Demolishing Michelangelo's mountain

Head of David by Michelangelo Image copyright Getty Images

When Roman emperors, Michelangelo and Mussolini needed the finest marble they all knew where to go - Carrara in Tuscany. But some are worried about the future of the quarries that have been used for thousands of years, writes Antonia Quirke.

I'm standing on a mountain watching a river of cream snake its way past my feet. All around me are quarrymen covered in cream - boots caked, trucks spattered - removing great slabs of precious marble from the surrounding cliff-face with diamond-edged cutters. Freakishly heavy summer rain turns the calcium carbonate dust left behind into a waterfall of cafe au lait - a snaking tributary of gleaming ointment.

This is the frontier region of the Lunigiana on the north-western tip of Tuscany - a place of chestnut forests full of wolf and boar, of green, swimmable pools in the Magra River, and the dramatic Carrara peaks, where marble has been mined for more than 2,000 years.

The quarries are vast - Tolkienian. "Its walls stood high and white above the plain…" wrote Tolkien of the great realm of Gondolin in the Book of Lost Tales.

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Once, Roman slaves toiled here with picks and wedges removing marble for the building of the Pantheon and Trajan's column. In the 19th Century, the quarries became the focus for the Italian anarchist movement (the stone workers have always been great self-organisers) and some of the quarries are now run by co-operatives.

But today, the vista is of valuable pale rock being sliced away by machines, a million tonnes a year for the luxury bathrooms of China and Dubai. There have been protests that the excavations are now ruinously thorough.

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Image caption Trajan's column in Rome depicts scenes from the Dacian Wars
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The work has always been dangerous. In the 1930s it took Mussolini's men six months to bring down one slab using ropes and pulleys.

Jobs here are passed almost exclusively from father to son, the heft and movement of the rock taught and felt minutely. I see quarrymen holding their palms against the rock face as though taking its temperature, as though it were living - some enormous beast.

It's a gesture that strikes me time and again here, but never more than when I meet 75-year-old Franco Barratini. Barratini owns the "Michelangelo Cave" - the very rare, palest seam of Carrara marble favoured by the artist himself, who would come here and personally select a block before having it hauled back to his studio.

In a workshop at the foot of the quarry lies a great unfinished replica of Michelangelo's David. The rumour is that it's being made to go up in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence to replace the damaged replica now standing there. The cost of this marble - 55 tonnes of it, from the very same seam that Michelangelo himself used to make the original David in 1501 - is inestimable. The quality of its white is so much more than that of newly-fallen snow. It makes me think of bones and shooting stars. Something that's stolen its colour from light.

Barratini runs his gnarled hands along David's neck. "I started working in a quarry when I was 12," he tells me. "When a young boy goes into a quarry he's nicknamed a bagascio, a prostitute. He's made to do the worst jobs. I dragged water, I dragged stone - I was a slave. I was the poorest kid on Earth." Beneath him, the chestnut forests of the Lunigiana envelop the steep hills leading to the coast.

The poet Shelley died in the bay of Lerici below us. One night in 1822, his wife Mary stood on the veranda of their villa in San Terenzo watching as the sea whipped into twisters, waiting for him to return from a boat trip. He never did. "The paper fell from me," she remembered later of the note sent to confirm his fate.

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After various battles and world wars scores of people migrated from the Lunigiana. They went to America mostly, although - they say - some tried to walk to England, not realising there was a sea in-between.

Inland, there are semi-abandoned villages wreathed in honeysuckle and elderflower, figs impaled on thorn bushes oozing their sap, drying for the winter, great fields of sage and buttercup, farms selling pies made from borage and pimpernel. People here still talk about werewolves and woodland spirits.

"How did you come to own this quarry?" I ask Barratini, but he is too enraptured by his statue to answer, patting its torso, almost crooning with pride. Barratini has about him - like many of the men in the quarry - the aura of being a survivor. Of having a unique strength, as though the marble were catching. "A man can do anything," he says, gesturing resolutely towards David's head. "I just came to see him."

Barratini walks away, body broad but bent and long-arthritic, past the river of cream that slows now and thins as the fierce rain subsides, twisting down through forests to the glistening sea.

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