A lively blend of art history and travelogue covering the legacy of Carrara marble, the author’s Italian roots and one of the greatest artists who ever lived.
The Italian town of Carrara, where Scigliano has family ties, has become synonymous with marble. It’s a place that doesn’t figure in the guidebooks: Carrara is an industrial place, “raw, rough-edged, and quirky . . . whose residents do something other than cater to tourists.” Situated at the foot of the Apuan Alps, a giant block of fissured marble, it was once the center of the world’s stone trade, though other countries—Brazil, India and, overwhelmingly, China—have since overtaken Italy. (“Italy is finished,” an Indian matter-of-factly tells Scigliano.) Indeed, it is cheaper now for an Italian to purchase a piece of white Carraran marble, ship it to China to have it carved into a gravestone and place it in an Italian cemetery than it is to have the work done domestically, a condition that has driven the economy of Carrara, in the otherwise wealthy province of Tuscany, into the ground. The author connects the story of Carrara marble to Michelangelo, who favored it as a material: Just as there is an overpowering, elemental quality to the work of Michelangelo, exemplified in the magnificent David he carved from a block of unwanted Carraran stone, so there is an indomitable quality to the Carrarans, who have long been characterized by obdurate resistance to whatever powers happen to be. Fittingly, Michelangelo himself, as is well-documented, wasn’t so easy to get along with. The Carraran quality of independence endures, but other differences are disappearing as new influences swamp the town: Many stoneworkers, one tells Scigliano, are devotees of yoga, and the clipped local dialect is increasingly the speech of the old as standard Italian enters via television.
An affectionate, gracefully written portrait of a little-known place that has suffered much pain to bring the world great beauty.