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 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.
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 itself 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.
The guide was a young Italian woman, with a fitness level that suggested a good share of mountain hiking and curly long hair that seemed to suit the wild environment. Over the sound of the engine she turned in the front seat to tell her six passengers proudly that she was the descendent of the region's quarrymen and relayed in Italian and then in English some of the region's two-thousand year-old history as if she had witnessed it herself. And her description did suggest that time had stood still in these mountains. From the Roman days when slaves used rudimentary methods of chiseling and hammering, the techniques to break off blocks of marble stayed largely the same until the last century when a Belgium engineer developed a method of cutting the marble with wire and water. I found it hard to listen as we drove. Dust circled the jeep; the driver sped on roads that dropped off dramatically to valleys of rock below.
At the top we stood in a working quarry. Behind us a sheer rock face loomed like a high rise or monolith. Heavy machinery sat idle like toy trucks waiting for a child to pick them up. Here, the young guide detailed the technological revolution in the 1980s that changed everything. Industrial diamonds were added to the wire, making cutting through the marble much easier and efficient. Mechanized machines work away at the cut, no slaves needed. Once a "bench" is split from the slope it is dropped as gently as a ton of marble can be dropped to the quarry floor before being cut into more manageable sizes that can be lifted on trucks and transported to the harbor.
The guide stood at the edge of a precipice pointing to the mountain tops around us. Each mountain's marble varies slightly in color, quantity, and value. I lost my concentration at that point in her explanation, imagining Michelangelo choosing his stone. Michelangelo once famously said: "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. " In Carrara, the image of Michelangelo is of a man who clambered over the quarry floors for hours before selecting blocks of the purest of whites.
When I returned my attention to the guide she was describing the licensing fees and taxes the companies who now haul marble from the mountain have to pay. The taxes are based on the variety of marble they carry. She said drivers are "supposed" to stop at stations along the road to show the kind of marble they have. They are "supposed" to declare on paper the value of the marble. She shrugged a little when she said "supposed to," as if no one could really expect them to follow the laws.
A Marble Quarry Pecking Order
As she continued her explanations in Italian I wandered away and along the road as far as I could. No one stopped me. The work was done for the day and the air was perfectly clear and alpine fresh. I stopped and picked up pieces of stone, whiter than I have ever seen before and stuffed them in my pockets. One of the German tourists saw me and took that as his license to do the same.
When I wandered back the guide was speaking English again, describing how nothing goes to waste: the blocks go to construction and sculptors, small pieces to craftsmen, and what is left - the pebbles and cracked stones - is ground into dust sold for road construction and toothpaste. With the stones in the pockets of tourists there would be a little less in the dust bags.
At the last stop, I was able to stand on the edge and get the big picture. Here the guide's stories came to life. Below me was the drop down the mountain and the long road to the sea. In Roman times, the slaves not only cut the blocks; they hauled them down the mountains on waxed wooden riders so they could be sent by ship to Rome for the glories of the Pantheon and Trajan's column. By the Renaissance, there were oxen and donkeys that bore the weight. But still as late as the Second World War, there were no trucks that could do the job. When Mussolini ordered a piece of marble weighing more than 300 tons be brought to Rome for an obelisk in his honor, it was the quarrymen who cut it who got it safely on a boat. The words "Mussolini Dux" remain carved in that obelisk—the only remaining tribute to the Fascist leader in Rome—while the men who took eight months to get that single piece to the sea are long forgotten except by their ancestors here in the mountains.
Standing there, one thousand meters above the sea, looking down past villages and winding roads to the distant water, I realize I have come to a deeper appreciation of the wonders of Rome and Florence than any museum had ever given me. Questions about the human cost of art and monuments floated in the air. How do we weigh the magnificence of art against the hard, hard lives of the people who worked these quarries? What is the artist without the laborer? I went to the mountain and found no answers but I have not stopped asking the questions and will never look at the stone work of Italy the same again.
Debi Goodwin is the author of the non-fiction book, "Citizens of Nowhere," published in hardcover by Doubleday Canada and in paperback by Anchor Canada. She also blogs about scooters at www.scootergirlinternational.blogspot.ca.
Heretics on the Cathedral in Como, Italy by Samuel Jay Keyser
Where Queens Come for a Fight by Donald Strachan
Harvesting My Solitary Olive Tree in Marche, Italy by Jillian Dickens
The Chaos and Grace of a Scooter Ride in Vietnam by Debi Goodwin
See other Europe travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: