The Carrara school
Text Matteo Guarnaccia
An extravagant clash of neurons: expecting a stone trapped stubbornly between the ground and the roots of impervious mountainous areas, to express a poem about harmony, lightness and ecstasy. An amalgamation of crystallized calcium carbonate, coming in fantastically different colors – including the darkest black and the most angelic white – capable of interacting wonderfully with the light.
Imperial Rome was the main consumer of marble sourced from all around the known world, not just the Mediterranean basin, from Tunisia to Turkey, but also Northern Europe and even more exotic places like Sri Lanka. Even today, thinking of the tremendous problems encountered when transporting the gigantic blocks of stone with what they had available at the time, in a society that could only count on human and animal muscle power, is mind boggling. The Eternal City held on to its reputation as a treasure chest skillfully carved out of this gleaming stone for a long time, despite being ravaged and stripped after the fall of the Roman Empire when the marble was sent to Constantinople, to Ravenna, or brutally given up to the flames to produce mortar for use as a building material. One such palm was recently recovered from Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan that treated itself to a post-soviet facelift on account of its immense revenue coming from the export of natural gas, and earning itself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the city with the most marble buildings in the world.
Noble stone also reduced to waste. One famous use of marble dust was on the set of Doctor Zhivago by David Lean in 1965. Tons were used to transform the arid Spanish countryside, where the film was shot, into a credible scene of snow-covered steppes. Not to mention its use in the production of toothpaste, to whiten paper, to lower industrial pollution. A mortifying demotion for its image, yet perfectly in line with the modern demands of sustainability and recycling.
Historically speaking, in Italy marble has always been associated with the Apuan Alps. Here, parts of the landscape remind you of a set of teeth in terrible condition, the result of extensive quarrying at sites dating back to the Roman times, yet more marble has been extracted over the last fifty years than in the previous two thousand years. Carrara is surrounded by these bewitched quarries, amidst a dreamlike landscape that has few rivals in the world. The town itself has remained miraculously estranged from the anthropological mutation that has affected Italy over the last twenty years. A place not just of tradition but also innovation, from the chisel to robotics, a vital fabric where the Academy of Fine Arts founded in 1769 plays a vital role linking the city to the dynamics around it, to the world of business, with nine hundred students (half of whom are foreigners) compared to the town’s total population of six thousand four hundred. Its Director, Luciano Massari, is a sculptor who was born in Carrara. He corroborated the Institute’s international vocation and the unavoidably central role – despite the ample choice of other subjects taught – of the study of marble in all forms and formats (including digital), which continues to attract young people from different cultures and backgrounds. «Let’s say that those coming to Carrara still have a romantic approach to sculpture. Sculpture is all about muscle power, mental as well as physical, it develops body and mind. It helps you create a dialogue with the material, and understand its response. You have to let yourself be guided by the beauty and faults in the material. Today, it is no longer worked by hammer and chisel alone, but the starting point is still the same: knowhow», says Massari, adding: «Sculpture is back in fashion, after a long obligatory pause on account of the success of pop art. If you want to say when this happened, I would say 2008 with the great exhibition by Maurizio Cattelan in Bregenz, Austria, that marked the turning point in attitudes towards marble. His ‘nove morti insaccati’, an idea around an idea, exhumed statue making. Or maybe it was on account of the original work by Jamie McCartney».
Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara
Via Roma 1 – Carrara, MS
Images from the archive of the photographer Luciano Romano