Losing one’s Marbles

Rome was not built in a day but much of it was built from the Apuan Alps; as the emperor Augustus said “I found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”. That marble was shipped to Rome from the port of Luni on the Tyrrhenian Sea; Luni contains perhaps the most important set of Roman remains in Tuscany and is well worth a visit – just to see its amphitheatre.

The difficulty of transport meant that the majority of marble quarries were and are still located on the sea-ward side of the Apuans – there are not many quarries on the Serchio valley side –  the only two main areas are around Gorfigliano and Orto di Donna. There were also other quarries which are now abandoned – under Monte Altissimo and by the slopes of Monte Sumbra. These last were administered by the Henraux Company founded by Jean Henraux.

But who was Jean Henraux? He was a Belgian military commander of the “14 ème Compagnie d’Artillerie” in Napoleon’s Grande armée who settled in nearby Serravezza (where a very well-presented local traditions museum is housed in the exquisite Medici villa there) on his return from the Egyptian campaign. He organized the shipment of large quantities of marble from the Apuan Alps (and also many works of art from Italian collections and churches – something which we would regard as blatant theft today) during the reign of Etruria (1805-1814,) when Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baiocchi was princess of Lucca. In 1821 he founded the Henraux marble quarrying company and started his first quarry on Monte Altissimo, the same mountain from which Michelangelo obtained the marble block to sculpt his “Davide” statue in Florence’s Accademia gallery.

Quarrying in the Apuans is a highly controversial subject: it is the old story between giving jobs for the boys and damaging the environment. A similar situation is taking place at Taranto’s ILVA steel works (the largest in Europe) which is killing off large amounts of local inhabitants with its cancerogenous fumes but at the same time remains the largest employer in the region. Every day in Italy the news is full of this situation which, complicated by legal arguments, has no foreseeable solution.

Today, in the marble industry what is of major concern is not so much the quarrying itself but the degree of escalation that has taken place within the industry. With modern technology far larger loads of marble can be quarried than before and much of this is moved to satisfy the nouveau riche markets of Eastern Europe, Arabian sheiks and Far East entrepreneurs, for the adornment of their mansions and palaces.

Another Henraux mine is found below Monte Sumbra in the Turrite Secca valley. It is now completely abandoned and is regarded by environmentalists and walkers alike as a “scempio” (disgrace) to the surrounding area. There have been plans to convert part of the ex-quarry into an open-air theatre and the old works buildings into a tourist reception area. These plans have existed since 2006 but little progress appears to have been made. The entrance to the quarry is through a cathedral-like vaulted entrance completely cut out of the finest marble and is most impressive. Less impressive is the state of abandon one finds within, and the often obscene graffiti carved on the marble.

However, in 2011 the not-for-profit  “Fondazione Henraux” organization was founded aiming at a complete revaluation of the whole marble quarrying sector with special reference to its historical roots and artistic development. In effect, the fondazione is a local equivalent of the docklands project in London to record and document history and also to safeguard the delicate balance between environment and industry which once existed and is now in danger of disappearing under increased world demand for marble.

I hope this Fondazione may offer something positive to the whole marble-quarrying sector in our region. In particular I look forwards to the re-utilization and re-qualification of abandoned quarries and the more sensitive control of existing ones. In the meanwhile, if you have not already done so, a visit to a working marble quarry is well worth it.

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2 thoughts on “Losing one’s Marbles

  1. Pingback: Snowy Paths | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and beyond)

  2. Pingback: A Honey-Distilled Temple in London | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Two

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