Trouble in Carrara. The Marble Quarries: My Solution

Hello and welcome to an important martincooney.com posting. Please take the time to read this article in full as I propose a serious solution to a problem of crucial and growing concern to…

The Great Carrara Marble Quarry Debate

Giant machinery is now so ubiquitous as to virtually blend into our world unnoticed. Wherever you look these days, if you peer around long enough they are usually to be spotted somewhere in the picture, even as you admire the scenery that frames them. There they are busily unloading ships, cutting out swaths of mountains, building our houses, shops and shopping malls; they fly us through the air, take us here there and everywhere, and pretty much do whatever it is that we want done.  And so, if we are so easy with massive machines doing what they do in the 99.99 percent of the non-marble world, why should not this same seemingly unstoppable force of progress be unleashed to benefit the extraordinarily successful Carrara marble quarrying industry?  Why should they be denied the very tools and equipment so readily available to every other sector of the economy – not to mention their direct rivals elsewhere across the world?

 

 

The counter claim to all this positivity surrounding the various fortunes currently being made is that, far from bringing prosperity to the region, the current marble boom has brought naught but misery, poverty and despair. From the local’s point of view nothing in the way of benefit has come their way. All they see is an accelerated ecological nightmare tearing at the very heart of a long and extraordinarily proud culture. So aggrieved are the local population that plans are now progressing to close quarries, reduce production, and drastically curtail the scale of the global Carrara Marble brand.

 

And there we have it, The Great Marble Divide: whether to tear ahead at full speed and remove as much and as fast as possible / or \ carefully manage the supply of marble and revere each precious block.

I know what your are thinking. Which side of this increasingly contentious issue am I on?

Sorry to disappoint but I am on neither side, for I feel strongly that – world’s apart as these two warring sides appear to be (as you are about to find out), I – yes, I Martin Cooney, have a solution.

Yep, (I can hear the hubbub, the merriment, the mirth… but) I have a solution.  Not THE solution that will solve everything in one fell swoop, but as I will outline as this post unscrolls, the sheer magnitude of the problem can make it appear almost unsolvable, and so I say let’s start by breaking this complex subject into the two separate issues.

Firstly there is the issue of volume, to which I have nothing of merit to add. Volume of trade is a subject of its own, and while I may harbor my own opinions I don’t really think they are worth sharing to be honest, for I am no expert on the subject. No, my expertise derives from what I believe to be is a unique understanding of the superb carving properties of what essentially comes down to ‘quarry waste’. That’s right; for second on the grievance list, after the sheer quantity of marble extracted from the mountains, what seems to rankle most people is the sheer waste involved in many modern day quarrying techniques. For in order to satisfy the slabbing industry’s insatiable desire for counter tops, much – and I mean very much –  of what would have been at one time prized marble – each block delicately pried from its perch in the quarry, and skillfully wagoneered into town – is  now unceremoniously swept aside and ignored, crushed to make toothpaste, or bulldozed to the side of the road.

It is this ‘quarry waste’, source of much rancor with the locals, that I think could provide a very real solution to the whole issue of what is and what isn’t waste. Granted some, even much, of this “debris” may be useless and ultimately bound for the crusher.  But I can tell you with absolute certainty that, here and there within the junk, there are real, true, hidden gems.  Hidden gems worth their weight in marble – and we all know how expensive marble is these days!

How do I know this? How can I say this with such certainty? Please, just look at my sculpture. Each and every piece of Marble Collection Series Sculpture was carved from a block of Colorado Yule Marble that, at some point in its long history, had been rejected, abandoned, and left to the elements.  Now each one resides on its own plinth, in a designated sculpture gallery, across from Aspen’s private and public air terminals. Furthermore they are selling, and have sold for several thousand dollars per.  To date I have carved 67 Collection Series Marble Sculptures, and have plans to sculpt a great deal many more.

The best way to illustrate my point is to review a short piece put out by Newsweek back in March of 2015

 

I have read a great many accounts of this long-simmering feud, but have recently sensed that, after years of accusation, claims, insults and counter insults, perhaps this whole unfortunate state of affairs is at last rolling to a boil. And so, although I could have chosen perhaps a more clinical account,  I really thought that Veronique Mistiaen and Chiara Briganti, to their credit, but while in no way disguising their various opinions, never-the-less managed to transfer much of the raw emotion surrounding the subject – an aspect of the debate that I definitely noticed when I was there in 2014.

