Carrara -- land of Michelangelo's marble

From a distance these towering white peaks tease my wife and me into believing we took a wrong turn toward the snowcapped Alps of Switzerland. But even scorching summer sun and 90-degree heat could never melt this powder, for this isn't snow at all -- it's marble dust. We have indeed arrived at the marble mecca of the world -- Carrara, Italy. Nestled in the foothills of the beautiful Apuan Alps, just a few miles from the Mediterranean Sea, this town is tucked under a mountain of marble that Carrarans have spent centuries slicing up, hauling down, and shipping out -- block by precious block.

From the days of Imperial Rome ``Carrara White'' has dazzled the eye of emperor and aesthete alike. Augustus redecorated Rome from brick to marble, in part with Carrara stone.

More than a thousand years later Michelangelo took up residence here in search of blocks which he turned to forms of creamy beauty such as ``The Piet'a,'' ``David,'' and ``Moses.'' Beguiling in their lifelike grace, these sculptures give no hint of the struggle of wrestling raw blocks from the Italian mountainside.

Even our climb up the steep mountain face to the quarries changes from smooth pavement to rugged stone as quaint Carrara falls away below. Up here, roads are lined with marble debris and dust that turn the rivers white and the landscape lunar. Trucks rumble down from the quarries above loaded with three or four blocks of marble -- each block the size of a giant refrigerator/freezer and weighing 15 or 20 tons.

Just before we reach the quarries, driving becomes a hair-raising process of tacking the car, sailboat-fashion, up the zigzag system of roads called ``switchbacks.'' And since the corners of a switchback involve 180-degree turns, too tight for the marble trucks to negotiate, the trucker must throw his rig into reverse and back down (or up) the next section.

Finally we reach the summit and the great cavern of Colonnata Quarry, one of more than 200 operating quarries where Italian stonecutters carry out their proud tradition of harvesting marble. Over millions of years and under tons of pressure, ordinary limestone has ripened into an exquisite marble worthy of lining a cathedral.

Standing on top of a mammoth hunk of marble as yet uncut from the mountainside, kind Italian stonecutters try to explain in Italian the operation of the quarry below. A minor hitch here -- we don't speak Italian. A few motions and ``Io non parlo Italiano'' and I hoped we would switch to one of the hand-waving languages. But they continued to speak on in Italian, only now much slower and more clearly.

Finally they point down to the quarry where stonecutters have just sliced off and toppled to the ground a hunk of stone 40 feet long. Five steel cables are then wired up and begin cutting it up into truckable size for transport down to Carrara.

All the marble is cut with steel cables that run out of a powerhouse, arch up the mountain like telephone lines, hook around pulleys, and run back down to various quarrying sites. To give the process ``teeth,'' a thin groove in the cable is flushed with an abrasive of sand and water. Top-of-the-line technology now includes diamond-studded cables that clock a much faster cutting speed.

The result of all this quarrying, huge blocks of rough white marble, is now headed for one of the hundreds of sawmills in Carrara. We decide to head back to Carrara with it to follow the process through -- from mountainside to palace-side.

The sound is deafening as we walk into a sawmill where a multi-bladed gang saw swings in cradle action back and forth, turning a huge marble loaf into sandwich slices for future tabletops, floors, or walls -- the end product of most of Carrara's stone. The sawed slabs are then ground to a smooth plane, honed to the desired millimeter, and buffed to a new-car shine. Now they're ready for shipment from nearby Marina de Carrara.

But Carrara is known for more than just its marble slabs. Michelangelo defined sculpturing as the art of freeing forms from their marble prison, and in Carrara sculptors continue in that tradition. The town boasts many sculpture studios and two sculpture schools, one of international acclaim. Masters like Henry Moore still come to Carrara for what is considered to be some of the most exquisite stone in all the world.

Carrara also hosts an annual sculpture competition, with entrants from all over the world. (Dates for 1985 are not yet announced.) Working outdoors in a town square, last year's competitors fashioned a lot of religious sculptures -- the face of Jesus or Mary, hands at prayer -- as well as a variety of abstract ones.

But unlike Michelangelo, who carved his masterpieces himself (with the help of his students), some of today's sculptors simply send a miniature clay model to Carrara and the work is done to scale in the town's marble workshops by local sculptors.

And the sculptors' tools have changed as well -- yesterday's hammer and chisel have been replaced by an air chisel that can deliver something like 300 blows a minute to a piece of stone. Hammer and chisel are still brought out, but just for finishing work.

Carrara is about two hours northwest of Florence. From Carrara, the drive up to the quarries takes about 40 minutes and is best in the morning. Drive cautiously.

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