The intention of this section is both to provide general information on the working processes in the marble valleys of the Alpi di Apuani for the interested reader and to consolidate the knowledge of natural stone experts – two thousand years of marble mining are certainly worth it.
The mining, transportation, sawing and processing of marble saw only minor improvements from their beginnings around 2,000 years ago until well into our century – with the exception of the introduction of gunpowder. The key reasons for this were the inaccessibility of the quarries in the extremely steep mountains, the inadequate road and path conditions and the transportation of the marble blocks, as well as the enormous weight and density of the material itself. To mention it again, it is significant that all the steps in this, the world’s oldest industry, were passed on from generation to generation – right up to the present day.
Although we have so far written only about the natural stone of marble, and will continue to do so, it is important not to forget the people. It is certainly not too much to assume that, over the millennia, countless slaves, serfs, bondsmen, and later men from the surrounding villages who earned their livelihoods and that of their families here, lost their lives in this extremely dangerous work: mining and transporting the marble.
Of course, these troubled times, in which horn signals were often used to inform workers that another one of their number had met his death and needed to be accompanied into the valley to his family, are long gone. But despite sophisticated modern technology, work in the quarry and with marble is still an extremely dangerous business. Luckily, when the siren sounds today, it is only a warning of an explosion, warning the workers to take care. But the mountains have always been and will remain unpredictable.
Because the ancient working techniques and experiences in the marble quarries were pioneering in all of Europe, as well as later for quarries in the new continents – from which the majority of multi-coloured granite comes today – the impressive and fascinating history of mining and transportation will now be described.
One of the best sources for this is the outstanding book Il Marmo ... Ieri e oggi - Storia fotografica della lavorazione del marmo, published by the Società Editrive Apuana Carrara. The key points have been taken from this in an abridged form, since it would be rather presumptuous to reinvent these circumstances which have been so excellently documented by the marble experts.
The majority of the first stone-breakers to be put to work are certain to have been slaves. The Romans divided the men into groups. The marmorarii were the actual stone-breakers on the ground; the quadratarii had to carve the raw blocks into shape; and the sectores serrarii split these into slabs. Traces of the mining methods of that time, the famous Roman tagliate (cut), can still be found in the very oldest quarries of Canal Grande, Colonnata, Fantiscritti, Polvaccio and Poggio Domizio.
The marmorarii drove iron wedges into the natural crevices or into chiselled holes and hit them until the block was almost completely released from the mountain, Strong workers then took over, supported by simple pulling equipment and oxen. The stone-breakers also used wooden wedges, which were kept wet. The expanding wood exerted strong pressure, helping to separate the block from its mother stone. This system continued to be used unchanged until the introduction of gunpowder. Before the stone broke off, iron balls were placed on the floor to make it easier to transport the block away. The quadratarii then used hammers and chisels to laboriously carve the broken-off block into an approximately rectangular shape.
The tremendous weight then had to be brought into the valley. The quickest way was the abbriviatura (in some areas still used until recently). This involved rolling the blocks down the stone slopes and waiting to see when and where they would come to a stop. Of course, this often destroyed them. An alternative method was the lizza, which has also survived into the present day.
Two simple wooden rails laid in the escarpment, connected the quarry to the road lower down, which led to the plains. The marble blocks were still rolled abbriviati, but their fall was transformed into a descent, because they were guided and slowed from above by thick hemp ropes. Later, the very simple rails were replaced by wooden sleepers, which were fastened at right angles to the direction of descent.
The lizza itself then came into being. Two wooden beams up to ten metres or more in length, built like a sledge, to which the load, carica, was fastened. This could be multiple blocks or a single piece up to a total weight of 25 tonnes. Here too, the load was manoeuvred from above while descending, initially using hemp ropes, and later with flexible steel ropes.
The system was later improved by the replacement of the fixed sleepers with moveable and specially shaped versions, known as parati, which were carefully roped in front of the lizza so that they could glide along it. Along the incredibly steep escarpments, up to around twenty lizzatori and one capolizza ensured that the parati were continuously placed in front of the lizza again, which left them behind as it slid down. Men controlled the rope from above, letting it run loose or slowing it down as required, by winding it around posts which had been rammed into the rock for this purpose.
