Italy on the rocks
A visit to
the marble quarries in Carrara
The marble quarries in Carrara have been mined for more than 2000 years. And soft white stones are still being excavated from more than 270 active mines and quarries.
If you’ve seen 007 in the Quantum of Solace you may remember the car chase among heavy trucks on dusty, white, serpentine, mountain roads. But even though the mountains Serrone Maggiore and Spallone in Tuscany may look like innocent ski resorts from a distance, this is not a place to play around. Breaking rocks is hard and dangerous work.
Tiny rental car with the horse power of a pony
We approached the marble quarries in Carrara in a tiny rental car with only a little more horse power than the pony that carried Charles Dickens up the mountain a hundred and fifty years ago, and like him we could hear the blasts and rolling thunder every time a piece of the mountain was blown away. The roads leading up to and down from the quarries are all one way, but with sharp turns, steep inclines and the constant push of haulers you don’t want to lose speed or stop to admire the view.
There was a light drizzle in the air and clouds hung low over the mountains depriving us of the promised panorama, but we could still see the bruised and battered mountain flanked by great drifts of marble waste.
At the height of about 750 m above sea level we reached the visitors’ centre with a spacious parking lot, a souvenir shop restaurant and a workshop museum. From here you can visit the some of the caves or join an off-road 4×4 tour of the open air quarries.
In view of the weather, we lined up for a peek inside the Fantiscritti cave and were picked up by a minibus and a bored guide rambling off an endless line of interesting facts.
– Marble is formed when limestone containing a lot of mineral calcite eg. fossils are subjected to pressure and heat. The difference between limestone and marble lies in recrystallization. The content of other minerals in the rock define the colour of the marble. Experts estimate the total marble field of Carrara to have a surface area of 67 km2 and a volume of 60 000 million cubic metres. The Romans quarried marble by inserting moistened wedges of wood into the natural fissures of the rockface. As the wedges expanded, they forced the marble loose from the rockface. Later techniques involved drilled holes and metal wedges, but the real breakthrough came with the invention of explosives and diamond-point cutting. Marble is used for sculptures and table tops, but marble dust is also a component in abrasives and consumer products such as toothpaste. The marble quarries in Carrara employ 5 000 people who quarry 25 000 tons of marble on a monthly basis, she stated in a monotonous voice that made it hard to listen.
In Carrara there are several marble caves on top of each other, and they have to leave columns and follow a specific layout to prevent the mountain from collapse. Still, marble quarrying is highly dangerous work, and in spite of the hard hat I was relieved to come back out into the open air.
The scary journey downhill
But the most scary part of our visit to the marble quarries in Carrara was the journey downhill in a small car. The endless u-turns and ambiguous road signs work as a natural speed limit, but you can’t brake all the time. Especially not, if you’ve got a line of heavy loaded trucks following closely in your trail.
The only comfort is that the use of advanced technology both for breaking and carrying marble have improved considerably over the past century. We are a long way from the oxen driven carts Dickens saw plunging down the precipe toward Carrara in 1845.