Whenever Michelangelo received a commission to sculpt a statue, he would travel to the Carrarra marble quarries. That night, he would sleep in the quarries. The light of dawn would illuminate the white marble, causing the unpolished surfaces to sparkle. At that moment, he would see the form of a slave or a disciple or a god imprisoned in the marble and say, with appropriate drama, “There! That is the piece I must have!”
The Apuan Alps, in the northwest of Italy, are made almost entirely of marble, and Carrarra is the center of the marble mining industry. Its marble has been used to create Michelangelo’s Pieta, Rome’s Pantheon, Trajan’s Column, London’s Marble Arch, the list goes on. The marble is so abundant that the area has been quarried for thousands of years and even if with better extraction techniques could be quarried for thousands more.
From a distance, the exposed white marble looks like a blank of snow, sitting across the lap of the mountains.
On the road up, we passed old Roman quarries. They had returned to nature and now they looked like agricultural terraces. The Roman method was to start at the peak and move down, gradually removing the entire peak, so what began as mountains ended as hills. This method is now outlawed for ecological reasons. The peaks create a dependable microclimate to either side (warmer on the ocean side and cooler on the inland side) and local agriculture requires these microclimates to remain stable. The law, however, was passed relatively recent, and so most of the individual quarries are high up on the mountains, although now the marble is quarried from the side of peaks or down into the mountain.
The roads, created of compacted white marble dust, gleamed like rivers of light. In our guide’s Range Rover, we followed the switchbacks from the valley to the top of the mountain. Fine white powder coated the plants. The powder was deep and soft, and every footfall brought forward gentle puffs.
Our guide assured us it was safe to inhale. This marble, she said, is 99% calcium bicarbonate. Inhaling it is good for the bones. During World War II, she said, we baked it into the bread for extra fortitude. Breathe deep, she said. It is safe. She said this in the manner of someone who is used to being contradicted.
We passed marble that was pure as a bed of snow; or white with great parallel daggers of black; or white with gentle ripples of black, like a zebra; or white with blue, or green, or pink. The quarries were like set pieces, great rectangles set against a sheer cliff wall of marble, stark and magnificent. The faceted marble faces provide stunning backdrops. It is glamorous. Fashion shoots are often held here.
As we drove up and up and up, I thought of Michelangelo’s hands: calloused, toughened, bruised and bleeding from struggling with marble, yet sensitive enough to sculpt the fine muscles around a smile, or the gentle hollow behind the knee.
Finally we stood at the top. It was Sunday. The laborers were at home. The drills, saws and cranes were silent. The red roofs of the village were spread out below. Our guide pointed out that the quarries were both Heaven and Hell. The beauty of the white marble was heavenly; but the heat in summer, the cold in winter and the blinding reflection would quickly make a hell out of this heaven for anyone working on it.
Having passed through blazing heat, blinding light and great beauty, we came down to greener gentler lands. Like Dante, we had climbed the Mount, seen Heaven and Hell, and now returned.
Behind us we left a place where, for millenia, men wrestled with stone, pulled it and lugged and tore and hauled and broke it. Like torlls or giants, they breathed it through their noses and baked it in their bread. From their effort, the marble was carried by oxen and horse and train and truck for days and weeks and months, to finally arrive and be carved into figures light and airy, smooth and supple. Every marble statue carries a message, and that message is defiance. Stone may be strong, but man is stronger.