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The Majestic Marble Quarries of Northern Italy

The quarries themselves, as these photos by Luca Locatelli attest, are their own isolated world: beautiful, bizarre and severe. It is a self-contained universe of white, simultaneously industrial and natural, where men with finger-nubs stand on scenic cliffs conducting tractors like symphony orchestras. Over the centuries, the strange geology of the marble mountains has produced an equally strange human community — strange even by the standards of Italy’s fractious regional subcultures. The people there live in white towns, breathing white dust, speaking their own dialects, nursing their own politics. There is a proud history, in and around Carrara, of anarchism and revolt.

Although the tools of extraction have changed over the centuries — oxen and chisels have given way to tractors and diamond-toothed saws — the fact remains: Large pieces of white stone, cut and hauled to distant places, function as a sign of wealth and power. Like gold, marble is a special form of embedded wealth, visually striking and deeply impractical. Follow Italy’s marble, and you follow the major movements of global wealth in human history, from ancient Rome to Victorian London to 20th-century New York.

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A workshop at the Campolonghi marble company, which makes floors.

Credit
Luca Locatelli/Institute, for The New York Times

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A truck loaded with a 20-ton block of marble winding its way down a steep quarry.

Credit
Luca Locatelli/Institute, for The New York Times

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A cargo ship in the Carrara port carrying 106 marble blocks — in aggregate weighing something like 2,000 tons.

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Luca Locatelli/Institute, for The New York Times

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The Studi d’Arte Cave Michelangelo, a training facility for young sculptors.

Credit
Luca Locatelli/Institute, for The New York Times

Today Italy’s marble tends to move farther than it did before — not just 200 miles to Rome or 700 miles to London but 3,000 miles to Abu Dhabi and 4,000 miles to Mumbai and 5,000 miles to Beijing. The centers of wealth have shifted, as they always will, and the marble follows, as it always has. The last decade has coincided with feverish marble-based construction, in particular, around Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, the Saudi Binladin Group, one of the region’s major construction firms, bought a large stake in one of Carrara’s largest quarries. The famous white stone is now used not in small batches for art but in bulk for huge building projects: mosques, palaces, malls, hotels.

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