14 settembre 2023
by Alessandro Galiani

The white gold of Carrara


Carrara is a crossroads between Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia, where a strange dialect is spoken, Carrarino. It’s not Tuscan, but rather Apuan: a rough, peasant language. They call the city "white gold" because of its marble, the flawless, immortal stone that for two thousand years has provided the raw material for the most important monuments and some of the most beautiful sculptures of Western civilization. The Romans, who were the first to quarry this glossy, valuable, gray-veined, delicate, and elegant marble, called them Apuan Ligurians, such a proud people that the Romans had to deport them en masse to break their will. 

The people of Massa and Carrara are still divided, especially since Massa took the name of capital and all the services from Carrara, which until the early twentieth century was its more beautiful, richer and more famous neighbor. In short, people in these parts are always struggling against the harshness of nature on which every fortune depends, because although the marble is beautiful, it is certainly not fertile, and the mountain often takes more than it gives.

Quarrymen are men who, for centuries, have been used to digging, breaking through mountains, cutting rocks with rudimentary tools, tied to ropes like mountaineers: hard, dangerous work, because of the shrapnel that comes flying from every angle, the landslides and the marble dust that settles in their lungs and turns them to stone.

It’s not like in the past when over 10,000 workers were employed in the quarries to extract the marble. It was like that for centuries, from the time of the Romans until the 1970s, with the advent of the automobile.There are now about 100 quarries in the Massa-Carrara basin, and about 500 workers in the province work these pits, using huge bulldozers, chain cutters, diamond wire saws, and cranes capable of lifting blocks of marble weighing dozens of tons to heights of several meters. In addition to these quarrymen, there are another 400 companies involved in processing the soil. They employ 2,000 to 2,500 workers.

In short, in 30 years, the world of marble has completely changed: the entire supply chain is no longer limited to quarrying, but also to mining. The majority of the mined stone is not used for carvings and is no longer a source of materials for local artisans.It may go to Asia, or it may be reduced to a paste and end up in toothpaste, paper, and dozens of other products.

 In 30 years the world of marble has completely changed: the entire supply chain is no longer limited to quarrying, but also to mining

This is the calcium carbonate business. A business dominated by the Swiss multinational Omya, which owns a large industrial plant in Carrara and produces this marble dust. Also, since 2014, the family of Osama Bin Laden, the former leader of al-Qaeda, has controlled much of the marble extraction in Carrara through Cpc Marble, a Cyprus-based company that bought the company that controls Marmi Carrara and holds the concession for one-third of the quarries in the Apuan Alps.

The deal cost the Bin Ladens 45 million euros, roughly the same amount that Saudi soccer club Al-Hilal paid Lazio for Serbian midfielder Sergej Milinković-Savić. In short, the marbles of Carrara, boasting over 2,000 years of art and history, are now part of a huge global business, and the city of Carrara, while remaining the marble capital of the world, is ever less the keeper of its white gold, much of which ends up under the heading of "chemicals", transformed into calcium carbonate, while the portion destined for works of art is almost negligible.

The Bin Ladens continue to quarry marble in blocks in Carrara, but then use robots to process it, mostly in China, for use in the palaces, villas, and mosques they build around the world. “The lion's share of raw marble ends up in China and, to a lesser extent, India, while lower quality marble is exported to Mediterranean countries," explains Massimo Marcesini, researcher at the ISR, Tuscany’s research institute. Many of Carrara's marble entrepreneurs have moved to Asia, where demand is high, and they too operate a bit like the Bin Ladens.

A number of historical firms have remained in Carrara, the most important of which is the two hundred year old Studio Nicoli, whose buildings occupy more than half of the large Piazza XXVII Aprile, where in 1878 the Nicoli family moved their workshops, offices, guest quarters, family home and warehouses. The founder of Studio Nicoli in 1836 was Tito, a quarrier and sculptor, whose work was continued by his son Carlo, a sculptor and marble entrepreneur, who in 1878 built the home workshop in Piazza XXVII Aprile, where he employed dozens of workers and produced statues and ornaments. He put a marble face on much of Risorgimento Italy and exported statues and architecture all over Europe, to the East Indies, Bangkok, then onto Australia, and Manila, but above all to Spain and South America, in close contact with members of the Nicoli family in Madrid.

