Dickens and the Marble-Ous Carrara Essay

The small town of Carrara (current population approximately 64,000) nestles in the foothills of the Alpi Apuane mountains in the north-west of Tuscany, north-west Italy. I had the great pleasure of staying there, in the centrally located Hotel Dora, for six days in July 2017, and the beauty, grace and elegance of the town will remain with me for a long time.

Its narrow streets and most of its buildings date from the sixteenth-century but its history extends much further, with evidence of Roman settlements in the area and records dating back to the second-century.

The Romans were the first to exploit the pure marble stone of the surrounding mountains, quarrying it for export through the nearby port of Luni, five kilometres to the north.

From that time, Carrara has been famous for its marble quarries, which have consistently produced the finest quality marble in the world; marble used by sculptors to create magnificent works of art such as Michelangelo’s David, but also used to adorn many houses worldwide – in the shape of pillars, fireplaces or kitchen surfaces – and to form the very walls and balustrades of buildings such as Carrara’s own cathedral, il Duomo di San Andrea, which was built in the twelfth century, and the slightly earlier buildings of nearby Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli.

Medieval frescos – some of which are hidden behind a later painting in a hinged frame – still decorate the walls of Carrara’s Duomo di San Andrea, whilst Renaissance sculptures stand alongside memorials to men who lost their lives quarrying that same marble on which the town’s economy has so long been dependent.

Marble is everywhere in Carrara: from street cobbles and kerbs to sculptures, wall plaques, park benches and playground equipment, the town’s local rock is the material of choice. In the main square, the Piazza Alberica, a marble fountain cools the air above the marble pavements that are alive in the evenings with children playing, teenagers chatting and adults relaxing outside bars and cafes. While I was there, the Carrara Estate (Carrara Summer) festival was in full swing each evening in Piazza Alberica, with live music and a dog show among other attractions, whilst a large Vespa rally made a peaceful and colourful day-time invasion of another of the town’s marble-packed squares.

On the outskirts of Carrara are workshops such as the Studii D’Arte, Cave Michelangelo, where sculptors come from all over the world to learn how to manipulate the marble to its best artistic and aesthetically pleasing effects, and buyers come to commission or select and purchase new works of art. Beside these workshops, and lining the roads and railways in all directions, are legions of warehouses and stockyards from where slabs and blocks of marble are prepared for export all over the world.

Even the dust from the marble quarries does not go to waste: 99.9% pure calcium carbonate (according to our tour-guide), it is added to a wide range of foods, medicines and toiletries, and is also used to whiten the paper we print on.

However, Carrara does have other claims to fame, apart from its marble

In January 1845, Charles Dickens visited the town and its quarries and wrote about them in his travel book ‘Pictures from Italy’, first published in 1846. If you haven’t read it, please get hold of a copy and enjoy Dickens’s rich and colourful descriptions of the cities, towns, countryside, people and events he experienced on his travels around Italy in 1844-45. It is a remarkable book, and gives a wonderful insight not only into the landscape and culture of nineteenth-century Italy, but also into the mind-set, trials and tribulations of the Victorian British traveller abroad.

  • Unless otherwise stated, all the quotes in the following paragraphs come from pages 643-645 of a 1950 edition of Pictures from Italy, published by Hazell, Watson & Viney Ltd. of London as one of a 16-volume set of Dickens’s works, and sharing a volume with a selection of Christmas Stories taken from Dickens’s weekly journal, Household Words (1850-59).

Of the town, Dickens wrote “shut in by great hills, [Carrara] is very picturesque and bold. Few tourists stay there; and the people are nearly all connected, in one way or other, with the working of marble.” He also mentioned its “beautiful little Theatre, newly built”, where a “chorus of labourers … who are self-taught and sing by ear … acquitted themselves very well”. This theatre still stands but is currently closed for renovation. Another theatre stands a few streets away, and the town’s theatrical tradition continues to flourish, as evidenced by the Carrara Estate festival mentioned above.

Of the quarries, Dickens wrote more critically, and at length, with his customary sensitivity for the suffering of others, including animals. Describing the cruelty endured by the teams of oxen as they pulled the heavy carts, loaded with marble, down the winding mountain roads, he observed “Two pair, four pair, ten pair, twenty pair, to one block [of marble], according to its size; … in their struggling from stone to stone with their enormous loads behind them, they die frequently upon the spot; and not they alone; for their passionate drivers, sometimes tumbling down in their energy, are crushed to death beneath the wheels.”

Lamenting that “it was good five hundred years ago, and it must be good now”, Dickens indicates his frustration with systems that resist change and think that introducing modern technology – in this case “a railroad down one of these steeps (the easiest thing in the world)” – amounts to “flat blasphemy”.

Dickens philosophically juxtaposes the hardships and dangers, for both man and beast, of the quarrying process with the aesthetic grandeur and beauty of the objects and artworks formed from the quarried rock: “it seemed, at first, so strange to me that those exquisite shapes, replete with grace, and thought, and delicate repose, should grow out of all this toil, and sweat, and torture! [but] every good thing has its birth in sorrow and distress”

However, he equates this juxtaposition of, on the one hand, ‘toil, sweat and torture’ and, on the other, ‘grace, thought and delicate repose’, to the fate of individuals, deprived by social or cultural means of the chance to develop and fulfil their potential, ignored by others more fortunate than themselves as he reflects “I thought, my God! how many quarries of human hearts and souls, capable of far more beautiful results, are left shut up and mouldering away: while pleasure-travellers through life, avert their faces, as they pass, and shudder at the gloom and ruggedness that conceal them!”

As always, Dickens’s sympathies are with the poor, the downtrodden and the least fortunate in society; those who, unlike himself, had been unable to escape drudgery, disease and hardship; those whose causes he strove to support through his journalism, novels and social campaigning.

Today, flat-bed lorries are used to transport the blocks of quarried marble, but the winding roads are as narrow and perilous as ever. Hairpin bends and steep slopes carve their way around the mountain edge, a sheer drop to one side and perpendicular rock face on the other. Jeeps full of thrill-seeking tourists traverse them at what appears to be a perilous speed, whilst the lorries carrying the precious blocks inch their way minutely around each bend and along each straight, sometimes in first gear, sometimes in reverse; great care is taken that never the twain shall meet, for neither could give way or pass!

Tour buses take more sedentary and enquiring tourists (such as me!) into a redundant quarry “in the very heart of the mountain” (said our tour guide) where, hard hats firmly fitted to each head, the process of marble quarrying is explained and rock-face evidence pointed out. The resounding echo within the chamber is demonstrated by everyone in the group calling out on a given cue, and wide-eyed faces wonder at the magnificence of the great cavity within the mountain, and also at the enterprise, ingenuity and pure scale of the marble quarrying exercise.

What would Charles Dickens make of Carrara today?

Today, I think Dickens would recognise the streets and buildings of Carrara, and would find its people as closely connected to the marble industry as in 1845. I think he would be pleased at the absence of oxen in the quarries and, whilst he may be disappointed that his proposed railroad has not replaced the oxen, he would admire, I’m sure, the skill of the lorry drivers and quarrymen who work to meet today’s demands of the worldwide marble market.