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
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)