Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 14, The Marble Quarries of Carrara
In my previous post I mentioned being shocked at the scale of the Carrara marble industry and the quite gargantuan scale of quarrying. And so around a week ago I headed The Bee, my trusty rented Fiat Panda, north in order to see for myself the legendary marble quarries of Carrara.
At this point I should explain that the two lane road between Pietrasanta and Carrara is practically lined with huge marble processing plants the size and scale of which quite beggars belief, each one announcing itself with one or more gargantuan mobile cranes each standing several stories high and run along their own rails. I can’t exaggerate just how many of these monster hoists there are – they quite literally dominate the landscape. In fact I couldn’t even hazard a guess just how many there are, but to give you some idea of the numbers we are talking about – the road between Pietrasanta and Carrara takes around half-an-hour to drive and for practically the entire way there always seems to be several in view.
But of course they are not just limited to this one road, they are to be found in the foothills of the mountains and on the plains leading to the coast, they are indeed everywhere.
Choosing one of these plants at random I pulled The Bee over by the side of the road and watched as two sawyers expertly split a giant slab and carefully hoisted one half of it across the yard. I couldn’t help being impressed by the calm confidence these men imbued into their work – no fuss, no muss, they simply went about their business with a composed assurance that bellied the fact that moving stone is actually one of the most tense experiences you can imagine – not that I have ever moved anything on this scale, but when moving a block of any size it is critical to ensure that the straps are even, and in precisely the right place otherwise gravity will take over… and take over in a flash! Several times they set the hoist in motion only to have to gently lower the slab and patiently reset the straps… an experience I am very familiar with. Eventually the job was done, the slab tucked into its predestinated corner of the yard, and The Bee and I went on our way.
The entrance to the City of Carrara is marked by a giant arch and during the few minutes it took to snap a picture or two I’d say at least a dozen trucks rumbled under it presumably on their way to the numerous awaiting ships moored at the harbor.
To be honest I had no real idea just where I was going. That may sound odd but it’s actually my modus operandi when I set out to discover a place for the first time. I prefer to simply wade in and let the scene present itself freed of any preconceived ideas. And so quite randomly I chose Colonatta as my entry point, not for any particular reason but from what I could tell from the map it did seem to sit at the heart of the quarrying operations. Also I imagined it to be just the sort of craggy, atmospheric hilltop town that would prove interesting in itself, and I wasn’t disappointed for not only did the place provide front row seating, but actually boasted a lovely wide terrace from which I could gaze at the phenomenal spectacle of a whole entire mountain being removed one slab at a time. However, on arrival I discovered that not only did Colonatta provide all of the above but it also proved to be the Lard Capital of the World, an added bonus since I could never have imagined that there was a Lard Capital, of the world or anywhere else.
But first I had to get there, and so setting my course through Carrara I emerged at the city’s Eastern edge with a few swift decisions to make (Italian traffic has little tolerance for indecision) and by far more luck than judgment, to my surprise, I found myself following signs leading the way to Colonatta. However, the moment I left Carrara a series of roadside attractions offering marble began to appear at regular intervals, all of which I happily ignored, but when one boasted an actual real live steam engine my resolve immediately dissolved and I found myself pulling The Bee into the wide empty parking lot to see what it was all about.
The train itself was quite a sight, perched upon elevated rails it was well worth the slight delay. It became immediately clear that this locomotive was one of the legion of such engines that used to shunt between the port and the quarries through an elaborate series of tunnels and elevated embankments that now are largely used by the trucks that replaced them. But I did appreciate this respectful nod to the past and dutifully paid homage to the human engineering of such beautiful machinery. However I was quite definitely ‘not amused’ nor impressed by the array of statuary at the commercial end of this blatant tourist trap. For when I was through ogling the brilliance of such a sublime piece of engineering I turned my attention to the actual artistic offerings of the place only to discover that the ‘marble sculpture’ advertised by the roadside was nothing more than a cheap and very badly executed plaster imitation. I kid you not, this stuff was truly awful. But given the size of the parking lot, and the less than warm welcome I, as a lone tourist, was given I suspect their real catch was the quintessential air-conditioned tour bus. But just how anyone could mistake these cheap, horrible impersonations with the real thing was quite beyond me. And ultimately I could forgive them for selling cheap rip-offs of real sculpture if they indicated their wares as such, but no… “Marble Sculpture”, that’s what it said on their sign, but patently the only thing real in their entire yard was the locomotive!
Pondering the duplicitous nature of the scene I had just witnessed I steered The Bee up and up and up towards the village of Colonnata, following the signs and taking every opportunity to stop the Fiat and gaze at the sight of so many quarries either side of the roadway. However, impressive as these were to my innocent eyes they paled in comparison to what I was about to encounter later in the afternoon.
Arriving in Colonnata I was immediately impressed by the drama of the place. In fact I found myself slightly overawed by the sight and sounds of quarries busy at work, but the village seemed quite impervious to it all, as if to say ‘you can remove everything, take the lot, but we will still be here when it’s all gone’, because removing ‘it’ they certainly were.
