The Marble Quarries With Michelangelo

Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of the greatest Italian Renaissance artists who ever lived. He was great not only because of the artworks he produced but also because of what he was willing to endure to produce them.

One of the things he had to endure was the dangers of marble quarries in the mountains of Italy, where artists sourced the marble for their sculptures. Most artists came to the quarries to select the marble they wanted and then left.

However, Michelangelo sometimes stayed in the quarry and helped the workers in the dangerous and difficult task of separating the blocks of marble from the mountain itself, and he made sure that the marble made it safely to the bottom of the quarry where it was shipped to Rome or Florence.

Epoch Times photo
Unfinished Portrait of Michelangelo, c.1545, by Daniele da Volterra. Oil on wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (public domain)

William Wallace’s book Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times helps us to imagine what it would have been like to work with Michelangelo in the marble quarries of Renaissance Italy.

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Epoch Times photo
Let’s spend a day at the quarry where Michelangelo found some of his finest marbles. Carrara marble quarries in the mountains of Tuscany, Italy. (Federico Rostagno/Shutterstock)

Let’s imagine: we traveled here on mules months ago, so we’ve been here a while; Selecting the marble, separating it and lowering it into the valley is a long process. This is not the first time we have done this as our patron Michelangelo is one of the most famous and busiest artists of our time.

Michelangelo is always working on big projects requested by cardinals or popes. We’re not sure if anyone has ever extracted blocks of marble as large as they want them to be. Against this background, we do our best to fulfill his wishes as safely and quickly as possible.

He has already selected the cleanest and purest marble to his liking and now we separate it using the ancient Roman method of chipping cracks in the marble and then inserting wet wood which when expanded splits the marble from its source.

After the marble is separated, we shape it and carefully place it on a slide that we make. Some of these marble slabs are over 30 feet high and could easily injure one of us if we’re not careful, which is why Michelangelo is there to monitor our every move.

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"pieta" by Michelangelo, 1497. Marble
In 1497, Michelangelo made his first trip to the Carrara marble quarries in the mountains of Tuscany, Italy, and he carefully selected the block of marble that would become the Pietà: one of his most admired statues. “Pietà”, 1497, by Michelangelo. Carrara marble. St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. (public domain)

Not only does he monitor us, but he selects and checks all the materials he orders to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible. He often takes notes and draws diagrams to ensure we take the best path to complete the journey ahead.

The next part of the journey is very important and highly treacherous. We know people who have lost fingers or limbs or died in this part of the process. We tie the marble to a large sled that has been placed on a rail and tie ropes around the marble.

Then we all, including Michelangelo, grab a rope, take a deep breath and very slowly, step by step, descend down the side of the mountain. Gravity is not on our side; We could damage the marble if we descend too quickly. Our muscles ache and we’re out of breath, and it feels like we’re only moving about a dozen meters an hour!

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We will do this every day until we reach the bottom of the valley where the marble begins a 150 kilometer journey to Florence. It is taken to sea by ox-cart and shipped to Pisa. From Pisa it will travel up the Arno to Signa, where it will be reloaded onto oxcarts for delivery to Florence.

I’m sure we all hope that our hard work will pay off and that this great sculptor of our time creates works of art that will last for centuries.

Every day we wake up and rush to our jobs or school. We become part of a routine that seems to encapsulate us. In this A Day in the Life series, we take a moment from our hectic, fast-paced world, step out of our routine and imagine what life might have been like in different cultures and eras.

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