“Turning Art History into Toothpaste” The issues involving the “ongoing environmental disaster” in Carrara’s marble region are beginning to be noticed


Veronique Mistiaen in her piece in Reader’s Digest: “Carrara: Turning Art History Into Toothpaste.” asks: what’s going on at the famed Italian marble quarry region in the Apuan Alps? Ok, so Reader’s Digest is not known for its in-depth art-historical analysis, but Ms Mistiaen does successfully bring up some of the issues in the complicated story that is the state of the marble industry in the Carrara region, on Tuscany’s northwestern coast, today, and the environmental impact experienced by the people and the mountains themselves.

Pollution, and the destruction of the Apuan Alps caused by the marble quarries are serious concerns that plague the fabled marble industry, just as it finds itself in an economic downturn which is effecting the livelihood of the quarries and the workers. The unchecked extraction of the world’s most valued marble is the cause of massive erosion of the mountains… there are groups forming working to preserve the natural beauty of the hills, (we link to some at the end of this post) while the quarries themselves are finding increased competition from marble-refining enterprises in emerging markets. We paraphrase Ms Mistiaen’s article from Readers’s Digest – as published in the Italian newsmagazine “Internazionale.”

Visiting the “cave di marmo” around Carrara is like taking a trip through history. A third of the 85 active quarries in the Apuan Alps is of Roman origin. The emperor Augustus started the quarrying in the first century BCE, because he wanted that the Patrician villas and public monuments – including a part of the Parthenon in Rome – be covered in what was considered at the time the whitest marble; in some of the quarries the signs of the extraction by slaves are still visible. Michelangelo came to Carrara, (and Pietrasanta,) to choose the blocks for his “David” and “Pietà.” Many centuries later, the British sculptor Henry Moore came to the region to find inspiration and the raw materials for his works. The marble from Carrara was used extensively for the Cathedrals of Florence and Siena, as well as the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, London’s Marble Arch, and the Kennedy Center in Washington. Anthony Gormley, British sculptor told Ms Mistiaen that “there’s nothing like this marble – it is unique.” But it’s the unregulated extraction of the “white gold” from Michelangelo’s mountains that is threatening the landscape – and Carrara’s 66-thousand inhabitants. In the 20s one hundred thousand tons of the marble were extracted – now we’re talking about five million tons a year, to keep up with emerging producers in China, Russia and India.

To keep costs down, and compete globally, the quarries are digging at unprecedented pace. “This is how Carrara’s marble has ceased to shine” says Veronique Mestiaen, “the wholesale exploitation of the marble quarries is destroying the environment and creating negative health effects for the inhabitants.” She states that the authorities seem unable to cope in any meaningful way with this catastrophe. Elia Pegollo, an environmentalist with “Salviamo le Apuane” says that “with the marble extracted in a single year we could pave a four-lane freeway from here to Stockholm – and this is plundering.” The mountain tops are shrinking… Giovanna Berti, another local activist remembers when the mountains were noticeably taller: “there’s a photo my mother took of me, when I was six-years old and behind me you could see the peak – much higher than it is today.”

What worries most the locals is that of the five million tons extracted each year only one-fifth finds itself used as raw material for art and for architecture – the rest is … detriti … debris. In the 90s multinationals, like Swiss Omya or French Imerys realized that the debris could be very valuable – in the form of Calcium Carbonate, which could be used instead of lead in paints, or asbestos in roofing materials. The marble finds itself used in paper-making, as fiber, and filler in cereals and in cosmetics and vitamin pills.

Carrara’s marble is not used primarily for art or architecture anymore –  it is literally squeezed from a tube of toothpaste.

Regional laws state that the quarries cannot principally be used to produce … debris, yet according to residents and environmentalists it’s exactly what’s happening in certain cases. The Comune di Carrara leases the quarries to developers – but apparently these are treating the hillsides like their own private feudal kingdom. The quarries enjoy unparallelled power over the Comune and its political choices, as there are no other industries to speak of in Carrara. Many Carraresi believe that the upshot is a system of graft and corruption put in place to escape the law with impunity. “We’re far from the days of the Hermitage in St Petersburg,” states Piero Marchini, the president of Carrara’s Environmental Commission.

What do the quarries think? Well, Franco Barattini – who for many years has successfully managed the caves from which Michelangelo got his stone – and the only quarry manager who spoke with Veronique Mistiaen went on record to defend the quarries’ position; he rejects the accusations of destruction and plunder and says that it is “ridiculous” to think that the quarries are engaged in the production of calcium carbonate – the debris. “It’s as if we were burning furniture to produce ash” he states. Then with a wide gesture – as if he were embracing the mountains themselves – he adds: “Many of the locals claim that we are here to devour the mountains, and this is not true. By definition the marble quarries do change the face of the landscape – like carbon mines, if more noticeably so.”

