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The History of Marble in Italy

by Ginger Perales

Posted on August 04, 2017 07:00:00 AM


Historical Uses

The Italian marble industry, traceable to the early Renaissance period (14th - 17th century) produces some of the world’s best marble. Firmly rooted in the distant past, Italian marble quarries are among the country’s oldest production sectors, and the marble itself can be found in some of the world’s most famous structures and artworks, such as the tomb of Pope Julius II that was commissioned by Michelangelo to build in the 1500's.

The tomb of Pope Julius II is made out of marble

Most of Italy’s marble quarries are found in what is known as the Carrara Valley also referred to as the Province of Massa-Carrara, on the border of Liguria and Emilian Romagna.

Italy’s first building to be constructed solely with marble was the Temple of Jupiter Stator in 146 B.C., in Rome, but it was the rise of the Roman Empire that saw marble become the stone of choice for the most impressive building projects funded by the state. At the time, the most commonly used Italian marble was Carrara marble from the Apuan Alps in Tuscany, but the material was widely available all across the empire. Also, Roman architects favored several varieties from North Africa, Turkey, and Egypt, although they were typically used only for columns, and for state-funded projects given transportation costs.

Carrara marble was coveted by Michelangelo, Canova, and Donatello for their sculptures because of its purity and durability, although some claim that Michelangelo’s favorite marble for sculpting was Calacatta, which is from the same region and is considered to be the most sought after material in the world of natural stone.

There are a number of other Italian marbles from this region, which are also admired for their white colors and fantastic marbling such as Bianco Carrara, Venatino, Gioia, Statuarietto, and Staturio.

Italy produces some of the world's best marbles

Extraction Techniques

In Roman times, the documented marble extraction techniques were based primarily on the exploitation of labor. Using hammers and metallic blades, workers would create what was called a caesura cut in the marble, and then enlarge the cut by hitting it with wooden wedges, sticks, or metal rods until it opened.

The introduction of black powder explosives in the 18th century sped up the process significantly. However, substantial production increase only became possible in the 19th century, when special machinery like the wire stone, which allowed a number of blocks to be cut at once, was introduced.

The real revolution in marble extraction occurred just 30 years ago when the diamond chainsaw and diamond wire were introduced.

Extracting the marble was just the first piece of the puzzle, moving it was another. During Roman times there were just two ways to transport marble blocks down the mountain, allowing them to freely slide, (a dangerous technique that typically damaged the stone) or moving them on a lizza, a type of wooden sled maneuvered and controlled using ropes that traveled across slipways created specifically for this purpose. Today, the “lizza ways” are still visible on the slopes of the Apuan Alps.

A quarry in the Apuan Alps

The lizzatura system was replaced by vehicles after the Second World War, and the extension of the railway system made marble transportation even easier, resulting in wider trade and demand.

Today

The marble industry has grown and developed continuously through the years to become an extremely important piece of Italy’s industrial landscape. There are more than 10 thousand direct, and as many indirect jobs, bringing approximately 2 billion Euro into the Italian economy, plus another 2 billion in revenue for related businesses.

Today, the Italian marble industry is concentrated within seven primary industrial zones, the largest of which is Valpolicella, in the province of Verona. Valpolicella is comprised of more than 500 companies committed to extracting some of the world’s most desirable Italian marbles.

It’s the outstanding Apuan quarries, the home of Carrara marble, that has evolved over the centuries to become the center of the marble-working world, producing raw materials that are extraordinary from extraction to polish and dedicated to the development of methods and machinery to advance the global marble industry. Because of this growing and developing marble industry, your slab inventory can include some of the most beautiful and popular marble stones in existence.

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