The ‘We care more about the land than you do’ syndrome

While the two sides appear more strongly divided than ever, from my perspective both were essentially claiming the same points: that they cared deeply for the land, the culture, the history, local economy, the lot.  And I have no doubt that they are both right. So if you keep on scrolling, and reading, I am going to explain exactly how such a miraculous solution is at hand. Right under our noses as it were.

I’ll add my views as the article proceeds, but if you wish to add a comment I will be leaving the box open for you to express your thoughts and ideas at the bottom of the page. I am eager to get involved and welcome discussion. Are you able to connect me with the industry?  Let me know what you think. You can call me at 970-319-1070 and leave a message. Email martincooneysculptor@gmail.com, or better still, arrange a KMJ GALLERY TOUR, then we can really talk.

 

Here it is then, the article in question. Let’s read through it.

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MICHAELANGELO’S MARBLE IS BEING SOLD CHEAP BY INDUSTRIALISTS

Newsweek

by VERONIQUE MISTIAEN and  CHIARA BRIGANTI  2015 3 27

One morning, citizens of this small Tuscan city, tucked away on the western slopes of the Apuan Alps in northern Italy, awoke to a strange protest. Grievance signs in blood-red letters had appeared overnight on the city’s statutes. “They have even taken my underwear,” read the sign strung around the neck of Moretta (Little Brown Girl); “Quarries to the Carrarini,” cried the note on the heart of the anarchist Alberto Meschi, one of the city’s most famous sons, who campaigned for better conditions for quarry workers.  A few hours later, all the signs had been swiftly removed.

Carrara is home to the world’s largest marble field, formed in the Apuan Alps over 200 million years. From the air, the marble mountains look as though they were covered in snow. From close up, the high vertical faces and giant benches of the open-cast excavations are like colossal white cathedrals in a moonscape. The landscape provided the backdrop for a car chase in the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace. These quarries have been mined since Roman times. Under the orders of Emperor Augustus, slaves began working them in the first century BC, so that rich villas and public monuments – including Trajan’s Column and part of the Pantheon in Rome – could be covered in the whitest, most sought-after marble in the world. Some quarries still bear the marks of the slaves’ chisels. Michelangelo came here at the turn of the 16th century to select stones for his iconic David and Pietà statues. From Henry Moore to Louise Bourgeois and Isamu Noguchi, countless other artists across centuries and continents have been bewitched by the stone. The cathedrals of Florence and Siena, St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum, Marble Arch in London and Washington’s Kennedy Centre are all made from this celebrated marble.

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OK, I think there is a lot going on in the opening salvo – way too much if I’m honest, and then there’s that title. Impartial, I’d say not. Hang in there though, for once they have set their “blood red” tone, anarchistic leanings, and laid down their obligatory historical guide to the area, they really do manage to pull us into the story, down into the nitty-gritty push and shove of it all, down to where it matters, to the very crux of the issue; pride and profit.

I’ve done a lot of travelling in my time, and in all that time I have never seen a region so strewn with vivid, graphic, often gory war memorials. Once you notice them you will continue to discover them practically everywhere. I’ll do an entire post about them one day, but the point I am making is why ever inflame passions, tensions and old blood feuds in order to make a point? Yes yes yes, much of the past was horrible, but much more wasn’t, and what is left of the past should be used to build upon the future. Do these old tensions matter in the grand scheme of things? No, we as a species must learn, grow and  move on – not lose ourselves to anger and recrimination. But keep reading and my solution will make more and more sense. Not only will it bring people together with a unified goal, but will generate much of the missing income that is really at the heart of the matter. My plan brings jobs, prosperity and dignity to those who currently feel hopeless, left behind and abandoned; isn’t that the ultimate goal of all parties here? Oh yes, and the quarry owners can continue to be just that, even if an amalgamation or two may become the order of the day.

