A Mt. Rushmore type monument fantasized by Michelangelo for the mountains of Carrara


Michelangelo had a vision:

One day when he was high up in the mountains above the town of Carrara, looking down at the peaks and valleys below and the Mediterranean in the distance beyond, ‘he formed the wish to make a colossus, that would be visible to mariners from afar.’ In other words, Michelangelo wanted to carve a chunk of mountain into a human figure.

One guesses, though the subject is not described, that he had in mind a naked male body. He was inspired to this reverie by ‘the available mass of rock, which could be carved most conveniently’, and by the desire to emulate – not to say outdo – the ancient Greeks and Romans, who, he would have known from reading Pliny, had created several gigantic statues.

Obviously, however, this project was impossible. No patron would pay for it, no one was likely to want it – even the sailors who would gain at fantastic expense a possibly useful landmark.

With the available workforce and technology, it was wildly impractical. Even with modern power tools, such mountain carving is a difficult and lengthy process. A memorial to the Native American warrior Crazy Horse begun in the Black Hills of Dakota in 1948 has still not been completed.

However, Michelangelo was strangely reluctant to give this dream up. ‘He certainly would have done it if he had had enough time,’ the Condivi Life insisted, apparently directly quoting the words of Michelangelo. Then, slipping into the first person, Condivi added, ‘Once I heard him complain sadly about this.’ Another decade later, now verging on ninety,

Michelangelo repeated much the same regret to Calcagni: ‘This was, he said, a madness that came over me, but if I could have been sure of living four times longer than I have lived, I would have taken it on.’ That casual estimate puts the period necessary for the completion of the figure carved from the mountain at over three hundred years.

It is tempting to speculate on why he found this wild idea so hard to abandon, so that the thought of it still filled him with sadness half a century later. The reason must have been that the unexecuted man-mountain was emblematic of two things. It stood for all the ambitious schemes, among them the tomb of Julius itself, that were never completed or only in a much reduced manner. And, perhaps even more, the colossus at Carrara represented a project that was his idea alone, not something done at the instigation of a powerful patron, some swaggering gran’ maestro.

Michelangelo’s urge to take control of every aspect of the creative process is one of the traits that make him seem modern. Eventually, he was to make important works just because he wanted to, for people he loved. However, they were on pieces of paper, not carved out of Apuan Alps.

Gayford, Martin. Michelangelo: His Epic Life (pp. 211-212). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.


Would you be surprised to know that Leonardo was a snob?

He was, when it came to his assessment of the forms of art, from highest to lowest.

For example, among the different varieties of sculpture, Leonardo believed stone-carving (which is what Michelangelo preferred as his medium) to be the lowest form: messy, unpleasantly physical, plebeian (a snobbish view that echoes Lodovico Buonarroti’s): The sculptor in creating his work [he wrote] does so by the strength of his arm and the strokes of his hammer by which he cuts away the marble or other stone in which his subject is enclosed – a most mechanical exercise often accompanied by much perspiration which mingling with grit turns into mud. His face is smeared all over with marble powder so that he looks like a baker, and he is covered with a snow-storm of chips, and his house is dirty and filled with flakes and dust of stone.


How different is the painter’s lot. ‘The painter’ – for whom, read Leonardo himself – ‘sits in front of his work at perfect ease. He is well dressed and moves a very light brush dipped in delicate colour.’


It is easy to imagine him discoursing with complete confidence on such matters while Michelangelo, wearing sober black, stood – in a phrase from one of his earliest poems – ‘burning in the shadows’ with irritation.


Gayford, Martin. Michelangelo: His Epic Life (pp. 183-185). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Carrara marble quarries

The blog post below is a good one on the subject of the Carrara marble quarries.  If you would like to see the pictures, you can find the post here: https://livingwithabroadintuscany.blogspot.it/2012/04/going-inside-marble-mountains-of.html


 Everybody who drives or takes the train along the west coast of Italy has seen them from a distance. Anybody who has read The Agony and the Ecstasy has read about them. The white marble mountains of Carrara are interesting from afar—many people mistake the shining white marble for snow—but up close they are truly amazing. And there is no better way to see them than by going up the steep, unpaved roads in a 4×4 vehicle to drive right into the quarries, indeed right inside the mountains themselves.

