The Majestic Marble Quarries of Northern Italy

By Luca Locatelli and Sam Anderson

Originally published July 26, 2017

“The story of Italian marble is the story of difficult motion: violent, geological, haunted by failure and ruin and lost fortunes, marred by severed fingers, crushed dreams, crushed men. Rarely has a material so inclined to stay put been wrenched so insistently out of place and carried so far from its source; every centimeter of its movement has had to be earned. “There is no avoiding the tyranny of weight,” the art historian William E. Wallace once put it. He was discussing the challenge, in Renaissance Italy, of installing Michelangelo’s roughly 17,000-pound statue of the biblical David. This was the final stage of an epic saga that, from mountain to piazza, actually began before Michelangelo’s birth and involved primitive and custom-engineered machinery and, above all, great sweating armies of groaning, straining men. But the tyranny of weight was in effect long before that, and long after, and it remains in effect today.”

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“What we admire as pristine white stone was born hundreds of millions of years ago in overwhelming darkness. Countless generations of tiny creatures lived, died and drifted slowly to the bottom of a primordial sea, where their bodies were slowly compressed by gravity, layer upon layer upon layer, tighter and tighter, until eventually they all congealed and petrified into the interlocking white crystals we know as marble. ‘‘Marmo,’’ the Italians call it — an oddly soft, round word for such a hard and heavy material. Some eons later, tectonic jostling raised a great spine of mountains in southern Europe. Up went the ancient sea floor, and the crystallized creatures went with it. In some places they rise more than 6,000 feet.”

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