Carrara marble from the Apian Alps – another famous ancient workable stone

This is the last in a series of four articles I have written on the quarries and marble of the ancient world and the works of art made from it. The others (Mining in Ancient Greece and Rome, Marble from the Isle of Paros in Ancient Greece – a tour of the ancient quarries and Roman quarries in Austria and Germany – a short sight-seeing tour) appeared in Issues 41, [52] and [53] of Deposits. Therefore, after our tours to the famous quarries of the Isle of Paros and the Roman stone quarries in Central Europe, we come to another location, which is well-known for its workable stone. I am talking about the city of Carrara, with its marble of the same name. Carrara is located in the province of Massa and Carrara, in the so-called Lunigiana, which represents the northernmost tip of Tuscany in Italy. Carrara marble is a white to blue-grey rock of high quality that has become popular for its use in sculpture and building decor.

The extraordinary characteristics of this rock were already recognised by the Romans, who started their mining activities in the second century BC. In ancient times, the marble was commonly referred to as “Luni” and used for the production of houses, figures and monuments. Due to the high demand for the workable stone, more and more quarry sites were exploited, which finally resulted in a total number of 650 mines. Today, about half of them are either abandoned or worked out. Historical studies provide evidence that the Carrara quarries produced more marble than any other place on earth.

Fig. 1. Typical appearance of a Carrara quarry, with its extensive mining areas and a narrowgauge railway for transportation of the square material to the next harbour. (Photo: Von Klaus with K – Eigenes Werk (his photo), GFDL di_Vara04_2007-03-30.jpg)

Later, Carrara marble was further quarried and most often employed in the production of sacred monuments. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the marble quarries came under control of the Cybo and Malaspina, two traditional families ruling over the cities of Massa and Carrara. Through the creation of the ‘Office of Marble’, mining of this rock was subjected to a strict modernisation and thus achieved industrial scales. After the death of Duke Francesco V (the last of the Cybo-Malaspina clan) without male offspring, the region became part of the Habsburg monarchy, which resulted in the temporary shutting down of the quarries. By the end of the nineteenth century, Carrara became a cradle of anarchism in Italy. This development particularly covered the quarry workers, who ranked among the most neglected labourers in Italy and included lots of ex-convicts or fugitives from justice. Soon, the quarries became hot spots of radicalism and violence, from where regional revolts were provoked.

At the end of the nineteenth century, mining activity continued with varying fortunes. However, today, production of square stone has grown steadily, resulting in a current output of about 800,000 tons a year.

In the last 150 years, infrastructure in the quarries continuously improved. Besides the permanent refinement of mining techniques, resulting in the production of huge raw blocks, narrow-gauge railways for transportation of the rock material were also constructed (Fig. 1). The marble blocks are directly brought to the cities of Carrara and Massa, from where they are shipped all over the world.

Over thousands of years, marble of the highest quality was quarried from the famous deposit at Statuario. The rock exposed there was well-known for its pure white colour and its fantastic ability to be worked with hammer and chisel. However, by the end of the twentieth century, the deposits of Statuario were fully exploited and the quarrying was shut down. Currently, less esteemed marble is removed from the mines and exported to many countries. Besides the most common marble types, such as Bianco Carrara, Bianco Venatino and Stauarietto, also exotic variations, such as Calacatta Gold, Calacatta Borghini, Arabescato Cervaiole and Arabescato Vagli are also quarried throughout the mining area. In the following sections, I want to describe some famous ancient monuments and sculptures made of Carrara marble.

Ancient architectural and sculptural highlights of Carrara marble

As already mentioned, numerous profane and sacred monuments of the Roman Empire were either partly or entirely built of Carrara marble. Probably the most important building containing this famous square stone is the Pantheon in Rome (Fig. 2, left). This ancient Roman building dates approximately to the year 126AD, when Emperor Hadrian ordered its erection on the site of an older building. The original Pantheon was built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in the year 25BC, but this burnt down two years later. In general, the current Pantheon represents a Roman temple, where all gods are subject to equal adoration. The monument was built in a circular shape, with colonnades at its entrance. The temple includes a variety of building materials, among which Carrara marble undoubtedly plays a leading role.

