Travel: Exploring the Carrara marble mines

FNL Travel Carrara marble mines 1609A

By Debi Lander
mail@floridanewsline.com

I grip the sides of the backseat in a Jeep 4×4 as my body slides into fellow passengers. Chalk dust flying from our tracks, we bounce over potholes and transfer our weight as the vehicle scurries around hairpin corners. This ride takes me up one of the craziest roads I’ve ever experienced. Just when I think we can go no higher, the driver maneuvers around still another tight bend and we ascend again. We don’t stop until we reach an altitude of 3,280 feet.

I’m wearing sunglasses as blindingly white stone that looks like snow surrounds me. I peer at the craggy landscape that glistens otherworldly like a scene in a James Bond movie. It leaves me a bit shaken … and stirred. In fact, 007’s “Quantum Solace” was filmed here in 2008; however, the month is May and I’m in the Carrara marble quarries of Italy, the “Marble Mountains,” the same place Michelangelo came to select the purest blocks in the 16th century.

Whether you see the famous statue of David in Florence or a full-size copy in St. Augustine (hidden behind bushes at Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum), the sublime masterpiece will make you question the method. How did he carve such perfection?

The answer lies in his quote, “The sculptor’s hand can only break the spell to free the figures slumbering in the stone.” On the Carrara marble mine tour, I learn that breaking that spell requires dogged work from many men.

After searching and finding only the purest white statuario marble, Michelangelo would hire a crew of quarrymen. They’d hollow narrow trenches, then pound in wedges and force the stone to split. He then gave stonecutters detailed drawings to rough out the block’s length, width and breadth.

To move the bulky masses over land and sea, the sculptor relied on lots of rope and strong men. With luck, the purchase would eventually arrive at his workshop in Rome or Florence, but even today, transporting marble is a major operation. Massive machines grade the roadways and others help haul the marble from the quarry and lift it onto flatbed trucks.

When the Jeep landed at the mountain’s summit, I felt like I just jumped off the top of a ski lift. My fellow passengers and I drank in the panoramic view of the Apuan Alps along with the Tuscan coastline and the town of Carrara. As I spun around, I felt humbled surrounded by the white marble facings hewn from centuries of labor. The open-air quarries look like a giant’s staircase to the sky.

The guide explained both the ancient and modern methods of excavation, detailing how the quarrymen today blast and cut, then load the marble blocks onto trucks. The invention of the diamond-encrusted saw significantly increased the speed of extraction. Monster-sized cranes and mammoth machinery aid the lifting — but the work remains dangerous, and two men were killed recently when a block suddenly fell.

I also came upon a new instrument with robotic arms carving a marble copy of the David. I was mesmerized, but somehow this just didn’t feel right. To computerize a method to recreate the famous artwork seemed like cheating.

For anyone interested in adventure or the art of marble cutting, a visit to the Carrara marble mines, about an hour from Pisa, becomes a fantastic outing and is highly recommended.

Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.

Photo courtesy Debi Lander

At the summit of Marble Mountain