A sea of white mountains, wave beyond wave, tier above tier, until the last blends with the atmosphere and is lost.
A narrow valley extending inland from the Mediterranean and rising gradually, high above its level, till it checks at the billowy foothills-here clad with olives, there garlanded with vines-beyond which tower the ranges aforesaid, only the more dazzlingly white for the fiercest heat of summer.
That is Carrara!
Within those dazzling masses, for centuries, have lain in embryo the noblest architectural triumphs, and the finest sculpture the world has ever known.
The walls and columns of the Pantheon and the Medici Tombs at Rome came from those glistening slopes. Michael Angelo's Moses and David calmly reposed there until the hand of the master called them forth, wrought into lasting wonders for the peoples of the earth.
Hermodorus' temples of Mars and Jupiter Stator, Stephanus' Orestes, and possibly the Rhodian trio's Laocoon, rested here, shapeless and undreaming of their destiny. And numbers of the greatest architects and sculptors, from those ancient days to the present time, have stolen from these mountains, not fire, but the stone which immortalised them; for this is the marble world of Carrara, to which the whole earth owes tribute, and by means of which Rome was converted "from a city of brick huts to one of marble palaces."
Of what other mountains on the wide earth's surface can as much be said?
From the Marina, at Avenza, to Carrara-a distance of five miles-there is a local railway. There is also a road. Along this road at all hours of the day and every day, and at some hours of the night, toil bullock teams with drays-eighteen span to a dray-laden with marble.
It might remind one of Pretoria, or a back blocks township of New South Wales, but that local characteristics prevent the resemblance going further than the mere familiarity of the sight of bullock traction.
Here, as elsewhere in Italy, a man sits between the yoke of each span, armed with an iron-tipped goad to remind the bullocks that they are not there for their health's sake. The animals have enormous horns, the tips of which in some cases are painted vermilion, to indicate that that particular beast is vicious and to be approached with caution. The drays are great, cumbrous, sledge-shaped structures of rough timber, mounted on old Roman wheels, which are often mere solid discs of wood and iron, the load very often being a single great block of marble weighing perhaps forty tons, on its way to the Marina or the railway siding.
Always affording glimpses of the splendid panorama of mountain and valley, the road leads to the beautifully clean town of Carrara, which, with the surrounding district, has a population of about 30,000. The one industry of the neighborhood is writ large all over it. The lower floors of most of the houses are workshops, filled with men engaged on all sorts of marble work, from common tombstone, step, and mantelshelf-cutting, to first-class pointing for artists, and carving. The sound of the sawing-mills-the motive power of which is furnished by the waters of the river Carrione, and which for the most part are situate in yards at the backs of the houses-is ever in one's ears.
Marble is everywhere. The air is grey with marble dust. Every spot of spare ground is occupied by blocks of it with youngsters seated on little boards atop them, whacking away for dear life with mallet and chisel. The streets are crowded with its transport. Long before you reach the town, every railway siding and station yard exhibits trains of trucks heaped high with it. The door-jambs, lintels, sills, mouldings, and steps of even the commonest buildings are of marble. And to round off your experience, the fowl on which, at the evening meal, you vainly strive to satisfy your appetite, seems made of the local commodity.
But the quarries are the lodestone of attraction. These can be approached on foot, on horseback, or by means of a little mountain-railway, mainly intended for the transport of marble from the foot of the quarries to the town.
By the courtesy of Mr. Hoffmann, we used the railway, and took our seats in the only "carriage" -a huge open truck, entered at the back, with wooden seats and leather cushions all round it, and iron stanchions with canvas roof and curtains, black, and all burnt in holes-which is never used but for quarry-owners and visitors.
The train, which otherwise consisted of four trucks laden with goods, food, bedding, etc., for the workers up the mountains who only come to town at long intervals, started from the outskirts and soon commenced its upward climb. Presently we were beyond the foothills, and the marble began to assert itself with a vengeance. The ballast of the line was all marble. The tunnels-and there were a great number of these-were all marble. In assorted sizes, from small flints to huge monoliths and mountains, as far as the eye could reach, there were torrents of marble, oceans of it, enough to rebuild all the cities of the earth and leave enough over for its tombs.