Weather or not the accusations – that the quarries are engaged in the production of debris… calcium carbonate – can be proved, it seems apparent that the production techniques are having a negative effect on Carrara. At the beginning of the last century the city was famous for its hundreds of marble studios and laboratories, where artigiani produced work on commission – reproductions of masterpieces, and later original pieces for world-famous artists. Today, of those studios and laboratories, there are scant left behind. Twenty years ago, the bulk of the world’s marble was shipped to Carrara for the refining – to be made into sheets used for the facades of buildings and for the tiling of homes. Today the picture is very different: even the local Carrara marble gets shipped overseas – to places like India, where the costs of labor are lower.  Traditionally the quarries invested in the local economy helping to produce public works, such as theaters and hospitals. Recently though, the multinationals have resisted all of the taxes that the Comune has tried to impose. According to what the recently re-elected mayor of Carrara, Angelo Zubbani says the Comune receives only 7.7 million euros from the extraction of marble blocks and 8.8 million euros for the extraction of the debris… sums that contributed little to the construction of the “tangenziale” – the 142 million euro road that the Comune was forced to build to accommodate the transit of heavy machinery and trucks carrying the marble out of the inhabited areas. This major public work has created debts for Carrara for years to come.

“There should be a value-added for the city. We should work the marble locally and produce artwork and architectural finishes” concedes Barattini, who is considered an enlightened businessman because he creates jobs in his marble sawmill and artistic laboratory. The quarries are also accused of getting around the safety and health laws, putting in danger the local population. The city’s 12 water sources are often contaminated with the  sawmills’ marble dust and other byproducts of the “lavorazione” of the marble. That and the streets that cross the city are traveled by more than 2000 tractor-trailers each day.

The city is close to the sea, yet among the inhabitants of Carrara pulmonary diseases are much higher than in cities with higher concentrations of industry. “Legambiente” – Italy’s environmental agency, has documented these problems for years. Higher concentrations of marble dust in the air – dust that causes asthma, lung cancer, bronchitis and pulmonary and cardiovascular disorders. In 2008 a judge established that the city should have implemented health measures necessary for the reduction of air pollution. But even the more banal laws, like the requirement that tha trucks carrying the marble be covered are regularly ignored. The inhabitants of Carrara are still waiting for a just application of the law.

“In Carrara there’s a colonial-style economy in place: few multinational corporations make huge profits without transferring any benefit to the citizenry – but only produce threats to the health and environment” says Riccardo Canesi, representative of Greenpeace.

“The marble, that once was our wealth, has become a curse” says the Vescovo of Massa Carrara, Eugenio Binini, according to an interview he released the Nazione daily in June 2010. “In Carrara, where, like elsewhere, there’s jackals, public opinion is not outraged, like in times past. Last fall, at the renewal of the quarries’ contracts, the city council was determined to ask for greater responsibility on the part of the enterprises and to establish stricter health regulations, and to increase the taxes on the marble extraction based on its market value. But as of yet nothing has changed. The Comune has not been able to stand up to the industry.

Carrara’s mayor, Zubbani wishes that the quarries would return to more reasonable work ethics, concentrating on the promotion of the quality of the marble, selling less of it at higher prices instead of trying to compete with foreign producers. “We should imbue our marble with the cultural meaning it has and sell it as a value-added that reflects our history and our traditions, our art and our culture. Our marble is unique, and therein lies our strength.”

“Our mountains belong to the world, to humanity” adds Elia Pegollo. “They spoke to Michelangelo and to artists from all over the world. We want that the marble not be exploited just for the debris, and that our mountains find their voice again.”

You can find additional information on the PaesaggioSOS blog website, which we link here. The photo above is from Rosalba Lepore, from the same website, which we link here.

We post a video directed by Alberto Grossi, uploaded to youtube by Eros Tetti titled “Europe’s Greatest Environmental Disaster:”

All this and the Comune di Carrara is also dealing with the floods, which have wreaked havok in the town this fall. Just google “alluvione Carrara” (or click here) to get a glimpse of that environmental disaster!
We link to the Comune di Carrara website here.

8 thoughts on ““Turning Art History into Toothpaste” The issues involving the “ongoing environmental disaster” in Carrara’s marble region are beginning to be noticed

  1. Regarding to dynamite only.
    As far I know in marble industry diamond wire is used to cut block from mountain, not dynamite.. This would ruin material (creating cracks etc.)
    Dynamite can be used with granite for split, this much harder material.

    • Hi Arthur, … I believe the desired end-result is to bring down as much calcium at once as possible – not for use as blocks for art or architecture, but for use as abrasive… filler… etc. You can see some of the incredible footage in the “Aut Aut” video we posted…

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