It was this family who inherited the great artistic tradition of Carrara marble, the tradition of Michelangelo, who probably wrote the most glorious pages of history in this field that combines art, industry and luxury.

Over a period of more than 30 years, Michelangelo often spent months at a time in the quarries above Carrara in the Apuan Alps, where he personally selected the blocks of marble from which he would sculpt many of his works, meeting one by one the dirty-handed quarrymen, stonecutters and transporters with whom he did business and paid handsomely. Pope Leo X, a Medici, forced him to purchase marble from the nearby Medici quarry of Pietrasanta, but he preferred Carrara, although relations with the Carrara quarrymen were often strained and difficult. In 1505, to find the marble he needed to carve the statues for the mausoleum of Julius II at St. Peter's, Michelangelo stayed in Carrara for eight months and hauled dozens of "carrate" (a measure of marble equal to the amount of stone needed to fill a cart drawn by two oxen).

Over a period of more than 30 years, Michelangelo often spent months at a time in the quarries above Carrara in the Apuan Alps, where he personally selected the blocks of marble from which he would sculpt many of his works, meeting one by one the dirty-handed quarrymen, stonecutters and transporters with whom he did business and paid handsomely

In the contract, Michelangelo specified that the marbles must be white and hairless, that is, with no cracks. The quantity of marble was so great that the quarrymen created a company just to service the sculptor and built him a road from the mountains down to the valley, where these tons of stone were hauled to Rome. All this marble would end up piled up in St. Peter's Square until the death of Julius II in 1515, when his successor, Leo X, stopped paying Michelangelo for the tomb of a former pontiff and ordered him instead to think about a design for the church of San Lorenzo in Florence, which would require, among other things, that he source marble in the Medici territory of Versilia, on Mount Altissimo, where Michelangelo would no longer be as comfortable as he was in Carrara.

Julius II's heir, Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, then asked the sculptor to fulfill the contract for which he had already been handsomely paid by his uncle, the Pope, and to complete the mausoleum of Julius II in Rome, giving him seven years to complete it. The undertaking was titanic and, of course, fell through, so between 1526 and 1532 the original design was scaled down from 22 to 10 statues, including the giant Moses, no longer to be placed in St. Peter's but in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. This much less ambitious work would not be finished until 1545.

The work of artists and quarrymen in Michelangelo's time was not very different from what would continue to be done in later centuries. Michelangelo was a sculptor who practiced the art of "taking away," removing excess marble to free the statue trapped inside the block of stone. For the preliminary studies he drew sketches in which he captured the idea, then drilled holes to draw the outline of the future statue on the marble and began to carve the material with a "cagnaccia”, a sort of planer. He then moved on to rough-hewing, which is when he began to shape the statue, then leveling, followed by finishing, which he often left to assistants.

The work of the quarrymen who supplied him with raw materials was extremely hard, poorly paid, and very risky. There were the "tecchiaioli", who had to hang from ropes along the quarry walls in order to remove precarious stones or to carefully check the quality of the marble to be extracted. Once the blocks were ready, they had to be transported downstream, a very dangerous operation called “lizzatura”, which consisted of attaching the marble block to a wooden sledge held by a system of sliding ropes, which could come loose or, if they were badly secured or of poor quality, could break, ultimately crushing some of the quarrymen.

Michelangelo took his blocks to Rome where he worked on them. Artists increasingly relied on local workshops, entrusting their designs to firms like the Studio Nicoli, which undertook the shaping, roughing, adjustment, and in some cases even the finishing. In a few limited cases, the firm did all the work themselves, serving a high-profile and demanding clientèle.