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THE ‘WHITE GOLD’ CURSE

For centuries, Carrara’s marble has been the backbone of the region’s economy and its pride. But now it has turned into a curse. The irreplaceable stone is being undersold, most of the small workshops where marble was carved have disappeared; a rare craft is dying and the environment is wrecked. This is a business with a yearly turnover of between €7–800m, according to the Guardia di Finanza police, who are examining the accounts of the industry. The only beneficiaries, however, are a few powerful families and businesses, while the rest of the town is blighted by the side effects of excavation – especially the dust and flooding. Despite its extraordinary natural resources, Carrara, a town of 66,000 inhabitants, is one of the poorest in Tuscany and one of the most heavily indebted in the country. The streets are dotted with abandoned buildings and, for years, scaffolding has hidden hotels and theatres (including the one where Puccini directed Tosca) because there are no public funds to complete restoration work. Up until now, the local administration has not taken any measures to “touch the privilege of the planet marble,” as local journalist Massimo Braglia puts it.

But now, for the first time in over a century, the people of Carrara, as well as smaller neighboring marble towns such as Massa, Seravezza and Pietrasanta, are fighting back. Over the past year, they have signed petitions, held meetings and organized demonstrations, and taken their grievances to court and to the regional government. The last time Carrarini dared to revolt was in 1894, says a local historian called Beniamino Gemignani. On that occasion, 454 people were tried and handed harsh sentences for claiming that the marble belonged to the town and not to a handful of families. “That was the last time that this sentiment was expressed publicly,” says Gemignani. “But it didn’t die; it lodged itself into the unconscious of the town. And now it has emerged again – loudly and clearly.” This time, the people of Carrara might have been heard. On 10 March, against all odds, Tuscany’s Regional Assembly passed a law that should bring added value to the city. But residents are only cautiously optimistic; it would not be the first time such a law has been ignored or weakened by loopholes.

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 I suppose that, if its possible to ignore the unnecessarily inflammatory tone favored by the two journalists, they can point to what they are saying as fact verifiably true. For I must say that for during the three months I toured North West Tuscany, back in 2014, I made it a point to avoid the confusing town of Carrara. Definitely run-down in character, the place seemed beaten, bewildered and betrayed. All that marble – all that money, and yet the state of what obviously once was a proud civic community told me that precious little of it trickled into “world famous” Carrara. The social injustice that the authors hang their article upon is very real, that’s for sure, but the wider issue still remains firmly rooted in the day-to-day reality of modern marble quarry practices. Who they employ and how much they pay is to my mind a quite separate if perhaps valid issue. I’m sure that much of the unfairness/violence/incarceration unleashed upon the marble workforce was well within the dire (by 21st Century standards) norms of the day, and equally familiar to workers, unions, and political activists across the land and beyond.  Life  was tough back then, across the scale, across the world, and across every social spectrum; why can’t we simply acknowledge that and move on? People did what they needed to do to survive, so in that sense nothing has changed to this day. Anyway, our journalistic duo have laid out the ground: a few (of many) old injustices duly re-ignited, but into all this we are given a whiff of optimism in the form of a proclamation demanding drastic and immediate land reform.

Let’s see where this takes us.

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BIN LADEN BUYS TUSCANY

“Marble is in the DNA of the people of Carrara,” says Gemignani. “It represents our history, our skills and even our wounds (for working the marble). A pact of reciprocal respect bound people to their mountains… But now it’s all gone.” The pact has been broken by globalization, market forces and new excavation methods. In 1920, less than 100,000 tons a year was extracted from the area’s quarries. Today, the figure is more than five million, as local marble barons try to compete on price with producers in China, Russia and India by carving up the mountains at a relentless pace, using diamond saws and huge mechanical shovels.

Residents object that the industry’s insatiable demand for quantity is devaluing their precious stone – underselling it in bulk as a mere building stone instead of recognizing it as an artist’s medium. When this summer, the Bin Laden family quietly entered this very Italian industry, local fears seemed to be confirmed. In August, CPC Marble and Granite Ltd, a company constituted by the brothers and cousins of the deceased al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden, paid €45m to acquire 7.5% of the concessions of Carrara’s 81 active quarries (there are some 100 additional quarries in the area).

