in­spir­ing, but go­ing to the Car­rara quar­ries is the pil­grim­age.

Right: Ex­te­rior of the quarry (Im­age: Chris­tine Rosen Pho­tog­ra­phy)Be­low: The mar­ble rail­way (Im­age: Vin­tage/Daniele Canali)

Above: Singer ar­gent, Car­rara Work­men c.1911Right: In­te­rior of the quar­ries (Im­age: Carol Faenzi)

Above: Quarry men with pack horses (Im­age: Vin­tage/ Daniele Canali)

Left: In­side the quar­ries (Im­age: Chris­tine Rosen Pho­tog­ra­phy)Right: Mar­ble hands (Im­age: Carol Faenzi)

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