The mountains of Carrara never disappoint-from a child's dream of mountains. They are just the sort of mountains whence the genii might issue, or the fairy prince climb to rescue the imprisoned princess. It is all face-blasting up there-no tunnelling-and they have been so hewn and blasted for a thousand years, that parts of them have been cut and riven into peaked and pinnacled masses like vast cathedrals.
At frequent intervals you see the old disused Roman quarries-disused probably on account of the poor color of the marble. As you climb higher, you hear constant reports of blasting; at first a deep "boom," followed by a sound like the rattle of musketry, vastly multiplied by the echoes.
The first visible sign of the operation is the sight of the masses tumbling down the mountain side, thirty and fifty ton blocks looking like pebbles. The distances are enormous, but the animated black specks one knows to be men are clearly silhouetted against the surrounding whiteness.
Something like a black ant suddenly makes its appearance and blows a sonorous blast on a horn; other horns-numbers of them-take up the warning note, the sound gradually dying away in the distance. Then more ants are visible swarming to the shelter of a bomb-proof or casemate. After the last horn has ceased sounding not a soul is to be seen; then comes the boom, the rattle, and the falling pebbles, and presently the ants swarm out again, apparently from all sides, and proceed to drill more holes and put in fresh blasts. The men must love the sound of that horn, for it means a ten minutes' loaf for them.
Sometimes a huge section of marble is sawn from the living rock by means of an endless wire inserted through a drilled hole and revolving over drums. The flinty gravel, sand, and water necessary for both the drilling and sawing are brought from immense distances-the water often being conducted by aqueducts and flumes from various mountain streams.
It is the distances separating quarry from quarry, and one suitable outcrop of marble from another, that precludes a more general use of machinery, as the plant would require to be constantly shifted, and the declinitous nature of the country renders this almost impossible.
Blasting has to be conducted with great care and nicety, as the employment of too much gunpowder or dynamite would result in flawed marble. The blasting charge is usually one of mixed explosives; dynamite, pure and simple, only being used when it is desired to clear the face of a mountain or precipice in order to reach the good quality of stone, the result of a dynamite blast being rubbish, or marble in too small fragments to be of value.
Many firms and quarry owners employ their own men for the actual quarrying, and contract for the transport of the marble from where it falls after the blasting, to the mountain railhead, or wagon-road at its foot, and thence on to Carrara, or direct to the Marina of Avenza or to Leghorn.
Others also contract for the getting out of the marble, at so much per cubic foot.
The people on whom the most difficult work falls-that is, the conveyance of the marble over the roadless declivities intervening between the rail head or wagon-track and the quarries-are called the Lizzatura. All others engaged in its transport are known by the generic term of Caravana.
The methods of the Lizzatura are among the wonders of Italy.
As soon as a great fragment of marble, detached by the blast, has stopped rolling, it is more or less roughly squared into a block weighing, say, 40 tons.
Then the Lizzatura set about getting it down. Along certain lines of descent offering the least resistance to a body descending by force of gravitation, a succession of stout posts have been firmly driven into the loose stones and marble waste. The men, by means of crowbars and screwjacks, raise the block on to a soaped skid of hard beech wood, of which they have several to hand. Before doing this, they secure the block by means of three long three to five-inch hempen cables, with which they take turns round the posts, and pay out sufficient rope only to allow of the ponderous mass sliding over the soaped skids by its own weight and the angle of the incline, but not to allow of its gaining too much momentum.
During this descent, besides the men tailing on to the ropes, two or more men are seated on the block; a man following closely in its wake hands them up the skid just passed over, which they resoap and hand down to a man, who keeps just in front of the moving mass, to put down its path, and so provide a continuous slipway. This last-mentioned worker has the most perilous task. If one of the cables part at a critical moment, or if the mistake be made in paying out or slackening them, he must inevitably be crushed.
It is an amazing fact that in former times the Lizzatura only used one cable to hold back the load, until the Government, rightly regarding it as a dangerous trade, passed a law that not less than three cables should be employed, though it is far from an uncommon sight to see a block of marble held back by only two. On an average, this work is responsible for three deaths a year, but for the most part the finest discernment, judgment, coolness and skill, and unanimity of working is displayed by the Lizzatura, who work in gangs numbering from twelve to fifteen men.