Carlo Senior trained in the workshop of the Tuscan sculptor Giovanni Dupré and established himself internationally as an artist and diplomat. At the end of the century, Carlo's son Gino, although talented, devoted himself more to business. After the Unification of Italy, the Nicoli family worked on the decoration of the great Galleria Umberto in Naples, while many artists, including from abroad, approached the Studio, sending photographs and daguerreotypes of their designs to be turned into works of art. Gino was succeeded by Ruggero, a business graduate who never took up art himself.

Michelangelo took his blocks to Rome where he worked on them. Artists increasingly relied on local workshops, entrusting their designs to firms like the Studio Nicoli, which undertook the shaping, roughing, adjustment, and in some cases even the finishing. In a few limited cases, the firm did all the work themselves, serving a high-profile and demanding clientèle.

Between 1908 and 1911, the futurist Enrico Prampolini, a cousin of Nicoli's, brought a breath of fresh air to the family workshop, introducing the abstract language of the avant-garde to sculpture, which was frowned upon in the Carrara workshops.Instead, the Nicoli family rose to the challenge and were one of the few studios to survive this epochal change, embracing the extravagances of the avant-garde and remaining world famous for their stonework.

In the 1930s, great names such as Mario Sironi, Arturo Martini and Fausto Melotti arrived at the studio and, each in his own way, conducted research and experiments that marked the boundary between an avant-garde generation and the return to order that Fascism sought.

"Arturo Martini," says Francesca Nicoli, the current owner of the company, "lived here in our guest house for a long time, where he wrote 'La scultura lingua morta,' which he published in Venice in 1945, in fifty copies.” “It is paradoxical that this artist, one of the greatest contemporary Italian sculptors, should write in our own home, in the temple of sculpture, that this art form is a dead language. Although the now former academic wrote this as a reaction to Fascist monumental sculpture, the prediction could never have been more wrong: never has there been such a hunger for sculpture as there is today.” "Martini," says Francesca, recalling the stories she heard from her father, Carlo Junior (not to be confused with the other Carlo, who lived nearly a century earlier), "was a strange, short-tempered fellow.He often lived and worked with us, and wanted us to supply his room with demijohns of wine and lots of onions.

He was the driving force behind a real revolution in the marble-working technique. At one point, when making the ‘Woman swimming under water’ at our workshops, when the statue was almost finished, he asked for a pitching tool, which is a quarry hammer used not for finishing but for cutting large pieces of marble, such as the corners. On hearing this the workers were startled, the piece had already been polished to a high gloss, and they thought: 'The maestro has gone crazy, he must be drunk.' So they ran to the office to seek advice from my grandfather, but he told them to let him be, because the artist always has the last word. So they handed him the pitching tool and the maestro took it to the statue, cutting off its head, which tumbled to the floor. Martini wanted to renew himself, to break out of the rhetorical and celebratory straits of the standard artistic language. And he was right, as that statue became a masterpiece and was sold for a fortune at Sotheby's."

“During Fascism," says Francesca, "our company ran into trouble because it was no longer an option to export to international markets as we had always done.After the war, things went back to normal. By the early 1950s, however, many in the family began to question whether to continue in the marble business or close everything down. My father Carlo was studying law and preparing his thesis, which was discussed in Pisa in '53. One day he stepped out and came upon a man of great style, smoking a Tuscan cigar. It was Henry Moore." A lover of Italy and Florence, the great English sculptor was just over 50 years old.

Moore was a genius of abstractionism and his forms are world renowned, although, Francesca recalls, "my father often remembered a huge statue that he had donated to the city of Florence, but the city kept it locked away, hidden in a warehouse for at least forty years.”"Moore," she adds, "was a real gentleman, and my father would talk to him about his concerns, about the end of property, which was the subject of his dissertation at the time, and about Martini's theories about the death of sculpture, with which he seemed to broadly predict the end of everything in our world.

