Finding Italian Marble at Its Source: Carrara, Italy

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Finding Italian Marble at Its Source: Carrara, Italy
Story and photos by Debi Goodwin



A writer fascinated by rocks investigates a place where slabs of white marble come down from the mountains in Italy, going back to the days of Michelangelo.


Carrara travel

In the opening moments of James Bond's Quantum of Solace, there's a breakneck car chase across a rocky landscape, through narrow stone tunnels and up pitched rocky roads. The action is near impossible to follow because the scenery demands so much of our attention. The locations in James Bond movies are always spectacular—part of the eye candy that makes them so popular—and the stark marble quarries of Carrara, Italy, were an inspired choice for drama.

In the small village of Fantischritti that sits at the foot of the quarries, they take their James Bond fame in stride; it's just another chunk in their millenniums-old history.

Long before the movie, I'd wanted to go the quarries, ever since I'd stepped into a shop in Florence that sold small exquisite marble carvings, a step above the knock-off Davids and the painted carvings that fill the souvenir shops of Italian tourist cities. These carvings, so obviously done by hand with a creative spirit and true skill, were small works of art in themselves. The shop keeper told us the marble used in the carvings came from "the same quarry where Michelangelo got his stone."

Like all places one imagines but never gets to, it took on a mythical importance in my mind. It wasn't quite that I could picture the place—beyond a hole in the ground how can one imagine a quarry to be exciting? —but I felt that if I got there I would feel a connection to the great art of Italy and to the people who had toiled for it over the centuries.

quarry

"Quarry Tourism" won't ever grace glossy magazine covers, but I love rocks: being surrounded by them, standing on them, collecting them. My home is filled with rocks from the bottom of the Dead Sea, the cliff tops of the Colorado River, and the beaches of Mogadishu, Somalia. Rocks are permanent, unlike the fleeting moments and the fading memories of travel. They give me something to touch, to hold onto.


Into the Bare Mountains and Fantischritti
Finally, last summer, we escaped the mugginess and lineups of Rome, bypassed the wonders of Florence, and headed on the autostrada toward Genoa in our Italian rental car. In the distance, the mountains of the Apuan Alps looked snow covered but as we drove the secondary winding roads to Carrara they begin to reveal themselves as gashes, wounds in the mountain. Italy's statues, monuments, and a fair number of bathroom floors have been carved from their tops.

miner

Driving around sharp curves that left little room for descending trucks, I began to appreciate the human endeavor involved in moving mountains. Somewhere along the way, there must have been a sign to indicate the road had become one way but I must have missed it, so I drove through dark, curved, and very narrow tunnels smothered in decades of marble dust. I was terrified another car or truck would choose that moment to come the other way.

At Fantischritti, I could drive no further. The small village has an outpost feel, an aging California hippy vibe. There is none of the polish of other European towns, none of the grace of a village in southern Tuscany or on the nearby Liguarian coast. At the first curve into town someone has set stuffed figures dressed as quarrymen, complete with yellow hard hats, half way up the rock face. They sit with an empty bottle of beer looking like bad Halloween costumes.

Walking across the street to an outdoor museum, I heard nothing but Italian and German, so unlike the British and American English snippets heard in the lines to the galleries of Florence. The museum is a rinky-dink affair filled with rusty equipment and old gear stuck on boards. A man named Walter Danesi created the museum about thirty years ago to honor the quarrymen. Word is an aged Walter wanders through the museum but he wasn't around that day. Even in this humble museum there was a hint of both the artistry and the suffering of the quarries in the delicately carved oxen and the stone quarryman who hangs by a cable. With the real mountains behind him it's not hard to imagine what would happen if the cable snapped.

Beside the museum there's a shop filled with marble knick-knacks: fruit, bowls and ashtrays. It seems they send the good stuff to Florence and beyond. But behind the little main street, among the rubble of crates and garbage artistry reveals hard hat touritself again. In the backyards of studios carved pregnant women mingled with garbage and tools, a startlingly white nude reclined on shipping material.


A Tour in Hard Hats
There's a cave I could have visited but I wanted to go up further, to the very top were the real work is still being done. But since there is real work, there are real trucks and heavy machinery and no access for anyone without a hard hart and a purpose there. However, for ten euros I was able to go on a jeep tour up the narrow road that's been used by slaves, mules, trucks and Agent 007.




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Books from the Author:

Buy Citizens of Nowhere: From Refugee Camp to Canadian Campus at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Fishpond (Australia)