Lucy and I, along with friends Steve and Patti, have booked an excursion with Cave di Marmo Tours, which takes us on a three-hour excursion into the heart of the land where Michelangelo came to select the marble slabs he used to create his masterful sculptures. The mountains above Carrara are basically one huge block of crystallized calcium carbonate, which originated during the Jurassic era. Marble is created when limestone crystallizes under extreme pressure and heat. Limestone itself is formed from layer upon layer of sea shells. Tectonic action first buries the limestone, squeezing it until it crystallizes before thrusting it upward to form mountains.

Our German-Italian guide Heike fearlessly drives us up rugged, rain-rutted service roads overlooking the marble quarries, the city of Carrara and numerous small islands in the Mediterranean. The ride reminds us of Disneyland, with the added thrill of knowing that we are not on a secure track and that the scenery was originally created by the hand of God rather than man. As we bounce and skid first up and then down the steep slopes, Lucy tries to close her eyes and think about something else, but Heike keeps pointing out sights to see and takes pleasure in the knowledge that her tour is thrilling on a variety of levels.

We learn that the Romans discovered marble here in 176 BC, which meant they no longer had to import it from other countries. They built a port at Luni and roads into the mountains. Then they faced the puzzle of where to find strong workers willing to wield mallets and chisels and endure extreme weather conditions while working year-around in dusty quarries? No problem. They were rulers of most of Europe, so they just took some hearty northern Europeans as slaves and put them to work in the quarries. Heike says you can still see many light-haired, blue-eyed Italians in Carrara who are descendants of these early quarrymen.

The first blocks were taken from the mountains to the sea by slave power alone. Later came oxen, then trains. Now huge front-end loaders and dump trucks are used. All of the methods made use of wheels, and the city’s motto is “My strength is in the wheel.”

Harvesting techniques have also changed. Marble contains natural pressure fractures, and early workers used chisels and wooden wedges to widen the fractures and break off slabs. Later, explosives were used, but this had to be carefully done to avoid fracturing the slabs. Hand saws have also been employed.

Current techniques use drills and a type of chain saw incorporating industrial diamonds fastened to a flexible cable. Holes are drilled in the marble and the chain inserted in one end and pulled out the other. Then the cable is looped around a pulley powered by an electric motor and run for hours at a time until a clean cut is made. All the while, water is running in the hole to cool the chain and minimize the dust.

Much of the work is now done inside the mountains so as not to disturb the terrain, and we are able to go inside to observe the process up close. It is difficult to describe the scene in words, and photos don’t do it justice as well. The walls and ceiling are flat, though not uniformly so, as some support pillars remain. It reminds me of being inside a large cathedral, but instead of being built by adding marble slabs, it is what remains after removing slabs from the center. Moisture drips from the ceiling, and the floor is covered with a quarter inch of wet marble powder. The workers spend most of their time monitoring and repositioning the saws. It is dark, damp and dirty work, but I’m sure it would be a dream job for the first slaves forced to do everything by human strength alone.

The 188 quarries are all privately owned by very wealthy families, Heike says. The country should be earning more income from this lucrative business, but the quarry owners still benefit from an ancient agreement they reached with the duchy of Modena. They agreed to provide Modena with the choicest marble, and the duchy agreed not to tax them. I’m not sure how this agreement survived to the modern age, but Heike suggests it has much to do with money, politics and corruption, which Italy has long been famous for, so we are inclined to believe her.

Toward the end of the tour, we travel through an old railway tunnel, and I have read that this tunnel is 400 meters long, 400 meters above sea level and has 400 meters of stone above it.