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Again with the over the top headline. Bit dramatic, quite definitely not true, as in Bin Laden did quite obviously not purchase “Tuscany”.  And of course such news is pretty out of date as I type this.  But once again, our journalistic duo are pretty spot on with their stats, and frightening they are: from .1 of a ton in 1920, to 5.0 less than a hundred years later. Remember, these are no ordinary quarries, many of them qualify as archaeological sites that have been worked for over two thousand years. I’d like to see the graph: flat, flat, flattish, up, straight up, vertical.  No wonder then that the locals are, shall we say, a bit upset.

As for the international marble market, BL’s family’s role in it, or anything else, I know nothing.

But one thing I know for sure is that, if all parties can agree to put aside differences and work to a solution, rather than succumb to settling long-held grievances, not only can all parties prosper, but a revival in the region’s fortunes will incorporate the entire population.

At this point please put aside anything you may have previously read on the subject, been told about it, or watched on video, because this next bit is important.

Marble, once quarried and suspended above ground, free of standing water, remains as prime and pristine as ever.  Only a thin shell, or ‘rind’ as I perceive it, is deteriorated – perhaps an inch but usually less. The rest of the rough block, ie 99.9 %, remains as gorgeous and pliable as the day it was coaxed from the quarry.

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The conglomerate already controls 26 quarries around the world and has had longstanding commercial relationships with Carrara marble industrialists. But this operation ensures that the group now controls the supply of the “white” Carrara, which is experiencing a new golden era in Saudi Arabia, as well as in China and India. The deal marks the first time a foreign group – let alone one with such a loaded name – owns shares in Carrara marble district. Some greeted the news with disbelief, bemoaning the “Arabization of the quarries of Michelangelo”, but others hailed the process with optimism, scenting the millions of euros in investment and a potential boost for employment. “The deal shows that local marble families and businesses didn’t care enough to protect Michelangelo’s mountains,” says Eros Tetti, 37, founder of an association for the protection of the mountains. “They let foreign companies take away our raw resources. Carrara marble is one of the most precious kinds in the world. Because it is very soft, it is best used to create statues and works of art. We don’t want it to be taken away and used to build new skyscrapers in Saudi Arabia. We want it to stay here and be used to make art.”

Mayor Angelo Zubbani, on the other hand, enthusiastically supports the transaction. He says he is “optimistic” that it will create much-needed new jobs in Carrara and confident that the group will process the marble there, although no industrial plan has been presented. In 2013 alone, the mayor pointed out, the group placed orders for about €40m and used local sawmills to cut the blocks into slabs. In a town hit hard by the recession, this was a winning argument.
 “The odd thing is not that the Bin Laden family has acquired the quarry concessions, but that this doesn’t seem to play any role in the protest that has been gaining momentum,” muses Gemignani. It is, he adds, “more a measure of the disenchantment and anger with the marble barons and the local administration that people believe that any intervention is preferable to the status quo”. The status quo doesn’t speak well for the local companies and administration. Marble extractors pay a concession fee to the city – 8% of the average value of the excavated stone. In May, the mayor, his city council and business associations representatives will appear in court to learn whether they will be sent to trial for allegedly agreeing in 2009 to base fees on values significantly lower than the market value of the stone, a move that may have cost the town €25m.
Some companies have managed to avoid the concession fee, invoking an ancient law. In 1751, Maria Teresa d’Este, Duchess of Massa and Carrara and the owner of the land, granted local families the right to exploit the quarries and pass on the concession to their descendants. For 264 years, 30% of quarries have been subject to this archaic law; they are treated as private properties and pay no fees. Some of the concessionaires are also being investigated for a massive flow of money from Carrara into foreign companies and Swiss banks, and for the systematic under-invoicing of the marble. The investigation has led to the request for the indictment of 59 entrepreneurs.