It is a fine sight to see them at the last pinch, near the railhead, hand-levering the marble over rollers on to the truck. At this stage all hands are yelling like demons at their work, but the moment their burden is safely entrained, every man flings down his tool and all bolt for the osteria or wine shop.
It is really astounding to see how these workmen of the Lissatura and Caravana handle the huge masses of marble, without machinery of any kind but crowbars and screwjacks. Pieces of forty tons' weight, and with those simple implements, are loaded on bullock wagons and carted down to Carrara all the way by road. It is a terribly toilsome process, for the mountain road is more like the bed of a torrent than a beaten track.
Some of the marble is sent by rail to Leghorn, but for the most part it is carted to the sea-shore at Avenza, then sent to Leghorn in small coasting vessels, whence it is exported to all parts of the world.
At one time there was talk of improving the port of Avenza, so that steamers could take the place of the small vessels, but as Carrara produces but one staple for export, and no steamer could fill up exclusively with marble on account of its enormous weight, the scheme was naturally abandoned.
The people engaged in this employment, which is practically hereditary, are a fine, sturdy, hard-working race of mountaineers. They are true Highlanders, and not in the least like the Italians of the towns. Many of them have to climb three, four, and even six miles before reaching the scene of their labors. Their wages or earnings range from four to five dollars per week, and they generally work in gangs, each gang being under the control of a headman, who is more or less one of themselves, with the difference that he has saved or made money, and it is with him that the owners usually contract for the quarrying and transport of the marble.
The children of these mountaineers are singularly shy and bashful, in strong contrast to the country children one meets elsewhere in Italy. They are never seen in the towns save on fete days, though, for the matter of that, the adults visit them but seldom. Living in their little mountain hamlets, these people have practically no amusements but the osteria, where they gossip while drinking their poncino and cheap chianti-five centimos a big glass-and gamble at mora and cards, chiefly for drinks. There is a law against carrying a sheath knife, but they all carry a clasp knife of sorts, and in a quarrel they, like all Italians, are prone to use it.
The marble quarries of Carrara are principally situated in the valleys of Torano, Miseglia, Bechsano and Colonnata, where both white and colored marbles are found. But the very best statuary marble comes from Seravezza, nearer Massa Carrara.
Sicilian marble was only so called because it was sent from Carrara to Sicily for shipment.
Some of the quarries are freehold property, while others are the property of the Commune, and leased to discoverers of the quarry at an annual rental of a dollar or two.
The number of the quarries worked at Carrara is about 400, while including the hands in the workshops and sawmills, they give employment to nearly seven thousand men. The average cost of ordinary marble, at the Marina of Avenza, is about $16 per ton, the transport from the quarries costing about three dollars per ton.
The annual total output of Carrara is about 160,000 tons for export, and 25,000 tons for home use, making a total of 185,000 tons-no other country in the world being comparable to Italy either as regards quantity or quality of production.
The marble has formed an article of export to foreign countries for several centuries, and the trade attained vast dimensions during thereign of Prince Alverico I, Cybo Mataspina, who spared no effort to encourage and develop the industry. At the end of 1594, King Fez of Barbary loaded several vessels at the shore of Avenza with the finest marbles; but long before that date it was being shipped in large quantities to France, Spain, and England.
Carrara has, in turn, belonged to the Romans, the Goths, Lombards, the famous family of Mataspina, the Republics of Pisa, of Lucca and Genoa. It has known the sway of Scala, the Tyrant of Verona, and Luchino Visconti, Duke of Milan; of Ferdinand of Austria, and Bonaparte of France. It was the last of the Mataspina family-the Princess Marie Theresa Cyo Mataspina d'Este, who founded its Royal Academy of Arts in 1769; but through all these changes, though not without fluctuations in its prosperity-Carrara fulfilled, as it is fulfilling to-day, its manifest destiny, that of supplying the world with (to quote a forgotten legend) "the snow the gods had made eternal."