From mountain to statue: the Carrara marble quarries of Italy

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen

What do Marble Arch in London, the Oslo Opera House, the sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Duomo in Siena and the sculptures of Michelangelo such as David and the Pietà have in common?

The white gold of Carrara… This marble has been renowned all over the world for millennia, from the Romans to the most talented sculptors of the Renaissance and today’s exclusive interior decorators. From the Greek word marmaros that means shiny stone, marble has remained a noble material over the centuries.

From the Italian coastal road linking Genoa to Lucca, in a 30°C heat, the 1,000-meter (3,000 feet) high peaks of the Apuan Alps seem covered in snow. From the city of Carrara, the winding road gains altitude before the first narrow tunnels appear. The peaks eventually reveal their true nature: the open quarries of white Carrara marble. The road has turned into a one-way used mostly by heavy trucks rushing up to the quarries. A few kilometres further, past the Ponti di Vara (Vara Bridge), we let some trucks, loaded with 35-ton blocks of marble, pass as they are heading down to the coast for the stones to be shipped. We park the car to hop on a four-wheel drive Land Rover Defender. The road becomes very steep as we make progress amongst some of the 30 open-air active quarries of the Fantiscritti quarry yard. The asphalt ends. The 4×4 keeps gaining altitude, and the curves are so sharp that the driver needs to negotiate some of the hair pins with a three-point manoeuvre. Big lorries, whether loaded or unloaded do the same. We are heading to Quarry number 83 Canalgrande Alto, at an altitude of almost 1,000 meters above sea level. In the middle of the bright white gold, yellow and red heavy earthmoving machines that look like toys amongst the monumental quarries extract the marble with breath-taking views over the entire Apuan Alps and the Ligurian Sea. In the distance, the white of the statuario marble or the highest quality of pure white marble used by sculptors such as Michelangelo and found only in the Fantiscritti quarries denotes compared to the closer grey marble.

How is marble formed & what is so special in Carrara?

Basically, limestone is transformed in marble under high temperature & pressure. More specifically, limestone constituted mostly by calcium carbonate crystals undergoes a second crystallization because of high pressure and temperature caused by the movement of the tectonic plates when the Apuan Mountains were formed. The colour of the marble depends on the sediments: in Italy there are the pink marbles of Lucca, the green marbles of the Aosta Valley, and the black marbles of La Spezia to name only a few. Around Carrara, the marble is white and what is special is that the geological structure is such that the marble deposits extend over large distances in this ancient group of mountains that was formed 190 million years ago. Thinking about the tons of marble used all over the world for millennia, between the slope quarries, the pit quarries and the underground ones of which we only see the entrances, we are surprised that there are still mountains standing here!

According to the excavators, there is enough marble for at least another 500 years as it continues deep down in the earth, up to two kilometres below sea level.

In the Carrara marble basin, three quarry areas are delimited: Torano, Colonnata and Fantiscritti. Fantiscritti is the most famous of the ex-Roman city of Luni as attested by many remains found there. It is also where Michelangelo came to find his marble slabs.

What is so great about marble?

The Greeks were already using marble as construction material as it can withstand compression, and as such is ideal to create columns for instance.

A rather soft stone, it is also easy to ornate and has been a sculptor’s favourite for ages.

Its resistance to wear and tear makes it ideal for floors, interior cladding or stairs.

The marble dust is highly concentrated in carbon carbonate and is widely used in the cosmetics, pharmaceutical and food industry for calcium.

When did the Carrara marble become fashionable?

In 180 B.C., the Romans took possession of Carrara and its surroundings (then called Luni) after winning the territory over the Ligurian Apuani, a Celtic population that had settled in the area since the 9th century B.C. The first ones to extract marble in Carrara were the Romans: marble had become fashionable to imitate the Greeks to decorate their rich villas and their most majestic monuments in Rome.

This is how it was until the 1960’s…

The Roman slaves used techniques that had remained for thousands of years for extraction and transport.

Percussion tools were used to extract the primary block.

Then, iron wedges were inserted inside the block cracks with hammers.

To cut the block into slabs, a large handsaw with an iron blade was used by two workers. A mixture of water and silica sand was constantly poured into the block to allow for block cutting under the action of the blade. No more than 7 to 8 centimetres per day would be cut.

It took one to two years to extract and take down one piece of marble.

For several millennia, marble workers had been operating in the thin white dust to the sound of hammers, saws, screams and bells ringing the accidents.

One of the most dangerous jobs was to transport the marble from the quarry to the marina a few kilometres down. Marble blocks weighing 25 to 30 tons each had to be taken down a 70 to 80% slope on a sleigh that glided on wooden beams greased with soap! Hemp ropes were used to try and control the block by a dozen of men. Another two were rotating the beams from the back to the front. Accidents were common and it was often that the front man lost a limb or got killed.

This technique was used until 1966 when it took about two weeks to transport a block of marble along the 16 kilometres separating the quarries from the sea.

In order to skip the two-hour hike just to get to the quarry, some men, the capannari, became guardians at night, hence living onsite with all their family. The conditions were very basic and cold and far from schools, the capannari were sentencing their kids to a similar lifestyle.

… A completely different story today!

In the end of the 18th century, explosives were introduced. Too damaging, they were abandoned and only used to open new quarries. With the industrial revolution, mechanical techniques were introduced to extract the marble.

Today, synthetic diamond wires are used. Massive 350-ton marble blocks are extracted and then divided into 35-ton blocks taken down by heavy trucks to the seaside in 45 minutes.

It takes about a week to extract a 350-ton block. First, the bottom cut of the block is made by a giant chainsaw in about a day.

Then, two holes are drilled into the block to form an L-shaped channel into which the diamond wire is inserted. Rotated at high speeds, it realizes the cut. The operation has to be repeated another two times to disconnect the block from the quarry and it takes about 2 days for each side. A pile of rubble cushions the blocks as it gets softly separated from the mountain.

Walter Danesi stands proudly by the marble sculpture of his grand father who started an open-air museum to pay a tribute to all these quarrymen. Walter realizes how much the job has changed even compared to his own father. From 20,000 men working the Carrara quarries in inhumane conditions about 60 years ago, today barely 500 men extract more marble than ever in the Carrara region, well paid and working in a high-profit industry.

Discovering the Carrara marble quarries has given a completely new dimension to our way of appreciating stone sculptures. Especially when visiting Florence with its David or Pietà by Michelangelo, or other masterpieces by Arnolfo, Donatello, Pisano and more, realizing all the work and risks involved before art actually starts is extremely humbling.

Travel tips:

  • To visit the Carrara marble quarries, get in touch with Carrara Marble Tour.
  • The quarry museum provides a very interesting insight into the lives of the quarrymen and children.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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