The work was extraordinarily dangerous for all involved, and many people were maimed or killed when marble blocks came loose and fell to the valley floor with an almighty crash, taking with them everything in their path. It is reported that Michelangelo himself only narrowly and with great fortune escaped a similar fate in two such accidents.
The sectores serrarii had the difficult task of cutting the block into slabs. They worked in pairs with a saw, like lumberjacks: laborious and difficult work. Even today, local residents remember seeing men doing this work. The last link in the chain were former marble workers who processed small blocks, thus topping up their pensions. “They spent their days, one on the right, one on the left, gossiping and complaining with the eternal Toscano (cigarillo cheroots) in the corners of their mouths, and stopped every hour to drink a glass of wine.”
Getting the material to the sea and loading it onto the ships was the next difficult task. Waggons pulled by multiple pairs of oxen were used for transportation. The waggons and lean oxen were used until motorisation came along, i.e. just a few decades ago. Even today, the road which was once travelled by carts and now by lorries is called the Via Carriona. It passes through the entire region, from the mountains to the sea.
Once the heavy load had finally reached the loading port at the sea after its arduous journey on poor roads, the small stone ships, the naves lapidariae, had already been pulled onto land, ready to be loaded with the help of ropes, pulleys and ramps. The ships were then lowered back into the water with new difficulties.
The introduction of gunpowder made mining a lot easier. In the beginning, the very effective varata technique was used. An iron bar was used to drill a deep hole in the marble, into which hydrochloric acid was poured. The hollow created was then filled with gunpowder and ignited. However, an explosion of this kind was uncontrollable, a considerable proportion of the exploded mass was broken up, and the neighbouring stone layers were often destroyed to such an extent that it was almost impossible to continue mining.
Another big disadvantage was the amount of waste created. The ravaneti, as the almost two-thousand-year-old piles of debris between the quarries are known, are visible from a long way away and look like freshly fallen snow. They gained significantly in size as a result of this type of explosion and are a serious problem today.
In 1895, the companies Adoffo Corsi and Italo Faggioni introduced a revolutionary method for separating the blocks. They used a triple-wound steel rope, filo elicoidale, which was around 2,000 metres long and formed an almost endless cable. A significant change. This cable, which runs over pulleys attached to stays, is guided under the stone mass and cuts on one side using sand and water. The equipment is then moved and the cable cuts the other sides. Using winches and just a minimum of explosives, the marble block is separated completely from the rock and pulled out on a base levelled with waste rock.
The introduction of the so-called transmission wheel drill and the diamond crown (1896) further improved cable cutting; above all, the use of gunpowder could be dramatically reduced.
At the start of this century, jackhammers were used for the first time, drilling the blast holes in a fraction of the time.
Next, the handcarts used to transport the great marble waste away were replaced by waggons. The Decauville, as it was known, tipped the mined rock into the piles of debris and valleys from then on.
It was not until 1978 that miners began to use the diamond wire; initially only for squaring the raw blocks in the storage yard, but later also for making vertical cuts in the quarry deposit walls. Machines with diamond wires which could cut in all directions followed, and a diamond chain machine has been in use for around ten years. Today, the cable is just an industrial relic of a former time.
The marble railway, which was started in Carrara in 1976 and connected some of the marble mines with the sea and the railway network, was a tremendous step forward. As early as 1890, it reached heights of 455 metres. Once complete, the marble railway, a technical sensation in its day, was a 20km-long main line with 15 tunnels and 16 bridges, as well as another 10.5km of connecting tracks to sawmills and storage yards.
As trucks became ever larger and more powerful and the road network ever better, the railway became uneconomical and was put out of action. But the route of the marble railway can still be seen. Even today, thousands of visitors marvel at the bridges of Vara, which have become a part of the landscape and whose audacity for the time and architectural beauty still have the power to impress.
When marble came back into fashion in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, mining was expanded, and the marble railway was no longer able to cope with the increased demands on its own.
