Carrara - Anarchy, Michelangelo & Marble

A Unique Carrara Attraction is the Character of Its People

Explore the Wonderful  Historic Center of Carrara with Added Insight

The Tuscan city of Carrara, and in particular the old town, is one of our favorite places in Italy. Many tourists visit only the famous Carrara marble quarries, and they are indeed worth visiting, but the town itself is unique and worth your attention. There are numerous historic and artistic attractions - like the famous Duomo, but another good reason to visit is the sense of place that Carrara radiates. Undefinable, indescribable, yet unmistakable, there's a feeling that this place has identity and this place has character and that the inhabitants know it, love it, and are proud of it.

Pop Art 1952 Cadillac Coupe de Ville MarbleCar in Carrara Italy
Pop Art 1952 Cadillac Coupe de Ville by Silvio Santini, Paolo Grassi, and Mario Fruendi, 1986. Weighing 31,000 pounds, The marble car took an entire year to sculpt from a single block of Carrara arabescato marble that weighed 154,000 pounds! Outside the 1840 neoclassical Teatro degli Animosi, or simply Gli Animosi, June 2012.

Here are three mini-articles describing aspects of Carrara, and some photos we like. Some pictures illustrate the words, most do not. Can you really not visit a place with a specialty called calda-calda*?

City of Anarchy
Carrara is the international capital of anarchy. We are not talking about masked, disaffected hotheads breaking windows, but rather anarchism as a political philosophy which 'seeks stateless societies based on non-hierarchical voluntary associations'. The International of Anarchist Federations is based here, and you can visit the anarchist Circolo Gogliardo Fiaschi bookstore on Via Giuseppe Ulivi. Nearby, there's the restaurant La Capineria where they sometime offer local Carrara specialties 'Sulle ali dell'anarchia' (On the wings of anarchy).

The baroque Palazzo dei Conti del Medico. Piazza Alberico. 18th Century. 
Every May 1 here, there is a large and sometimes very large demonstration called the Primo Maggio Anarchico attended by anarchists from all over Italy, and a number from other parts of Europe. The crowd is indistinguishable from any other political rally in Italy - all ages, all types, many signs. There are songs, including 'Sacco and Vanzetti' and 'Hymn of the International', the red and black anarchist flag, the anarchist symbol - an encircled A - and there's also a large contingent of idle carabinieri a few streets away, just in case. It is not a popular movement now, but it was influential in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially as part of the early labor movement. Important parts of the movement's evolution began here in Carrara.

Column capitol with pillow.
 Piazza delle Erbe, Carrara.

Anarchism became part of the stoneworker culture in the latter half of the 19th century. It was a natural affinity for people whose existence depended on the caprice of rocks and padroni, and whose ancestors included quarrymen slaves of the Romans. Their politics and their desire for betterment often led to confrontation with the quarry owners and the government, sometimes violent confrontation. In 1894, the 'Lunigiana Revolt' occurred here as anarchistic quarry workers went on strike and besieged police barracks in support of the Sicilian Leagues - a peasant rights movement (Fasci Siciliani). The uprising was violently surpressed by the state and 11 protesters killed. Read a fascinating, less-than-objective NY Times dispatch about the 1894 Lunigiana Revolt.

Monument to Meschi, Labor leader and Anarchist.

Anarchists were leaders in organizing the stoneworkers into unions. This led to improved working conditions such as the 6 1/2 hour day for quarrymen beginning in 1911. The anarchist Ugo Del Papa founded a Camera del Lavoro to coordinate and advance unions in 1904 and was influential in the successful strike of 1913. Even more influencial was Alberto Meschi, one of the beloved figures in the history of Italian anarchy. There is an interesting large monument dedicated to him in the lovely park of Piazza Gramsci (Piazza d'Armi) by the sculptore Ezio Nelli (1965).

City of Michelangelo
Old Carrara. Marble is used even in ordinary buildings.
Every visitor to the Vatican knows that Michelangelo travelled to Carrara to personally select the marble block to create the Pieta. However, very few know that 'selecting'  in 1498  meant dealing with a variety of tasks that were utterly remote from the graceful art that we see in a museum. Michelangelo visited Carrara about two dozen times in his life and the great artist stayed here for months at a time and lived in old Carrara. What trials and tribulations the great sculptor need to overcome in order to secure his marble! Selecting required attending to every aspect of procurement in an era where there was very little infrastructure. This meant prospecting the quarries, hiring the quarrymen, roughing out the blocks, arranging for transport to the docks, and contracting for ships to carry the marble to distant cities.

After reading Eric Scigliano's book Michelangelo's Mountain (click for his website - there's also an Amazon ad below to purchase) we can not only appreciate the sculptures more, but marvel that they exist at all. Mr.Scigliano's book describes in detail not only Michelangelo's involvement with Carrara, but the artist's life and career - masterpiece by masterpiece, as well as the milieu in which he lived. He describes nearly every aspect of the marble industry, both ancient and modern, and gives the reader a real appreciation of Michelangelo's determination to realize his vision no matter the obstacle.