Then the sculptor predicted to the young lawyer, who was immersed in legal work, that marble was not destined to die, but would be the stuff of the future, and his future as well. He told him: “Anybody can be a lawyer but only you can carry on this family tradition.”So my father left the practice of law to pick up the baton of a workshop that, in addition to Moore, has made world-famous artists like Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer feel at home. And around the year 2000, when I graduated from college, my father gave me the same speech that Moore had given him and convinced me to carry on his business. He said: “You go to university and split hairs, but here you can understand the true meaning of life and the whole world.””

"I told him I accepted, and over the years it's been hard, but I've enjoyed working with people like Vanessa Beecroft or Jan Fabre, who are not typically marble artists.” Beecroft makes "tableau vivants" or choreographed pieces using the bodies of nude young women, mixing dance, light and music, while Fabre is a visual artist with an over-the-top style. Another artist Francesca has worked with is Anish Kapoor, a British sculptor of Indian and Iraqi Jewish descent who uses materials such as granite, limestone, marble, wood, and plaster to create objects with enigmatic, geometric, and very colorful shapes.

"On the floor here in the office," she recalls, "Anish drew some designs directly on the floor, so for years we could never clean the floor so we wouldn’t lose the work of a great artist, which, depending on how you looked at it, looked like infinity.” Spanish architect, sculptor and painter Santiago Calatrava has also worked with Francesca."He was repairing New York's rickety central subway line, and he sent some very demanding helpers here," she explains. “He wanted to make a sculpture out of very thin and very fragile discs, which was a kind of challenge to the limits of the material.” Michelangelo Pistoletto, Francesca explains, "is another artist who has come to us a number of times over several decades. The last work we did 2 or 3 years ago was an installation over 70 meters long. It was sent as a gift from Italy to the United Nations".

“I also remember the other monumental sculptures of the 1970s, 6-7 meters high, like the Dietrofront, which stands at the Porta Romana in Florence: an unfinished, unpolished colossus, made of travertine, otherwise it wouldn’t be the arte povera he wanted. The statue depicts a woman with her double resting on her head: the first looks outwards, the second looks towards the city, as if to unite those staying and those leaving. It's a super-strong giant, with a stainless steel structure that sinks five feet underground, so much so that one night a drunk ran into it with his car at full speed, without even nicking it, except for a tiny scuff that we repaired with a little mastic.” Another artist who has worked at Studio Nicoli is the Englishman John Isaacs, who created a large veiled Michelangelo's Pieta in Carrara marble.

"With John," says Francesca, "we made his Pieta here, which was exhibited at the Massimo Minini Gallery in Brescia, which then gave it to the Paul VI Collection in Concesio, the museum that houses the art collection of Pope Montini.” The work, completed in 2014 and titled ‘The architecture of empathy’, speaks to us ‘of our desire to invent life with a work of art,’ according to the label of the Paul VI Collection.

In fact, as Marina Wallace, curator of art exhibitions in London and Rome, formerly of Central Saint Martin's in London and a friend of Isaacs, explains, his statue is a kind of ‘swan song’ to the golden age of Carrara, of Michelangelo, of the Renaissance, of unique and irreproducible art. "Not surprisingly," comments Marina Wallace, "Isaacs was inspired by Michelangelo's Pieta, but he covered it with a veil of marble under which we can barely see the famous statue. We can catch a glimpse of its silhouette, its proportions, we recognize it without seeing it, partly because it's such a well-known work that it doesn't even need to be revealed.

In fact, Isaacs covers it, hides it, as if to seal it, to end an era.” In this regard, Francesca Nicoli is keen to point out that "Isaacs covered the Pieta with references to surrealism and artists such as Christo and Jean-Claude, who wrapped up entire monuments and buildings. Besides, this is a controversy that is at least 70 years out of date, because as early as the 1950s, attempts were made to introduce modern materials such as glass, reinforced concrete and, above all, plastics and synthetic resins, and these materials are now clearly in retreat compared to natural stone.”

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