The only innovation in transportation before the end of the 19th Century was the construction of a loading bridge in Forte dei Marmi and two near Carrara, each equipped with cranes. Now, the shallow ships no longer had to be pulled onto land for loading and then laboriously lowered back into the water.
A further technical innovation came into use from 1910: tractors, slow black monsters which moved on enormous wheels with rubber tyres, causing a terrible noise and stench. It was only the tractors, named by the Ciabattone children, which were finally able to oust the carts pulled by lean oxen.
Moving the enormous blocks from the mine to the means of transport has always been the biggest problem. And the dangerous lizzatura had to be replaced at all costs. Replacing the hemp ropes with more robust and safer iron ropes was the first step. In around 1925, Gesare Fugoli introduced waggons to the mines for transportation.
Two waggons, one moving upwards, one downwards, were secured on the rails (1,250m long, a gradient of up to 75 per cent and curves with a radius of 6m) via an electric winch with a pulling capacity of 56 tonnes. Because the rails were also laid over piles of debris, i.e. over moving terrain, differentiation between the two wheels on the left and right was used to created room for manoeuvre, while others remained fixed to the rails. The piano inclinato (diagonal level) was the first mechanical lizzatura.
In the Canal Grande marble basin, behind the Cava Fatiscritti, is the Cava della Carbonera, where marble has been mined for many years. This quarry entered the history books of marble mining in the Apuan Alps in 1928, with a unique marble event. An enormous block, absolutely free from blemishes, was cut out here using a wound wire (filo elicoidale). It was 18 metres long, 2.35 metres wide and the same high, and weighed over 300 tonnes. This enormous block – called monolite – was chosen to form an obelisk in the Forum Mussolini in Rome, where it stands to this day.
Transportation out of this high-lying marble quarry was a huge technical challenge in those days. A huge lizzatura had to be built to the nearest road, and the marble block was wrapped in wood and iron to protect it – an additional weight of around 64 tonnes. These 364 tonnes were secured and pulled with 25 steel cables. The distance from the quarry high in the mountains to the loading point in the port of Carrara – with its specially built ship – was 11 kilometres, which had to be covered through tiny villages and the streets of the town of Carrara.
This was extremely tough and difficult work for the 30 lean oxen pairs and their drivers, who took eight whole months to complete it. 70,000 litres of soft soap was needed to lubricate the parati wooden rollers. Progress was also made in the large mining regions of the Apuan Alps. A narrow-guage railway was also built from Massa, stretching 13km into the mountains.
In the Versilia, a narrow-gauge railway connected the marble centres of Trambiserra and Ponte Stazemese with the state railway and the Forte dei Marmi loading bridge from 1916; a distance of 19km. 10km of narrow-gauge railway were also laid in the Garfuagana. In around 1930, a unique, 1,500m-long cable railway was put into operation, in order to access the productive marble quarries at a height of 1,200m on the north-eastern slopes of the Sagro mountain. The lower terminus was at a height of 500m; the end station at 1,100m. Able to transport blocks of up to around 34 tonnes, the cable railway was put out of operation as early as 1957, after a waggon with a full load of blocks plunged to the valley floor when the transportation cable broke.
It was not until the construction of roads through towns and communities was driven forwards by private individuals that the long-called-for connections to the marble basins were created. The lizzatura problem had now been solved, and the transportation of the heavy blocks to the sawmills and workshops on the plains below was now rational and had been adapted to the amounts mined at the quarries. Today, the marble basin is linked to the valley via an extensive road network.
Transportation is now negotiated with the latest and most powerful trucks. One shudders when watching the truck drivers; experts driving around the tight corners and up and down the steepest of hills. Manoeuvring the enormous, heavily laden trucks around the hairpin bends is a breath-taking spectacle – but it’s not for everyone. Today, the roads also allow the latest machinery, including cranes, enormous diggers and dumpers etc., to be used on site in the quarries.
It is also important to mention a social aspect of road construction; after all, the workers in the quarries also benefitted from it. In the past, before there were any roads, they had to leave soon after midnight in order to be at the quarry at dawn, and then, in the afternoon, after six hours of difficult and dangerous work – they had fought long and hard for these working times – walk the same distance back home again.