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Carrara Marble: A History Written in Stone

What do the buildings of Harvard Medical School, Michelangelo's David, and lardo di Colonnata have in common? The answer lies deep inside the Apuan Alps in northern Tuscany, above the city of Carrara. Here, a prized marble - bright white with undulating soft blue-grey veins - has been quarried for more than 2,000 years.

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

It was the Ancient Romans who first used this flawless limestone to build such lasting monuments as the Pantheon and Trajan's Column. Over the following millennia, the marble was so intensely extracted from over 650 quarries dotting the mountain slopes that the area has produced more stone than any other area on earth. More than half of Carrara's quarries are now either abandoned or exhausted of their supply, and the most prized grade of Carrara marble, the pure white statuario beloved by artists and architects during the Renaissance, was completely depleted by the beginning of the 20th century.

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

However, less-esteemed but still prized grades of veined Carrara marble are still extracted by the millions of tons a year, and used in building and public works in Italy and across the globe. Driving across the Apuan Alps, it's easy to mistake the vast swathes of bright white mountainsides as glaciers, but upon closer inspection you realize that they are enormous open-air quarries...the tip of the iceberg, as there are equally enormous underground quarries, where caverns the size of cathedrals have been excavated over centuries to build, well, cathedrals.

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore (Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We recently toured the marble quarries of Carrara, and were pleasantly surprised at how fascinating the day trip turned out to be. Carrara is on the Tuscan coast - an easy trip from the Cinque Terre, Lucca, or Florence - and from the mountain peaks above there are beautiful views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Our expert driver was not only a licensed guide, but also a descendant of a long line of quarry workers. As we enjoyed the ride up the winding mountain roads, he began to tell us about the history of this iconic stone.

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We were relieved to be with a professional driver once we saw how narrow the mountain roads were, and how tricky it was to navigate past the lumbering trucks and machinery, but we were especially thrilled with the access he was able to give us as a local guide. We stopped at the quarry where Michelangelo would often come in person to select blocks of statuario for his masterpieces, and then took a former train tunnel deep into the bowels of the mountain to visit an underground quarry. Our guide explained the evolution of the technology of quarrying stone, marked by the watershed moment of the invention of the diamond saw, and the history of extracting towering blocks of marble from the mountain.

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore (Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We saw sculptors - some robot and some human - carving large statues out of a single block of limestone - and, with hard hats securely donned, were escorted into areas of the quarry that are usually off limits to visitors for a closer look at both the technical and artistic side of this industry. By the end of the visit, we were convinced that this is a experience that can be truly unforgettable...with an expert guide.

carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Other take-aways:

  • This is a great experience for kids: lots of trucks, heavy machinery, and jaw-dropping mountain caverns
  • Bring sunglasses! This white marble is blinding in the sun.
  • Schedule your visit for the morning, when it's cooler and the quarries are in full operation.


carrara-marble-tour-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Related Links:
Lardo di Colonnata: Fatback at its Best
The Best Beaches for Daytrips from Rome, Florence, and Venice
Lucca


Contributor: Rebecca Winke

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