The second monument worth mentioning is Trajan’s Column in the Roman Forum (Fig. 2, right). This impressive structure measures about 40m in height and carries a statue of Emperor Trajan on its top. The main aspect of the funeral column is a 200m-long frieze band, which narrates Trajan’s war against the Dacians. The relief contains a continuous sequence of 155 scenes and may be regarded as a kind of early documentary report, whose main purpose consisted in praising the Emperor’s heroism, clemency and justice (notwithstanding his slaughter of the unfortunate Dacians). The topic of the frieze, which is entirely made of Carrara marble, is slightly reminiscent of Caesar’s Gallic war and is said to be an invention of the historiographer, Apollodorus.

If we take a closer look at famous Roman sculptures made of Carrara marble, three works stand out (Fig. 3). The first one is a bust of the so-called Artemis Kephisodotos, which is currently exhibited in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The figure was probably produced in the first century BC and represents a replica of a Greek sculpture dating from the fourth or fifth century BC. The goddess of the hunt is shown with matronly drapery and coiffure, and her glance is slightly cast downwards towards the ground. Her hair at the back is elaborately tied up into several tresses falling over her shoulders. It is assumed that the sculpture adorned a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess.

Fig. 3. Roman Carrara marble replicas of legendary Greek sculptures: (a) Artemis Kephisodotos (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2006); (b) discus thrower attributable to the Athenian sculptor, Myron (photo: ©The Trustees of the British Museum); and (c) a wounded Amazon of the Lansdowne type (Pheidias?; photo: ©Metropolitan Museum of Art).

A second figure made of Carrara marble is a replica of Myron’s legendary discus thrower (diskobolos), a creation of the mid-fifth century BC. It shows a naked young man about to throw his discus with all his strength. His body is characterised by high tension and his glance is directed towards the ground. His facial expression reflects the athlete’s intense concentration to provide a perfect performance.

A third figure made of Carrara marble is the wounded Amazon of the so-called Lansdowne type, which can also be admired in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The figure shows a young woman posing in contrapposto and wearing a short chiton (chitoniskos).

While her right breast is partly covered by the drapery, her left breast is completely unveiled, which discloses her identity as an Amazon. Her left forearm is supported on a quadratic column, whereas her right hand is positioned on her hair. By lifting her right arm, she reveals a deep wound that was inflicted on her by a spear or arrow. Her head is slightly inclined to the right and her face mirrors the pain she has suffered from the wound. The wounded Amazon represented a major topic of Classical Greek sculpture and influenced many famous artists of the time. Well-known sculptors, such as Polycleitus, Phidias or Cresilas, created their own Amazon types that were distinguished by very individual poses, sizes and draperies. In ancient times, these figures were extraordinarily popular among the Greeks and Romans, so replicas were produced on an industrial scale. In the villas of notable Roman families, figures of the wounded Amazon belonged to the standard repertoire of the sculptural decor.

Some concluding remarks

It can be concluded that the famous marble quarried at Carrara gained an immense reputation in antiquity, resulting in its use to produce numerous monuments and sculptures. In the Roman era, the workable stone ranked among the most important architectural and sculptural raw materials, as a result of which, mining achieved industrial scales. In more recent eras, Carrara marble has not lost much of its fascination and was used by sculptors, such as Michelangelo, Lorenzo Bernini and Antoine Coysevox. Even today, the famous square stone finds its application in the construction of representative buildings and modern iconographic works.

Further reading

Price, M.T.: Decorative stone, the complete source book. Thames & Hudson, London, 2007.

Sturm, R.: Cameos from ancient Greece and Rome: small but precious treasures. Deposits Magazine, 34, 44-46 (2013).

Sturm, R.: Tauern gold: the history of gold mining in the Central Alps. Deposits Magazine, 37, 39-40 (2014).

Sturm, R.: Mining in ancient Greece and Rome. Deposits Magazine, 41, 43-45 (2015).

Sturm, R.: Marble from the Isle of Paros – a tour of the ancient quarries. Deposits Magazine, xx, xx-xx (2017).

Sturm, R.: Roman quarries in Austria and Germany – a short sight-seeing tour. Deposits Magazine, xx, xx-xx (2017).


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