Why should you consider a visit to the marble cave in Carrara, when you are in Tuscany?
If you are into art, for example Renaissance sculptures, you should definitely come to the marble cave and see in person the raw materials before being turned into fine pieces that are admired over thousand years. If you are amateur to sculptures, like me, and wonder how hard it required Michelangelo to shape the hardest rock into a vivid man form named David, you should definitely head into the quarry in Carrara and understand how the excavation works yourself.
Locating in the northwest Tuscany, in contact with borders of Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, Massa-Carrara is a Tuscan province that is easily overlooked by tourists. I was lucky enough to be taken to a trip there, and had a deeper understand of the two thousand year old marble quarry!
Our marble themed trip started with a visit to the Marble Museum in Carrara, where not only showcases the history of the quarry, also displays all kinds of marble and what they can do in decorating architectures.
More than two thousand years ago, a group of Romans arrived this area (they were retreating, if I recall it right) and accidentally found the compressed, shining hard rocks here. Then they stayed, built a city named Luni (around 11km from Carrara), and started excavating these rocks. Just like that, the birth of the marble quarry that we are visiting today was given.
Nowadays Carrara has become the world trade center for marbles, supplying huge amount of marbles to different countries. Besides that, Carrara is also an important station for processing marbles imported from foreign quarries. That means marble dealers from other countries come to Carrara and take the semi-processed marbles back to their countries; also foreign quarries send their own raw materials to Carrara to be processed and manufactured here. And for these reasons, architects and interior designers come to Carrara to choose marbles from wide selections for all kinds of projects.
Oxidized marbles excavated by the ancient Romans 2,000 years ago displaying outside the marble museum! Imagine if we leave Michelangelo’s David outdoor, it would turn into this color as well. For this reason a replicas was made, and the original moved into a museum.
And how heavy is marble? 1 cubic meter (1x1x1 meter) is about 3 tons.
There are many kinds of marbles all over the world, and only the white ones are from Carrara. So if you happen to see other colored marbles in Carrara, it means they are imported from other country to be processed here.
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A white marble surface nowadays has become the perfect background for food photographers, or instagramers who are into #OnTheTable pictures, doesn’t it?!
After the tour in the museum, I couldn’t help to ask our tour guide Umberto: “but given this huge amount of excavating, how many years is left before it (the quarry) is empty?”
“Follow me to the next stop, then I will explain it to you.” replied him.
After a 2-minute drive under the dark tunnel following the museum tour, we found ourselves inside the quarry! Yes, inside the marble mountain!
In the heart of a 1,000 meter height marble mountain. From where we stood, 500 meters below was all marbles!
“There are in total 180 billion tons of marbles available here. The real massive excavation only started during the past 100 years. Last year, 400 million tons were excavated.” Umberto told us.
With work sight in a near distance, we were explained how the machine works to cut marbles.
In order to cut something hard, you need something even harder. Diamond is used for this purpose. To excavate one bench of marble (2×2 meter), a diamond wire would need to keep running for: 1 day on the right, 1 day on the left, then another 2-3 days on the back, so in total around 1 week to get the job done.
“Wow, then what about Michelangelo?! In that age when no electronic equipment was available, how could he make a cube of raw material into a fine sculpture?!”
We stopped at Monfroni studio to discover the behind-the-scene of a sculpture artist’s working space.
Michele Monfroni, an sculpture artist whose family has been working in generations in Carrara on marble sculpture, showed us how it was to work on marbles. To shape a piece of marble into a specific form, there are two popular ways to do it: if it is not a huge piece, and you are an experienced sculpture artist, you can directly work on it and adjust during grinding; or if it is something requiring precise measurement and planning in advance, the artist would first make a mode, then using measure equipments during the making to make sure everything would turn out right.
No matter which method an artist chooses, he/ she still needs to grind the marble. With the help of modern devices, nowadays the sculpture artists are enjoying an easier life by using electronic drill. Even though it is still not a funny job. I was given the opportunity to try it out, and truth was I couldn’t even hold the drill tight!
How did Michelangelo managed to create David back in the 16th century all by hand? Either he had patience to grind and polish everything slowly and peacefully over thousands of nights, or he had super strong arms to shape David out within a “short” period. Either way he was a genius!!!
Should you visit Carrara while in Tuscany?
If you are visiting Tuscany the first time, and you’ve planned to visit all those well-known popular places (Florence, Siena, Chianti, San Gimignano, etc.), do all of them, and enjoy the classic scenes of the region. But if you are here for the 2nd/ 3rd time, or you have a spare day before heading to Cinque Terre, it is worth stopping by and spending half day just to see the marble quarry.
Or like I mentioned in the beginning of the post, if you are into sculpture (Not necessarily an Art student. Just curious enough know some history and characters of the material used for David), it is highly recommended to see and touch yourself the marbles, so as to understand and appreciate more those pieces displayed in the museum.
Local travel experts, who can add value to your trip to Carrara
As long as I prefer to travel with my own people, a private tour guide is always a good idea to add value to the trips. In Carrara we met CTTours, who gave us a well-explained (in English and Italian) and organized “Marble Theme Tour”: from the museum, then deep into the quarry, ended with a marble studio workshop.
Private Tour Guide:
Umberto Cattani (CTTours)
Marble Cave Tour
Take the off-road trip climbing the quarry. You will get an amazing view of the mountain of marble!
Thanks again to the Massa-Carrara Chamber of Commerce, who sponsored this great adventure!