A Vision in White Marble

Iconic would be the one word I would use to describe the look, feel, tone and texture of Carrara marble.  It’s a unique substance harvested with great attention and care from mines and caves on in the mountains near the west coast of Tuscany.  By car it’s a couple of hours from Florence.  On horseback it would have been a couple of days.  This place has become famous around the world, perhaps it would be better to describe it as legendary.

The mines of Carrara produced the stone from which Michelangelo Buonarroti’s DAVID was carved.  They know where the exact mine that stone that became the David was harvested from. The facades of many of Florence’s churches are adorned in this white marble and the Cathedral itself is a gorgeous pattern of white, green and Red marble.  In my kitchen a mortar and pestle a cheese board and my countertops all take on the unique milky white with grey veins tone.  Cool to the touch solid but soft and delicate at the same time.

Marble is nothing short of beautiful and functional.

I’ve written about the lantern that sits atop the cupola and the great effort it took to get the stone both transported and raised to the height of the Cupola. But I wanted to trace Brunelleschi’s steps and visit these mines to come into contact with the unique energies that live around these marvellous geological formations which took millions of years to develop to end up on top of the cupola and on my kitchen counter.

I should throw in a side note here about food.  There is a small own nestled within the caves and mines called Colonatta. Here they are very famous for one thing, curing pork lard.  While that might turn some people off, they produce probably the finest Lardo I have ever tasted in my life.  It is cured inside marble vats in a combination of spices and salt for a period of 18 months.  Sliced thinly on a piece of bread it takes on almost a butter consistency and an unmatched flavour.  So these little trips I take are not without their particular flavour perks.

Back to the mines.

When you see the mines and begin to attempt to understand how they cut and harvest the marble it is humbling.  For me it’s quite humbling to try to imagine just how they do this today, let alone 700 years ago without any modern machinery. I put myself squarely in Brunelleschi’s shoes.  What is he looking for?  Is he getting ideas for his own inventions?  He is definitely seeing that it is possible to cut and transport this heavy and large stone. And this gives him an idea for a ship that would later be he largest financial and personal failure and disaster (i’ll save that story for another article).  But carrara represents possibility.  It’s about heavy lifting and engineering and, in a way, man beating the mountain.

The stone harvested here has been a kind of sculptural building block for art that has informed history, and great art there always seems to be great science and engineering. Brunelleschi walked these mines picking out the pieces of marble that he later had carved into his design of the lanterna (which sadly he never saw completed as it was only completed 35 years after his death).  Here too, the ribs of the lantern were harvested and those stones have helped frame the architectural art that is the Cupola.  700 years later that design and material holds true.

This marble was once also shipped to Toronto and adorned a 72 story skyscraper.  But that same marble that has lived under the tuscan sun for 700 years could not survive 40 season changes in the harsh Canadian North.  One of the last films I tried to get made before leaving Canada was about the refacing of the BMO tour in Toronto.  The buildings Carrara marble was falling off, curving and becoming a dangerous 300 million dollar problem for Brookfield Properties the buildings owner, so they bit the bullet and refaced it with a substrate material.

They didn’t want to have a film made about their 300 million dollar embarrassment.

But it makes me think about taking beautiful things and removing them from their rightful place.  Clearly the marble can weather the extremes of the environment where it was formed, but take that into the Canadian winter and it’s not the same material.  It’s these kind of fleeting thoughts that drive me on in this project.  It’s those little moments, the little decisions that Brunelleschi faced during this challenge he took on that interest me.  But it’s the overall huge collection of great decisions (i’m sure taken with much laborious thinking) that allows us the pleasure of still enjoying his building.

Here are are few pics, which don’t really do the whole Carrara experience justice.


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