CARRARA – 05/06/2013 - The first time I heard about Carrara was about a year ago, while talking to Paul Perdieus, my former sculpting teacher at Sint Lucas academy in Antwerp, Belgium. ‘I want to learn stone’, I said, and he answered that Carrara would be the place to be. I could have never imagined the consequences...
A short history of Carrara
Like a lot of European cities, the etymology of the word ‘Carrara’ has many possible historical explanations, but all of them include it’s role as an ‘area or source of stone’. Everything about Carrara breathes marble; everything you do takes place in the shadow of the Apuan Alpes which are basically immense deposits of marble and in the historical city most of the infrastructure (streets, buildings, benches, etc.) is made out of marble.
Carrara is a small town yet it radiates a special feeling. Undefinable, indescribable, yet unmistakable, there's a feeling that this place has identity and character and everyone knows it, loves it, and is proud of it.
All of the people you meet, mostly artists from all over the world, somehow share a passion for marble. This creates an instant connection that bounds us and intices artistic dialogue. For all its heritage, Carrara is a place in flux.
City of Anarchy
Carrara is the international capital of anarchy. I don’t mean masked, disaffected hotheads breaking windows, but rather anarchism as a political philosophy which 'seeks stateless societies based on non-hierarchical voluntary associations'. In Carrara this political philosophy is embedded in the stoneworkers, and therefore mainstream, culture.
In the beginning of the 19th century, anarchist stoneworkers, who’s ancestors were Roman slaves, started a series of revolts against the quarry owners and the government resulting in the formation of unions, a labor and socialist movement, and better working conditions. A desperately needed triumph that is still celebrated annually on the 1st of May. All over town there are marble monuments dedicated to the quarriers, their work and their sacrifices.
Few other sectors of industry can boast a similar pedigree, and in few other fields of human activity has progress been purchased at so high a price as in quarrying.
Up until today, casualties among the quarriers are not uncommon. When a deadly accident takes place, all stoneworkers in the area cease work and an uncomfortable silence takes over the otherwise droning mountains.
Why is Carrara marble ‘the best’?
The formation of marble in general begins deep on the sea floor. Layers and layers of shells and fish bones pile up over thousands of years and form a sediment called limestone. Due to the movement of the earth’s crust the limestone is heated to a temperature of over 500 °C. At this point it crystallizes and becomes marble. Over a period of millions of years the marble is pushed upwards and mountains emerge.
In Carrara, a unique additional process takes place during crystallization. Twelve million years ago, a big continental collision caused the earth’s tectonic plates to roll over and squeeze the limestone, submitting it to enormous pressure and heat. Therefore, the expansion of the crystals that were formed was very limited. As a result, the crystals in Carrara’s statuario are the world’s finest. This makes the marble extremely compact, allowing sculptors to create shapes and textures that would be impossible to make in brittler kinds of marble.
Carrara’s marble varies considerably from quarry to quarry, each with its own qualities discernible by the trained eye. The quarry workers have developed a vocabulary to describe the subtlest variations of crystal structure, color, luminosity and hardness. The tools used to extract huge blocks of stone have evolved from the ancient ways of handsaws and oxen to pneumatic pumps, diamond saws and bulldozers the size of apartment buildings.
All the same, Carrara seems to operate still at a point in the past. A thirty-ton block of marble resolutely resists any technology, and the taking of the stone still depends on unhurried calculation. Like Archimedes, who claimed to need only a place to stand in order to move the world, the quarryman knows that even the heaviest block on the most precipitous slope will succumb to an adroit plan.
Carrara’s most famous artist is probably Michelangelo Buonarroti, who even has a whole quarry named after him. Later, masters as Bernini, Canova and Giambologna followed his footsteps. Today, Carrara remains the place to be for many contemporary artists like myself, who get the opportunity to choose their stone directly from the quarry and work on it in one of the many studios that rent accommodated workshops at the foot of the marble mountains. Here, they will work until their piece is nearly finished to diminish later transportation costs. Most of these studios are open to the public and provide a great source of inspiration. I am currently collaborating with Usama Alnassar at the Alnassar Studio in La Piastra: a sculptor’s paradise.
Sylvie Van den broeck