Parking The Bee in the largely empty parking lot I made my way through a series of narrow winding alleyways until I came unexpectedly upon a wide terrace that faced a wall of human activity, as trucks wound their way up and down the impossibly steep looking mountainside forming the opposite side of the narrow canyon. Way up high there were the unmistakable signs, and sounds, of active quarries cubing out the raw stone into truck-sized slabs, and no matter where I looked; right, left, up or down I immediately recognized the indelible mark of human activity both ancient and modern.
Having satiated my immediate need for a half-bottle of very local, very locally priced red wine (3 Euros to be precise) my attention was turned to the main preoccupation of this likable and interesting little village, for I soon became aware that the entire community was absorbed in a single commodity – not marble, although the two were not unconnected, but lard… yes, lard! Every single shop, bar, café and restaurant was singularly devoted to the stuff. Lard, or ‘lardo’, was everywhere, and I mean everywhere!
I later learned that the lard in question is not your common or supermarket variety but a cultured and highly prized. Produced by storing it in marble containers the lard is imbue it with properties quite unobtainable elsewhere. People in fact drive half way across the country just to partake, filling their cars to the brim with bundles of brightly colored packets to take home with them.
By now the afternoon was growing a little long in the tooth and so I gently navigated The Bee back along the winding road to a crossroads that pointed me in the direction of a ‘Cave’ that seemed to promise a glimpse into the tantalizing world of Carrara marble quarrying, and so I began the long and very winding trek up to one of the many giant sized holes in the ground that surround the city giving its name to the the world’s most famous stone.
Up and up I went, never knowing if or when some officious looking person would demand that I immediately turn around and head back in the direction from whence I came, but fortunately no one appeared, and so up and up I went. Round and round an endless series of hairpin bends, on and on, higher and higher, until at last it came as some surprise that I had arrived right in the crucible of the action – right at the heart of a huge, gargantuan quarry! Immediately I tucked The Bee into a roadside recess and awaited the arrival of the inevitable flashing light vehicle of authority, but it never came. I’d made it, no one seemed to care whether I was there or not… and then I remembered – I was in Italy.
At first I couldn’t quite believe the sight that presented itself. It took quite some time to grasp the scale of the operation. Everywhere I looked there were quarrymen at work, everywhere the noise of heavy stone being shifted, drilled, loaded and otherwise disturbed echoed through the air – I’ve never heard a sound like it before and I doubt I will again, unless I repeat the experience. The noise was quite unbelievable – huge and terrible like thunder, deep and resonant – I could feel it in my bones.
Bear in mind that this is just one of the huge quarries that loom above the city of Carrara.
I’m not sure just how long I spent gazing at the spectacle but after a while I began to recognize the older mineshafts from the galleries indicating the more recent technological improvements. To the point that the quarrying industry is now more than 50 times more efficient than it was 50 years ago. Yes, just think about that for a moment – Fifty times!
It was at this point I began to realize the relatively small ratio of pure white marble. Much of what I could see was deeply stratified and cut through with streaks and cracks, clearly this was no solid mountain of perfect unadulterated white Carrara as some writers on the subject have lead me to believe. Of course, there is plenty of ‘pure white’ Carrara within the seams, but there is also an awful lot of scrappy marble too.
Eventually time came to make my descent and I headed The Bee back down the narrow zig-zagged road. Very soon though I caught sight in my rearview mirror of a huge truck bearing down on me with quite frightening speed. Scampering to the side of the road I let it pass and then followed in its wake as it tore through the twists and turns of the bends. I’d seen these trucks back in Colonatta as they made their way down the impossible gradients leading down from the quarries perched at the top of the opposing side of the valley, and once I had recovered from the astonishing speed at which they took the corners a closer inspection showed that all four front wheels of the truck turned in unison… which of course explained some, but not all, of the driver’s supreme confidence in rounding tight hairpin bends at such velocity. But still, four turning wheels or not, I just couldn’t imagine the consequences of a simple miscalculation given the precipitous drop that inevitably awaited any error on the driver’s part, not to mention a mechanical failure.
It was while following this truck that I stumbled across the last surprise of the day. On my way up I had been so absorbed in the monumental landscape unfolding before my eyes that I hadn’t even noticed it, but as we rounded a bend a time capsule came into view that immediately had me pulling over to the side of the road. What I discovered was the old railway terminal where the locomotive that had so enthralled me earlier in the day would have begun its perilous downward journey. The place was almost completely intact and it only took a slight squint of the eye to imagine the railway men and quarry workers busy loading the carriages with giant blocks hewn from the surrounding hills. There was a hospital, for I can only imagine the horrific injuries these men suffered back when the slabs were maneuvered largely by hand, a few clerical buildings, a tool shop and a long gantry complete with the biggest hook I’ve ever seen in my life.
But the star attraction for me (as I always find them truly fascinating) was the gated tunnel that bored straight through the mountain and into the adjoining quarry on the other side. Staring into the darkness for quite a while I gradually became aware of a dim point of light emanating from the far end of the tunnel, when suddenly I heard, or swear I heard the chug, chug, chug of a locomotive and caught a faint waft of the sweet scented hot oil, steam and smokey air.
Until next time,
All the Best,