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Now we are getting down to the meat of it, and this is where I come in: “They let foreign companies take away our raw resources” They do indeed. “Carrara marble is one of the most precious kinds in the world. Because it is very soft, it is best used to create statues and works of art”, a heart felt but hardly financially sustainable notion, The truth is that there will be no solution without the billions of dollars garnered by the slabbing industry, and in all honesty, considering its global reach, I doubt if it is going away anytime soon. “We don’t want it to be taken away and used to build new skyscrapers in Saudi Arabia. We want it to stay here and be used to make art.”  Well, a percentage  – as in the lions portion – of quarried marble will always, and has always, been rendered into building material, but you can sure understand the pride, frustration and even anger these people feel over what they see as outright betrayal of their culture, their craft, their way of life.  They want, nay demand to make their contribution to high civilization and its resplendent culture – and with their unique history and tradition I have to say that “they do have a point”.

 

As for “archaic law”, “Maria Teresa d’Este, Duchess of Massa and Carrara”, “systematic under-invoicing”, no offence but, whilst these and many such problems plague and exacerbate Carrara marble’s Great Divide, I would hardly say that these sorts of issues reside exclusively within the Cararra marble industry.  Furthermore I have no doubt that with a common goal to unite both sides much of the acrimony will dissapate and each of these seemingly intractable problems may be dealt with under a spirit of communication, co-operation and transparency. I will say this though (and just this); Italy may be justifyable praised and exalted for its incredible history, its amazing food, wine, and all that goes into Italian fashion, architecture, cars, women, jewelry and style, but when it comes to, shall we say, Italians not just ‘bending’ the rules, but turning the proverbial blind eye, ah, yes, that’s when I tend to politely change the subject.

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DEATH OF AN ART

Fabrizio Lorenzani, 52, a sculptor and teacher at the country’s only marble school, closes the door for the last time of the studio where he and his wife have spent years working. His is the last studio in the area to have been turned into a warehouse to store marble blocks awaiting shipment. “Ours was a place for dreaming… And now it is gone. Michelangelo’s marble city has no room for its artists,” he says. At the turn of the century, Carrara was one of the fastest-growing cities in Italy – a vibrant centre of culture and art, known worldwide not only for its exceptional marble, but also for its master sculptors, skilled artisans and stonemasons. Trained at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts (the oldest one in Italy) and the at the Marble School, they executed original commissions for renowned artists, reproduced copies of masterpieces and made decorative objects. Most of the marble fireplaces in London were made in Carrara’s workshops – including those in 10 Downing Street. So renowned were Carrara’s craftsmen that marble, granite and onyx quarried all over the world was brought there for shaping and polishing into slabs for architectural facing and paving, and for carving into decorative objects. Marble entrepreneurs invested in the city, building theatres and hospitals, developing skills, infrastructures and new technologies. There was social inequality, quarry work was dangerous and workers were exploited, but most people were employed somehow in the industry – mining, processing, transporting, transforming or producing artistic work.

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Here it is that I and my own personal experience entwine with the story, for I myself trained and then worked as a Banker Mason. Having acquired my NVQ Level 2 credentials at the City of Bath College I carved stone professionally, upon a ‘banker’, within ‘banker shops’ in and around Bath.  One by one, piece by piece, we worked our way through an entire building; doors, windows, stair steps, ashlar, you name it. And once we finished one building we began on the next, and so forth. Even when I worked for myself over here in Colorado I worked this way. It is after all the only way. But, that was then. These days they have machines that would make your head spin. It’s no longer a matter of what they can do, but what they can’t. In short, machines have completely taken over what was the banker masonry industry. Sure the odd pockets of tradition still reside, but their numbers would seem to be dwindling by the day. So, its a problem, it is.

The solution however cannot be found in catering to the hobby tourists, but in the establishment of credible, professional artistic, artisan, and industrial centers that will, over the coming decades and beyond, systematically gleam through and render what is now a mountain of unslabbable fragments into, well whatever you can imagine. I can imagine a  million and one household items from soap dishes to cheese boards, exquisite and unique sculpture to hand carved marble tiles. The possibilities are endless. Why? because whereas much of that lovely marble was rejected due to some perceived defect of the day, the overwhelming majority of it is of quite superb quality. If however the block held too many intrusions, defect,  wrong shade or color, defect,  awkward shape (very common), defect, a large crack running through it, defect.  One way or another, strange as this may seem, many if not most rough marble blocks failed to make the grade, and so now you see them years, sometimes centuries, later scattered just about everywhere. So much of the prime quality marble is just laying around here there and everywhere that there is practically nowhere throughout the entire region where you will not see it.

