A wild ride through Italy’s breathtaking (and controversial) marble quarries
CARRARA, Italy — Make sure you come prepared.
You need sunglasses or the bright sun reflecting off the towering white marble walls that surround you in the mountains overlooking Carrara will blind you. You also need sturdy shoes for support as you walk over a landscape of crushed marble. And you need faith in your fellow man, or at least the young woman driving the 4-by-4 Land Rover off-road through steep, narrow paths that cling to the high mountainside, mostly without guardrails.
This is Cave di Marmo Tours, one of several companies that bring tourists up into the famed marble quarries above the city of Carrara, where Michelangelo selected his marble to sculpt his masterpieces.
My wife and I visited this beautifully gritty city, just 39 miles north of Pisa, in July looking for family. My grandfather worked as a stonecutter in Carrara, most likely in these quarries, before moving to Boston in 1911. His wife and two young children followed three years later. Although I had visited Carrara two other times — the first time I was 9 years old and met a great aunt — we lost our connection to this side of the family and I never ventured up into the quarries.
I e-mailed the tour company the night before and got a quick response from lead tour guide Gabriele Giuntoni, who told me there was room for my wife and me for the roughly 1½ hour tour at 11 a.m. We chose to drive 15 minutes to the meeting point up the mountain rather than get picked up in town, which would have cost twice as much as the 20 euros per person fee.
The meeting point is easy to miss, as it’s a small trailer on the side of the road. A better landmark is the bar and souvenir shop next door and that’s where we waited for Gabriele, who soon showed up with two 4-by-4 vehicles and another driver, a young woman who appeared to be in her 20s. Both of them chain-smoked, probably to calm their nerves from all the driving they do in the rough terrain.
Rocky ride near cliffs is not for the faint of heart
Gabriele narrated the drive to the marble quarries in both Italian and English from the first vehicle, transmitting his voice via radio into the second vehicle. The second vehicle we rode in rose and fell and jerked sideways as our driver tightly gripped and manipulated the stick shift over rocky terrain. We climbed higher up the mountain on narrow paths of white stone and dust following Gabriele through tight twists and turns that came dangerously close to unguarded cliffs.
The views were spectacular, but my wife and I looked away. Instead, I pointed my smartphone video camera toward the breathtaking views we passed at dizzying heights, while I looked straight ahead at the solid ground in front of us. Finally we veered to the right and drove down into a marble quarry. When we got out of the vehicle, we looked straight up for several hundred feet at marble walls, created by the mining of marble over thousands of years.
Gabriele, who is well-educated in Carrara’s marble history, told us that the marble that is missing at the top of this precipice was probably harvested more than 1,000 years ago and that where we were standing is where they are harvesting the marble in 2018.
Marble has been mined here for centuries
Carrara marble — prized for its color and soft density, which makes it ideal for sculpting — has been taken out of the Apuan Alps here for more than 2,000 years.
Just about everything, from Ancient Rome to today’s modern kitchen countertops, has been built with it. And although all of this mining has put only a small dent in these mountains of “white gold,” some are worried that new excavating technologies combined with a new thirst for the stone from the developing Arab world are destroying the landscape at an accelerated rate along with the region’s natural and cultural heritage.
New mining techniques increased the extraction of marble as well as the amount of broken stones and debris generated in the process. This debris used to be dumped along the sides of the mountains but large companies in the early 1990s discovered this waste was extremely profitable if cleaned and ground into a fine powder.
Gabriele told us this fine powder, calcium carbonate, is used as filler in a variety of products, including toothpaste, cosmetics, paint, paper, and even new medicines for osteoporosis.
Not many benefit from booming industry
You’d think that the high value placed on this marble would be a boon to the local and regional economy, but Gabriele explained that the quarries are privately owned, passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years, and about a third of them pay no taxes or fees.
He explained that in 1751, Maria Teresa d’Este, the duchess of Massa and Carrara, granted local families the right to own and mine the quarries without having to pay taxes. Her scheme was that she owned the road to the port and could collect high tolls on all marble that left the region.
She was able to amass a fortune without having to take any risk, he said. And he added that since then, the people of Carrara have suffered. The town of 63,000 people is one of the poorest in Tuscany and has more debt than most other regions of Italy.
The poverty here is not apparent to visitors who walk its marble sidewalks admiring it’s pastel-colored buildings with carved marble adornments or marvel at the artistry behind the marble statues and fountains that dot the city landscape.
A beautifully gritty hotbed for anarchy
However, the abundance of graffiti is a sign that many here are disgruntled and makes one wonder if revolution is in the air.
Carrara has a history of anarchy, as a political philosophy that grew out of labor battles between stonecutters and quarry owners in the late 1800s. An international anarchist conference in 1968 in Carrara led to the formation of the International of Anarchist Federations. And even though Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were each born hundreds of miles from here, the city has a piazza dedicated in their name.
Friendly locals help with family search
Although there aren’t many tourists here, those that come are warmly received at restaurants and shops. We even approached strangers on the street asking them for help in locating family members, and they were sympathetic and tried to help us. A woman who worked in a souvenir shop on the colorful Piazza Alberica said she knew my great aunt Fernanda Agostini, who I visited in 1968, and I knew she wasn’t kidding when she mentioned the school where my aunt taught.
When we showed her a family tree we assembled from conversations with cousins I know in the United States and some online research we did, she pointed to a name she recognized and said that family owns a restaurant just around the corner. She encouraged us to go visit there, saying they were a wonderful family and that the restaurant was very good.
We went the next day to Ristorante Roma, and after a delicious lunch of homemade macaroni and Caprese salad, I got up the nerve to ask the owner in Italian if he knew anyone on my family tree. He pointed to one name and said the man was his uncle, confirming we were related by marriage but not by blood. Still, we laughed and called each other “il cugino.”
The restaurant is located in the same piazza as the statue of Guissepe Garibaldi, the general who helped unify Italy. My grandfather Garibaldi Giromini was named after him.
I asked Gabriele if records were kept of marble workers, noting that my grandfather worked in the marble industry here before emigrating to the United States in 1911. He threw up his hands and said this wasn’t unusual. He said everyone in Carrara once worked in the marble industry and that everyone in Carrara is still connected, for better or worse, to this stone and its uncertain future.