As a designer of homes, I am always looking at the quality of solid stone surfaces. To be fair, I can spend hours researching, looking at, touching and imagining how a piece of stone would impact my designs. And marble is a perennial favourite.
While planning a recent trip to Tuscany, I decided that it was high time to visit the area of Carrara and its famous marble mines.
A brief history
The Apuan Alps are characterized by the presence of an immense vein of marble, which is famous the world over, and whose mining, some historians argue, dates back to 155 BC. It was on this date that the first monument was created of Carrara marble – a gravestone dedicated to Marco Maracello, the remnants of which were found among the ruins of Luni. Hence the claim that the origins of marble mining and processing dates back to the Romanisation of the Apuan area. In fact, the list of Roman-era structures and monuments made of Carrara marble include, among others, the Pantheon, the Pyramid of Cestius, the Trojan’s Forum, and the Temple of Jupiter.
Emperor Augustus was reported to have claimed: ‘I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.’
A great portion of Italian art history owes its centuries-old fame to the marble quarried in the Apuan Alps at Carrara. This may be attributed in part, to the great number of famous sculptors and architects that travelled to Carrara to personally choose the slabs of marble for their respective endeavours. Among them Nicola Pisano, who travelled to Carrara in 1265 to choose his marble for the creation of the Pulpit of Siena Cathedral, and later Michelangelo, who sourced marble for his ‘David’.
Carrara marble continues to be a popular choice for architects to this day. Here are some modern applications of Carrara marble.
Oslo Opera House
Operahuset is located in the Bjorvika neighbourhood of central Oslo, a the head of the Oslofjord. The angled exterior surfaces of the building are covered in Carrara marble and white granite, which make it appear to rise from the water like an iceberg.
The Robba Fountain, which sits in the Town Square of Ljubljana, Slovenia, was made in 1751 by Italian sculptor Francesco Robba. The sculptural part of the fountain is of Carrara marble, the obelisk is of local Lesno Brdo marble, and the pool is of a local limestone.
Harvard Medical School
In 1906, the school was moved to Longwood Avenue in Boston, where the five original, Carrara marble-faced buildings of the quadrangle were built.
The Akshardham Mandir temple is made entirely of Rajasthani pink sandstone and Carrara marble. Based on traditional Hindu architectural guidelines, this temple makes no use of ferrous metal. Thus, it has no support from steel or concrete.
The staircase of Glasgow City Chambers is made of Carrara marble.
Brief History of Carrara Marble Extraction
The Romans named the Carrara marble ‘marmor lunensis’ or marble of Luni, after the name of the port of Luni, from which the marble was shipped.
The extraction work, mainly manual, was performed by a work force constituted largely of convicts and forced slaves. The first ‘miners’ exploited the natural fissures of the rock, where fig wood wedges were inserted and inflated with water, so that the natural expansion of the wood ultimately caused the detachment of the block from the mountain.
For blocks of a fixed size, usually 2 m thick, the Romans would hammer in metallic chisels. After continuous pounding on the chisels, the block would finally separate from the mountain.
The use of explosives became a wide-spread extraction technique during the 18th century. Aside from the obvious dangers to worker safety, this method generated a massive accumulation of ‘ravaneti’ or debris, making this extraction method inefficient and costly.
The real revolution of marble extraction occurred at the end of the 19th century with the invention of the helical wire, and the penetrating pulley. The main elements of this technique are a 4-6 millimeter diameter steel wire, combined with the abrasive action of silica sand, and water as a lubricant.
The continuous loop of helical wire moves at a speed of 5-6 meters per second and cuts the marble at a rate of 20 cm per hour. The use of this technique almost completely substituted the use of explosives, and imprinted a visible change in the landscape. The mountains began to be literally cut with precision, creating a surreal landscape of huge flights of steps and platforms, called ‘piazzali di cava’.
The helical extraction technique morphed into diamond wire sawing, which is still in use in Carrara today.
My tour of the Fantiscritti Cave
The day of our arrival dawned grey and rainy, and as our car made its way up the Apuan mountains that house the marble, more rain began to fall. Reaching the entrance of the Fantiscritti cave, we were able to choose between two different tours. One offered a jeep tour of the exterior mines located on the side of several mountains, and the other offered a guided tour inside the only interior marble mine in Carrara.
Due to the heavy rain and lack of visibility, the jeep tour was not the best choice, as the views would have been negligible. However, here are some photos of the area on a sunny day.
We opted for the internal tour of the Fantiscritti cave. As we waited for the appointed hour, the air suddenly crackled with extremely loud, explosive sounds, and the earth rumbled beneath my feet. Yikes, I thought and reached for Alvi. What the ? Dynamite, Alvi says. Eeekkk……
While waiting for the tour to begin, I snooped around the working mine to see what I could see.
This row of lined up marble slabs waiting for transport, satisfies some OCD part of me….
Creamy, white, marble goodness……. !
Finally, we were loaded into several SUV’s and we entered the dark tunnel, that would take us 600 meters into the exact centre of the mountain. The exit was 600 meters away, and we were 600 meters under the mountain – in the heart of it, surrounded by marble.
As we arrive at our destination, the air cracks again, and the earth rumbles substantially, and I grab for Alvi. Holy sh–! And then the power goes out, and the clanging and boring sounds stop. And it is very still and very dark. And I am finding it a little difficult to breathe.
The tour guide quickly turns on the headlights and directs us all to evacuate the mine, and I happily agree. Once back outside the mine, she calls the engineer to find out the problem and is told that the dynamite explosions have knocked out the power, but that the problem should be rectified shorty. Within a short time, we are back in the trucks and back in the mine.
While the guide begins her description of the inner workings of the mine, the loud jackhammering and boring machines continue.
The restricted area – the actively functioning part of the mine.
The Kaufman – a German engineered saw with a 3 meter long blade that cuts 3 m long slabs.
The Kaufmann – from another perspective.
Metal ‘pillows’ that are inserted into the fissures, then filled with water. As the water expands the pillow, the fissures in the marble become wider, so that larger extraction machinery can be inserted to separate the slab from the mountain.
Alvis – standing in the largest chamber of the cave, called ‘La Cattedrale’.
A 51 ton slab of marble, worth an estimated 51,000 Euros.
The temperature in the cave is perfect for storing Prosecco….
On Christmas Eve, 1995, an imperfect chunk of marble was extracted and it left this impression. The miners decided that it was an impression of Madonna and Child. Since it was uncovered, not one accident has occurred in this mine.
If you ever find yourself in Italy, near Cinque Terre or Lucca, do yourself a favour, and take a day trip up to Carrara and check out the marble mines!