Now what if I were to tell you that practically every scrap of this, er scrap, could be worth an absolute fortune, what would you think then? Furthermore my plan would see whole communities restored, jobs return, and prosperity across the region like never before. Please, read on.

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Carrara’s fate started to change after the Second World War. The quarries were in new hands – some because the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini had stripped them from the old families, others simply through generational change. New technologies dramatically increased production while reducing the workforce. Still, throughout the 1950s, some 16,000 people were employed in the quarries and many more in related activities. Nowadays, fewer than 1,000 people work in the quarries and the industry at large employs barely 7–10% of the region’s population. Only a handful of workshops and studios remain in the city. Even Carrara’s own marble is rarely finished there, as overseas labour is cheaper. The modern-day marble barons and multinationals are not interested in investing back into the city and training new generations of artisans – and the marble expertise developed over generations is rapidly unraveling. Lorenzani and his wife have yet to find a new studio and the Marble School where he teaches – the only one in the country – has only 80 students enrolled this year, many of whom are not locals.

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 I’m a little confused at the need to invoke the “F” word into the equation. And not wanting to get involved in this, I do however feel the need to point out that, from this account Mussolini, by ‘stripping’ the quarries from the ‘old families’ would seem to be fulfilling the dreams of said anarchist mentioned earlier. So, what happened? (I’ll find out and be back on that.) But whatever we may think about the rhetoric on full display here – a fine balance between accurate journalism, and simmering contempt, this is a very commonly held position. The stance these two reporters I would say is very reflective of public opinion, and so in that sense they do have their fingers on the public pulse.  They sure know their audience.  Anyway, this is very, very interesting stuff, for now we are getting to the very heart of the matter.

In fact it was this very sentiment, paraphrased so many times that snagged my interest in the issue back in 2018; “Whenever I look at our mountains, I see more destruction: their shapes are altered, their peaks are disappearing”. What a sad, depressing thing to read for the first time. What does he mean? When I first heard this I simply could not summon the pictures in my mind. Even after looking it up online I still could not get my head around it; shape shifting mountains. All the mountains I had or have ever known have pretty much stayed the same. Exactly the same as it happens. But these quarries in Italy, so big they change the shape of the mountains – this I had to see. And so I did. And yes, they really are THAT BIG.

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MOUNTAINS AND MEMORY

“Whenever I look at our mountains, I see more destruction: their shapes are altered, their peaks are disappearing,” says Eros Tetti, who founded the campaign group Salviamo le Apuane (Save the Apuan Alps) in 2009. The association, which now has more than 10,500 members, has been studying the impact of the quarries and campaigning for the preservation of the region’s natural and cultural heritage. “When they are destroying the landscape, they are also destroying a large part of our lives and our past. If you walk in our mountains, you’ll see that people don’t work and live there any longer. Tourism and gastronomy had been a main part of our economy, but now it’s all gone because of the quarries.”

Modern mining techniques have not only increased marble extraction, but also the amount of broken stones and debris generated in the process. Of the five million tons of marble extracted each year, only 1.2 million is made of blocks; the remaining 3.8 million is fragments.

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This is great, we’re now talking about “fragments”, and it is precisely these fragmented pieces of perfect pure marble that I am, have been, and will be talking about to anyone who will listen. Three point eight million tons of fragments! Close your eyes and imagine that. As previously mentioned, I myself merely took a few scraps – a ton or two of bits and bobs, a ten ton slab of Colorado Yule Marble, and whatever I could muster from the floor of the Roaring Fork Valley, and turned them into sculptural pieces that have sold for upwards of five thousand dollars each. Now, turn your mind back to those marble rubbish piles, those heaps of future toothpaste, and ask yourself just how much in the way of money is there simply lying around, waiting for a direct method sculptor/artisan to hone it into a magnificent, say, Hand Carved Marble Bowl, unique marble sculpture or decorative architectural feature. For whereas the marble industry operates strictly upon a “six sided sawn” policy, we modern 21st Century Direct Method sculptors not only accommodate many of the supposed defects – discoloring, cracks and fissures etc – but actually exploit them to beneficial use.

