An old legend tells us that the Apuan Alps formed from glowing stone tears. The stars of the firmament were so stricken by lovesickness of a poor young shepherd’s daughter that they cried for a whole night. Falling to earth, their tears solidified into white marble and a wild mountain range stretching into the heavens.
The Apuan Alps in the north-western corner of the Italian province of Tuscany – the name comes from the adventurous tribe, the Apuans, conquered by the Romans in 180 BC – are an independent mountain range on the outskirts of the mighty mountain range of the Apennines. The Apuan Alps chain is very different from the Apennines in terms of its shape and geological structure.
The highest of the rugged peaks – there are no rounded mountain shapes here – which provide an almost indescribable 360° view, rise to a height of 2,000 metres (Monte Pisanino 1,946m). Bare mountain faces, pointed peaks and steep slopes are typical here, similar to in the Alpine massifs. The Apuan Alps consist mainly of limestone, so karstic forms and caves are common. However, the enormous pressure which caused the formation of the chain of mountains changed the structure of the limestone deposits, in turn causing marble to form.
With their rocky ribs, it is as though the Apuans were made for climbers and high alpinists, but walkers and day-trippers who use the many wildly romantic mountain and bridle paths on foot or on horseback, or even stay overnight in a high rifugio or bivacco, are also sure to enjoy a wonderful natural experience.
Those who like it a little less energetic can also follow the winding yet well-maintained scenic routes, such as those leading up to Campo Cecina near Monte Uccelliera (12,446m) or via Pian della Fioba into the high-lying mountain village of Arni. The return trip from here down into the little town of Seravezza in Versilia first takes you along the northern faces of Monte Altissimo (1,589m) and Monte dei Ronchi (1,350m), then through the Galleria del Cipollaio to the mountain village of Levigliani, before passing through the wild valley of Vezza with its many small marble businesses, and finally reaching the plains of the Riviera della Versilia by the Mar Tirreno.
Once you’ve arrived in the mountain tops, whether a piedi or o con la macchina, you are presented with an extraordinary, breath-taking panorama, truly unique in the Alpine world. You look down onto the spectacle of the marble quarries (tagliate), created both by nature and by man. Enormous, blindingly white piles of marble chips (ravaneti) on the edges of the mountains are proof of what armies of people have achieved over many centuries. One can only guess at the incredible quantities of stone which have been moved here in the past.
A colossal view of nature, created by man and almost unimaginable if you haven’t seen it for yourself. Not snow, but streams of marble appear to flow towards the valley floor, as if they wanted to merge with the nearby blue sea.
The natural stone of marble has been laboriously cut out of the mountain here for around 2,000 years, especially in the Carrara valleys of Collonata, Fantiscritti and Torana. People have always entrusted their wishes, their works, even their idols and memories to this fine stone. The Italian author Corrado Alvaro (1895-1956, Revolt in Aspromonte), famous for his realist, psychological novels and novellas, wrote, “Marble gives things their final attire”, thus making perhaps the most fitting statement about this fine natural material.
The many curious walkers and travellers who have visited the marble valleys near Carrara have included talented artists such as Michelangelo (his full name was Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475 - 1564, Italian sculptor, painter, architect and builder), Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680, Italian builder, sculptor, painter, chief architect of St. Peter’s in Rome and most significant European sculptor after Michelangelo) and Antonio Canova (1757 - 1822, ital. sculptor, most important representative of classical sculpture), as well as famous writers and poets such as Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870, English novelist and pioneer of the social novel, such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield), Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828 - 1910, Russian author, e.g. War and Peace and Anna Karenina) and Luigi Pirandello (1867 - 1936, author, 1925 father of Theatro d'arte, 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature).
They have all made the arduous journey to climb the pathways and routes, not without their dangers, in order to discover the unique and much-described country of giants for themselves and to see with awe the enormous white marble blocks, released from the rugged mountains, in their natural position; to meet the stone-breakers in person – these men who deliver to cities all over the world the white material that gives memorials their dignity and unique perfection.
On the steep mountainsides, along the lower reaches of the mountain streams in the tightest of spaces, at the valley mouths and on the slopes between Carrara, Massa and Pietrasanta, and larger on the narrow plain down to the Mediterranean, stood the production plants where the local marble was cut and carved – and many remain in operation to this day. This is not very different to what happened in the old, smaller workshops.
Some of the most beautiful artistic treasures man has ever created were made here. In these humble workshops, entire dynasties of carvers left behind statues and memorials for all the great European courts, for churches, squares, palaces and gardens in many cities and countries over the centuries. Some of these old workshops are still in operation today and can be visited.
When we speak of marble, it is not long before the name Carrara is mentioned. The town of Carrara on the Carrione river developed out of the village of Kar; kar being the pre-Roman name for stone. In Carrara, the insoluble bond between the town and the natural stone of marble, which has determined its destiny and cultural identity for millennia, can be seen at every turn. Just a few examples include the Romanesque cathedral, the magnificent plastering on the Piazza Alberica – one of the most elegant town decorations of the 18th Century – and the Musei del Marmo, as well as the Scuola del Marmo for technical training and the Accademia di Belle Arti for training carving.
Because Carrara became famous around the world for its marble quarries (cave), here are a few figures on the marble industry at the start of the 20th Century: There were a total of 635 quarries in the Apuan Alps at that time. 411 were in operation around Carrara (with approx. 5,800 workers), 89 around Massa (approx. 1,100 workers), and the rest in the Versilia and Arni. 74 marble sawmills were counted in Carrara in 1901, and 33 in Massa. A total of 204,000 tonnes of uncarved marble blocks, 164,000 tonnes of sawed marble and 29,700 tonnes of otherwise processed marble were exported.
Massa, just a few kilometres away from Carrara and also at the foot of the Apuan Alps between hills on the Frigido river, was always the second most important town for marble and was closely tied to Carrara in terms of administration and politics from 1473. Today, it is the capital of the Tuscan province of Massa-Carrara.
The first recorded mention of Massa is from 882. Today, plenty of magnificent evidence of this glorious past is still retained in Massa, the former capital of the Duchy of Cybo Malaspina, which lost its independence during the Napoleonic occupation. The Duke’s palace, the Palazzo Rosso, with the Palazza degli Aranci before it, form the heart and the symbol of the town. The mighty Castello Malaspina, always keeping its eye on the town from high above, is an impressive example of the fortress architecture of the 12th to 17th Centuries.
The churches are arguably some of the most obvious and most authentic examples from the ducal period. The Church of Mercy and the San Giovanni Decollato church are magnificent jewels, while the mighty cathedral is home to a rich array of works of art.
Important industries, especially those involved in stone processing, have been based all around the episcopal town of Massa since the 20th Century. It was this industry which finally made Massa-Carrara the centre of the stone trade for the entire world.