Michelangelo lived and worked for months in this building
at the corner of Via Santa Maria and Piazza del Duomo.
The marble that Michelangelo used was, for the most part, quarried specially for him. In order to realize his work, the artist need to know which quarry owners were capable of supplying marble, as well as the qualities he desired in the marble - color, grain, veining. Quarrymen tend not speak of Carrara marble as a general term, but in terms of qualities - bianco ordinario, bianco venato, statuario, grey bardiglio or in terms of quarries - or parts of quarries - as a shorthand for a marble's particular characteristics. The Cadillac's arabescato is from the Cardellino quarry near Colonnata, Michelangelo's David is from Fantascritti in Misceglia, and the Pieta from Polvaccio. Carrara marbles all, but each with different qualities.

Once the possibility of obtaining a block of a certain marble was settled, he had to babysit the quarrying of the marble. Since the work was carried out with hand tools, a good deal of waiting was involved. Once quarried, Michelangelo would rough out the sculpture, both to reduce the weight for transport and to ascertain that there were no hidden faults such discolored veins, mineral inclusions, or cracks. If there were, the process began again.

There is little physical evidence of Michelangelo Buonarroti's residence in Carrara, but he did leave his initials in a fascinating place. In the 1st century AD, a Roman quarry slave carved an aedicula - a shrine - in bas relief on a wall overlooking the Fantiscritti quarry. It consisted of three small figures, Hercules, Jupiter, and Bacchus. It was an object of prayer by workers for protection and good fortune, and it survived for centuries. There Michelangelo carved his characteristic 'MB', and began a graffiti tradition. Eventually Bernini, Canova, Giambologna, and scores of other sculptors added their names. Ultimately it gave the quarry its name: fanti, Carrarese dialect for infanti - the three small figures - and scritti for writing.

A copy of the aedicula of Fantiscritti quarry. 
In June 1863, the aedicula was removed from the quarry, since weather and humans had taken a toll. It was placed in the Accademia di Belle Arti, where today it is its most famous holding. The Accademia was established in 1769 and is part of the Italian university system offering degrees in painting, sculpture, restoration, etc. It also is a museum open to the public. Located in the center of town in a former Malaspina castle dating from 1187, and is worth a visit. It has a copy of Michelangelo's plaster model for the 'Dying Slave', and a collection of plaster models from Canova, who also often came to Carrara to select marble. The Sala dei Marmi (Marble Hall) has an excellent collection of sculpture by many noted artists. The Accademia also continually hosts traveling shows.

City of Marble Trucks
In the industrial districts of Carrara, there are acres of stone storage yards filled with huge blocks of the characteristic white marble of Carrara, as well as many different stone blocks from around the world. These yards are primarily centered along the Via Aurelia near the autostrada and the quarries are located high above central Carrara. Yet, as you drive around downtown Carrara, you will not see any trucks carrying marble blocks.

The fountain to Duchess d'Este in Piazza Alberico.
Seen down one of old Carrara's narrow streets.

Until quite recently it was not so. The streets around town used to be travelled daily by hundreds of gigantic trucks carrying marble blocks which often measured 5 by 5 by 10 feet and weighed 40,000 pounds. These blocks were not strapped down in any way, but merely rested on the truck's bed! A disconcerting sight, but logical, since the blocks weigh much more than the truck. The trucks were 12-wheeled behemoths called 'bisonti' (bison, for their chunky powerful shape) which all but filled smaller streets and dwarfed passing cars. Although the trucks were restricted to certain streets, and were driven by experts (most descended from generations of marble moving families), they were nonetheless a unique and problematic characteristic of Carrara traffic.

Today, the marble travels on the Strada dei Marmi di Carrara, a road designated exclusively for heavy truck traffic (in business hours) opened in April, 2012. It runs south of Carrara proper between the lower quarry area at Miseglia and the Via Aurelia (SS1), 5.5 kilometers away. It took 9 years to construct since it was necessary to remove a million cubic meters of earth and rock and construct 4.5 kilometers of roadway through 8 new tunnels. The Strada cost 120 million Euro, shared between regional and town government and the marble producers. Since the road is downhill for loaded vehicles, both with blocks and marble rubble, the trucks are electronically monitored to insure the 50kmph limit is observed.

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More Info
An outdoor cafe, Piazza Alberica. Carrara hosts an International
Biennial of Sculpture and numerous open air sculpture events. 
Carrara doesn't promote itself very well, so the more you read before you go, the better. In the old part of town there are descriptive plaques in Italian and English at the notable sites which are Via Santa Maria, Piazza del Duomo, Piazza delle Erbe, Via Ghibellina, Piazza Alberica, Teatro degli Animosi, Via Loris Giogi, Via del Plebiscito, Piazza Gramsci, and the Accademia di Belle Arti.

* Calda-calda is a local name for the Ligurian specialty of farinata which the dour might describe as an unleavened pancake of chickpea flour. In old Carrara, go to Pizzeria Tognozzi at Via Santa Maria, 12, where they also offer calda-calda as a sandwich inside the Ligurian specialty of focaccia....and you thought you were in Tuscany!  The piece of foccacia is split horizontally and stuffed with the farinata. Once we thought this was called a “cinque e cinque“, but we were sharply corrected: "No. That's the name in Livorno!".

The market day in Carrara is Monday, and the streets are more active and there's even more to look at.

Written by Martha