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Quarrying companies used to pour this debris along the flanks of the mountains, “painting them in white”, but in the early 1990s multinationals such as Omya from Switzerland and Imerys from France discovered that far from being waste, these by-products were worth a fortune once cleaned and ground into a fine powder. The powder, calcium carbonate, is used as filler in everything from toothpaste, cosmetics and foodstuffs to paint and paper.

While the most expensive purest white statuario marble is worth between €2,700 and €3,000 a ton, processed calcium carbonate yields as much as €9,800 for 100kg on the English stock market. And the cost to these multinationals is a mere €4.20 a ton. Because the debris is so valuable, there is no incentive to carefully carve out the blocks of marble. Every day, 500 to 800 mega-trucks transport marble blocks and fragments from the quarries to the port and the processing plants.

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Kudos to Mistiaen and Briganti here for steering the conversation away from sentiment, tradition, culture, history and politics, and on to money. As the old saying goes; always follow the money.  Here’s the point though, and it is an extremely IMPORTANT point: when carving a block of stone via Direct Method, and especially when my own Curvilinear Reductionist principle is applied, all marble material that is not part of the finished sculpture – i.e. laying around on the ground, collected in the dust traps etc, may be gathered in dumpsters and delivered straight to the toothpaste factories for crushing. How about that? Now we are talking about a financial revolution, as most certainly this exciting newly available raw material – in the form of large marble fragments – will be worth a great deal more to the new burgeoning ‘Direct Method Fabrication Industry’ than a miserly 4 Euros a TON! Plus the region’s reputation, character, profile and esteem will be greatly enhanced once these new and exciting marble products begin to hit the world stage. So vast is this material stockpile that I can easily see the arrival of a proverbial second cultural and artistic Renaissance, perhaps just as lively, inventive and profitable as it was the first time around.

This time however, as opposed to grand civic commissions of yesteryear – palaces, monumental statues, grand staircases etc. – the revenue stream will derive from thousands, or even millions, of individual purchases of the domestic variety. The world has changed a great deal over recent years, and as I have found here in Aspen, Colorado, there is a growing interest in acquiring smaller light weight marble sculpture that is easy to pick up and move around and inexpensive to ship.  This in turn opens the door to a vast market of stylish consumers that is as yet untapped.

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Environmentalists worry that this unbridled exploitation is irredeemably mutilating their mountains. In 2011, a 40,000-hectare area between the provinces of Massa-Carrara and Lucca in the Apuan Alps was declared a UNESCO geopark to protect its exceptional fauna and flora and its unique geological landscape with deep crevasses and an intricate network of caves and karsts. Yet there are still some 50 active quarries there, in violation of the law. “Even Focolaccia, the highest pass in the Apuans, between Mount Cavallo and Mount Tambura, is now an open quarry – the old salt route ran through that pass,” says Tetti. In addition, intensive quarrying is affecting the hydrogeological cycles and destabilizing the mountains, and marble waste is affecting waterways. The Carrione River, which flows through many quarries, is now choked with detritus, causing devastating floods. In 2014, Tuscany’s regional assembly adopted its Regional Landscape Plan, based on a different concept of territorial governance. The idea was to prevent the Carrara-ization of the rest of the Apuan Alps and calls for the gradual closure of the quarries in the geopark, a ban on excavation above 1,200m and near water sources, and the replacement of mining in the park with a sustainable economy that would benefit the entire community. As a result of aggressive lobbying by marble companies in the area, a watered-down version is now being discussed. “Even the region is cowed by the marble barons,” says Riccardo Canesi, 58, a geographer and former Chief Secretary of the Ministry for the Environment.

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photo Ron Bailey

I really don’t know what to think about all this. I think we can all agree that there has been massive exploitation, combined with a haughty disregard for nature wherever marble is quarried in and around the Carrara district. Evidence is everywhere. However that does not mean that no one cares, they care a lot as it happens. It’s just that when the abuses of such a long period of time pile up and up until there is nowhere left to stash them, then I think we can all agree that some sort of change of policy a top priority.

