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For most people, the word “marble” triggers all kinds of associations: the Taj Mahal, Akshardham temple in India, the Acropolis in Athens, Michelangelo’s David, Rodin’s The Kiss, statue to Robert Burns and so on. It brings to mind the unblemished white stone so prized for sculpture since ancient times – the stone that sets off colours and patterns of other decorative stones, the stone that has incredible uses in interior architecture.

Magical Marble 2

Marble is generally understood as a rock composed of two common carbonate minerals – a rock that takes a good polish. Many compare marbles to limestones that have similar compositions but do not take a polish. When it comes to defining marble, modern geologists are more specific: They classify limestones as sedimentary rocks and marbles as limestones that have been ‘metamorphosed’, that is, altered – by heat and pressure. Marbles that are white in colour are described, in strict geological terms, as true marbles. Such marbles are metamorphic rocks with a fine to coarse granular texture.

In the Western world, the earliest sources of white marble were in Greece and the Apuan Alps of Italy. However, high-quality stones have also been obtained from the United States – especially in the Appalachian Mountains.

In India, there are hundreds of marble quarries at the western edge of the Aravalli mountain range near the town of Makrana. White Makrana marble was chosen as the building stone for the magnificent Taj Mahal at Agra. Besides, Rajnagar in Udaipur, Rajasthan, is regarded as the world’s largest marble-producing area.

The Apuan Alps

Magical Marble 1The Apuan Alps are a mountain range in northern Tuscany, Italy. They are included between the valleys of the Serchio and Magra rivers and – to north-west – the Garfagnana and Lunigiana. Karst topography is widespread here, as well as the marble rocks – including the famous Carrara marble – for which the area is renowned.

Carrara, which is a city and comune in the Province of Massa and Carrara, Tuscany, is famous for its white or blue-grey marble. Carrara marble has been used since ancient times – the Pantheon and Trajan’s Column in Rome are made of it. Besides, many sculptures of the Renaissance, such as Michelangelo’s David, were carved from Carrara marble. With the exception of marble from his own quarry in Pietrasanta, Michelangelo most favoured Carrara marble. The statue to Robert Burns which commands a central position in Dumfries was carved in Carrara by Italian craftsmen working to Amelia Paton Hill’s model. Akshardham, Delhi, which has been designed in accordance with ancient Vedic text known as the Sthapatya Shastra, features a blend of architectural styles from across India and is constructed entirely from Rajasthani pink sandstone and Italian Carrara marble.

According to geologists, the origins of marble actually lie in marine organisms that leave behind their calcite-rich shells when they perish. As water bodies evaporate, these deposited remains form limestone. If the limestone gets buried under multi-ton layers of rock, the intense pressure and heat cause it to metamorphose into marble. But not all marbles turn out the same. Marble formed from the purest limestone is the white marble characteristic of Carrara. Clay or iron oxides – the impurities – give other marbles darker colours.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Cybo and Malaspina families, who ruled over Massa and Carrara, monitored the marble quarries at Carrara. The family established the Office of Marble in 1564 to regulate the marble mining industry. After the extinction of the Cybo-Malaspina family, the state was ruled by the House of Austria and management of the mines rested with them. The Basilica of Massa is built entirely of Carrara marble and the old Ducal Palace of Massa was used to showcase the wonderful stone.

At the end of the 19th century, Carrara became the cradle of Italian anarchism, in particular among the quarry workers. According to a New York Times article of 1894, workers in the marble quarries were among the most neglected labourers in Italy. Many of them were ex-convicts or fugitives from justice. The work at the quarries was so tough that almost any aspirant worker with sufficient muscle and endurance was employed, regardless of their background.

The quarry workers and stone carvers had radical beliefs that set them apart from others; anarchism and general radicalism became part of the heritage of the stone carvers. Many violent revolutionists who had been expelled from Belgium and Switzerland went to Carrara in 1885 and founded the first anarchist group in Italy. In Carrara, the anarchist Galileo Palla remarked that “even the stones are anarchists.” The quarry workers were the main protagonists of the Lunigiana revolt in January 1894.

Beyond Carrara Marble

Magical Marble 3Although the name ‘Carrara’ has become synonymous with pure white marble in the global stone industry, fine white marbles have been quarried from other places in Italy’s Apuan Alps – every bit as exquisite as those from Carrara.

The ancient Romans were the first to open quarries in the Apuan Alps in the late first century BC. They started extracting marble near the ancient Etruscan city of Luna, close to the modern Carrara. These Romans used the marble for buildings, sarcophagi and statuary. However, by the third century AD, the quarries had fallen into disuse. Marble was being worked again in the 14th century; for example in the decoration of the cathedral of Florence. And the fame of the quarries grew through the Italian Renaissance. The Crestola, Cavetta and Poggio Silvestro quarries produced high-quality statuary marble, but Polvaccio quarry could offer large blocks with few imperfections. It may be mentioned that this was the quarry that Michelangelo visited to select marble for many of his bigger works, including the famous David. In 1518, Pope Leo X ordered Michelangelo to use the fine white statuary marbles of Seravezza in preference to Carrara stone, and for several years the quarries of Monte Altissimo outside Seravezza supplied all the statuary marble exclusively for the Medici family projects. But these quarries also fell into disuse.

When quarrying recommenced at the end of the 18th century, the Tuscan quarries had a virtual monopoly on the supply of white marble to world markets. New quarries opened in Carrara and Seravezza, and people started focusing on the deposits of statuary marble near Massa. William Jarvis, English geologist, recoded in 1862 how marble from the new Massa quarries was traded as Carrara marble, glad to thrive on the extraordinary reputation of its neighbour. Bullock carts carried the marble to the saw mills of Carrara and Seravezza until the arrival in the late 1800s of the Ferrovia Marmifera railway. At present, the quarries are highly mechanised and road transportation is used again.

The Apuan Alps are a huge source of many different varieties and grades of ‘white’ marble. The finest is referred to as statuario. This marble is fine-grained and does not have veins and stains of other minerals; it has an exquisite translucent quality as well. Some statuario has a well-defined waxy appearance. Ordinario, by comparison, is opaque and sometimes a little grey or mottled. Sicilian is a white or pale grey variety with veins or flecks of grey. It has been quite popular in England: perhaps it was, in the past, shipped through Sicily or carried on a ship called Sicilia. The Victoria Memorial opposite Buckingham Palace and the Marble Arch in London are made of Carrara Sicilian. Calacatta has subtle golden-yellow or pale-grey veining or brecciation; bianco venato has distinct darker veins; while in arabsescato the markings are darker. Also, the most clearly brecciated white marbles, with veins of dark grey or dark purple, are referred to as pavonazzo pavonazzetto.

Used extensively in statuary; inlay work; and ecclesiastical, domestic and commercial architecture, the white marbles of Tuscany are being actively quarried in today’s Italy.

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