Carrara: Following in the footsteps of Michelangelo
Another incredible invitation, the privilege to go with the patrons of Syracuse University of Florence, and Professor Rab Hatfield, one of the foremost experts on Michelangelo, to the marble quarries of Carrara.
First of all, Carrara is a ‘must see’. For it’s beauty, the magnificent mountains, that are stunningly similar to snow-capped peaks and glaciers, except all of the ‘white’ is marble, and to see go to see the raw material which gave rise to the treasures we cherish in Florence.
Rab, took us first to Pietrasanta to meet up with the charming and eccentric John Taylor. A Brit who came to Italy 15 years ago as winner of the Premio Romano, a sculptor that never left and now resides in Pietrasanta whcre he works with marble, as well as teaching both there and in Florence at SACI.
He took us around Pietrasanta, to see the extraordinary frescoes by Botero in the little Renaissance church, and then to the workshop where he and several other sculptors work in marble. An incredible sight to actually see the tools, methods, and magnitude of toil it requires to chisel beauty and vision out of rock.
The ‘coop’ where they sculpt is owned by the Barsanti family which has been there since the 18th century. The family were sculptors but now, they rent out studios, as well as being a resource for antique marbles, primarily sold for restoration and repairs. In addition, the family sells completed sculptures. In the ‘sales garden’ they had replicas of famous Italian classics. There’s a ‘Donatello David’, some Roman soldiers, etc. But the most fascinating and shocking information of the whole day, was when John pointed out that these ‘replicas’ all came from China!! And when John directed our attention to the details, for instance, that David’s tummy looked more like a Chinese’s and that the Roman soldiers were remarkably reminiscent of a Samurai, it became quite evident, this was true.
But why?? For the same reason, many of the leather jackets in Italy are made in China, as well as the clothes, textiles, and Gucci purses…… because it’s cheaper. The prices for the Chinese “Italian” sculptures are 1/3 of the price. Non ci posso crederlo!! I can’t believe it. What’s next? Is there nothing sacred?
After Pietrasanta, we went to Carrara. I had been there before to drive around and see the enormity of the marble quarries, but this time we went inside. In Fantiscritti (named because of writings that were found, that seemed primitive, so they called them infant writings), we were given a tour by Francesca, whose family owns the marble ‘concession’ inside the mountain. Francesca, takes you in a shuttle, deep into the depths of the mountain, and you get to the center of an enormous cave (much, much larger than the Duomo!), which has been all dug out. This is where most of the Carrara white marble comes from.
I learned that there are two grades of marble, the kind that is inside this cave, which is much harder, much more compressed, and much heavier. This marble is used for building, floors, counter-tops, etc. Everything, but for sculpting (except some contemporary sculptors are using this grade, too) The ‘statuary’ marble, which is a much purer white, is found in the outside quarries.
The enormity of the cave, how they cut this huge blocks out of the mountain, how they test the marble, to find out if the block is solid (by hitting it and seeing if the sound echoes to the end- because if there is a crack the sound won’t travel), all of this was overwhelmingly interesting, fascinating, adventurous and fun. For instance, did you know that marble is calcium caltrate….it is made from bones, actually seashells, because what is now marble on the inside of these caves and on mountainsides, was previously (like a long, long, long time ago), the ocean floor!!
If you go through the cave, which sometimes you can arrange with Francesca, or if not, you can drive around to Ravacchione, the outside quarry which is where Michelangelo supposedly got his marble. In these quarries, you can see, and even pick up and take home (it’s legal) small pieces of statuary marble.
You can go to Fantiscitti on your own, and see this cave by calling Francesca at: 339 7657470. She charges a small admission. (great outing for kids, too)