Clearly somethings have to change, but simply closing down the good quarries with the bad cannot be the answer. As for the quarries scaring the landscape – says who? Just look at our own “local quarry” here in the Roaring Fork Valley; Colorado Yule Marble.  Ask anyone how they manage their water run off – why, environmentally of course.  That’s why the aptly named Crystal River is as crystal today as when Yule marble was discovered almost a century and a half ago.  To my mind the only thing wrong with the Carrara marble industry is that it has mushroomed so quickly that it barely knows how to deal with the by-products of its runaway success. Whereas the astonishing volume of marble now being extracted is alarming, due to the vastness of the deposit (the world’s largest) I do not think volume is the main issue – rather the way the marble is being rent out of the mountains to the point that the mountain tops are actually beginning to disappear. But now I sense that a point has been reached whereby things simply HAVE to change, the people, whoever they are, will never give up on this.

A new approach to marble quarrying is needed, a recognition by “the marble industry” as to the legitimate concerns of local residents and environmentalists alike would help. The future of the marble industry can be many things, but it must remain robust, healthy and profitable. Colorado Yule Marble is living proof that a modern day 21st Century marble quarry can not only be a lucrative, productive and practical ‘pillar of the local community’, but can come out of the environmental/employment equation smelling like a rose, if you get my drift.

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TEXTBOOK DESTRUCTION

“Carrara will be studied in future textbooks as a prime example of economic and environmental regression: a century ago, we had the complete marble chain (mining, processing, transformation and artistic craftsmanship on site), now we have a mining monoculture aimed solely at the mass extraction and export of the raw marble, and, even worse of the calcium carbonate. It is incredible to find at the dawn of the third millennium, within the eighth-largest economy on the planet, such a shocking example of proto-industrial colonial style economy,” says Canesi. On 10 March, however, Tuscany’s regional assembly approved a law that might make Canesi reassess his prediction. The law declared the marble fields the “indisposable property” of the citizens of Carrara, ending the old Este privilege. In addition, all quarries’ concessions will be gradually reassigned through tender and only to those who commit to process locally at least 50% of the marble they extract. This could be an epochal decision, and the reaction of the industrialists has been explosive – furious, stunned, unable to imagine that their quarries might be auctioned off. And their lawyers are already getting ready for litigation. Carrara would rejoice, if its people had not become cautious through experience. Past attempts at legislating over marble were quietly dismissed through a series of amendments in favor of the industrialists. Now, with the combined weight of Europe and the Region leaning on him, the mayor has declared his commitment to returning the quarries to the town. However, circumventing EU regulations, the Region has already allowed extensions to the enforcement of this new law for a minimum of seven to a maximum of 25 years. Will Carrara see more than a few crumbs from a volume of business estimated at close to €800m a year? Will there be jobs for her people? Will they again have their theatres, their busy studios, a river that flows, but doesn’t kill? Will they rest assured that their mountains are not depleted at a frantic pace and transported, in block, to other parts of the world?

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And so we end right where we began – more petrol on the flames of division. Textbook character assassination. “Proto-industrial colonial style economy”, ‘furious industrialists’, “old este privilege”, that sort of thing. Surely this is all the language of the past.

What for pity’s sake is a family to say once they realize that for the sake of ‘unity’ and the blind assumption that doing anything is always better than doing nothing, they are now obliged to turn over their quarry to the state? What would you say?

Look at it this way, North West Tuscany is far far far too beautiful, ancient and regal to let this pesky issue ruin the quality of life for its residents. Someone, I don’t know who it is, they don’t at this point, but at some time in the near future someone will connect the dots, make the calls, hear me out and then, together, we can begin to roll back the tide of public opinion by actually turning what is now a seemingly unsolvable problem, into a win win, win win win situation. Please, marble industry, don’t waste a minute, let’s get started – we’ve actually got a lot to do.

Please call me: 970 319 1070. email martincooneystonesculptor@gmail.com. Drop a message in the comment box below, or take up the offer I made earlier and stop by at THE KMJ COONEY GALLERY 111 Suite D, Aspen, Colorado where you’ll be able to see and touch the sculpture, and I’ll be able to convince you that there is far more to this seemingly madcap idea than you think. Much more. In fact, the more questions you have for me, the better I will be able to inform you of the complete sanity of my plan.

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Thanks for visiting martincooney.com

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