Michelangelo's Mountain: The Quest For Perfection in the Marble Quarries of Carrara

Michelangelo's Mountain: The Quest For Perfection in the Marble Quarries of Carrara

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by Eric Scigliano

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No artist looms so large in Western consciousness and culture as Michelangelo Buonarroti, the most celebrated sculptor of all time. And no place on earth provides a stone so capable of simulating the warmth and vitality of human flesh and incarnating the genius of a Michelangelo as the statuario of Carrara, the storied marble mecca at Tuscany's northwest corner


No artist looms so large in Western consciousness and culture as Michelangelo Buonarroti, the most celebrated sculptor of all time. And no place on earth provides a stone so capable of simulating the warmth and vitality of human flesh and incarnating the genius of a Michelangelo as the statuario of Carrara, the storied marble mecca at Tuscany's northwest corner. It was there, where shadowy Etruscans and Roman slaves once toiled, that Michelangelo risked his life in dozens of harrowing expeditions to secure the precious stone for his Pietà, Moses, and other masterpieces.
Many books have recounted Michelangelo's achievements in Florence and Rome. Michelangelo's Mountain goes beyond all of them, revealing his escapades and ordeals in the spectacular landscape that was the third pole of his tumultuous career and the third wellspring of his art. Eric Scigliano brings this haunting place and eternally fascinating artist to life in a sweeping tale peopled by popes and poets, mad dukes and mythic monsters, scheming courtiers and rough-hewn quarrymen. In showing how the artist, land, and stone transformed one another, Scigliano brings fresh insight to Michelangelo's most cherished works and illuminates his struggles with the princes and potentates of Carrara, Rome, and Medici Florence, who raised intrigue to a high art. He recounts the saga of the David, the improbable masterpiece that Michelangelo created against all odds, of the twin Hercules that he tried to erect beside it, and of the Salieri-like nemesis who snatched away the commission, turning a sculptural testament to liberty into a bitter symbol of tyranny and giving Florence the colossus it loves to hate.
Scigliano plumbs the Renaissance archives, uncovering previously unpublished and untranslated documents, and trolls the earthy cantinas of Carrara, where old cavatori who wrestled giant blocks from the mountains by hand recount the miseries and glories of a vanishing heroic age. He takes readers along with another sojourner, the exiled poet Dante Alighieri, who drew his visions of Hell and Purgatory partly from the surreal panorama of Carrara's quarries. Interweaving art, architecture, science, politics, folklore, and even quarry cuisine, he traces the mystique of marble and the magic of the stone carver's art from prehistory to the present, and shows how they culminate in the triumph and tragedy of Michelangelo's Pygmalion-like quest to bring life out of stone.

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Introduction: Aristide's Trail

Lump the whole thing! say that the Creator made Italy from designs by Michael Angelo.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

He was as much shaped by the marble as the marble was shaped by him.

William Wallace, Michelangelo at San Lorenzo

"In Italy," my grandmother used to say, "our people wore hats." Not the shapeless caps of ordinary laborers: the men of the Mazzei family wore the crowned fedoras appropriate to landowners and lawyers, government officials and...stone carvers. They worked with their hands, but in a trade that, in their home town, was as proud as a medieval guild: they worked the marble. Her grandfather Vincenzo had been a cavatore in the marble mecca of Carrara, one of the quarrymen who hacked and pried the great blocks of stone loose from the mountain and eased them down the slopes. Perhaps they had arrived in the marble belt just a few decades or generations back; Mazzei is typically a toscano, not carrarino, name, and my grandmother claimed (without any particular evidence) that we were related to one eminent Tuscan, Philip Mazzei. This peripatetic physician, merchant, and adventurer became a friend and neighbor of Thomas Jefferson, served as revolutionary Virginia's roving ambassador to Europe, and joined in both the French Revolution and the Polish government. His boosters call him, with unintended irony, "the godfather of the Declaration of Independence" because of his writings, which Jefferson translated and purportedly borrowed from. He did help draft a Polish constitution.

Alleged ancestors aside, the familiar Tuscany of Chianti wine, rolling hills, and pricey, picturesque villas is a far cry from the rough peaks and rough-hewn ways of Carrara. Though the town and surrounding territory were nominally annexed to Tuscany when Italy was unified in the 1860s, they remain a world apart -- as Michelangelo Buonarroti discovered more than five hundred years ago, when he came seeking marble for Rome's and Florence's grandest monuments.

The pay was meager in the mid-1800s and the quarry work was punishing. It began soon after midnight, when the cavatori started the long hike up the slopes to launch that morning's assault upon the stone before the heat of day set in. Death came suddenly and frequently, when shaky outcrops collapsed or ropes broke and twenty-ton blocks went careering off their skids. Nevertheless, Vincenzo Mazzei survived. He became capocava -- foreman -- of one of the largest quarries, and his son Adolfo could have followed in his booted tracks. But Adolfo had other ideas. Though they did not study at Carrara's Accademia di Belle Arti, he and his brothers graduated to another stage in the gritty alchemy that turns rough rock into polished sculpture. Adolfo went to work at Laboratorio Lazzerini, Carrara's largest sculpture studio, rising to foreman when he was just twenty-three. Then he and his brothers set up their own laboratorio, where they chipped and scribed and shaped and buffed the stone, producing busts of Italy's aristocrats, nymphs, and fauns for its fountains, saints and Madonnas for its churches.

Adolfo became one of Carrara's most distinguished sculptors. In 1909 he won a first-place gold medal at Rome's Grand Exposition of Art, Industry, and Commerce for his bust of the locally born, nationally revered poet Giosuè Carducci; the photograph of the bust accompanying an article in L'Illustrazione di Roma reveals both hyperrealistic detail and the intense Romantic expression expected in portraits of poets. At that point Adolfo had already completed his most lucrative commission, four statues for Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York, and used his earnings to buy and refurbish a spacious, stately house just up from Carrara's center, on a road to the marble quarries. To express his gratitude to America and his delight at what he saw in New York, he vowed to name his next son after its president, Theodore Roosevelt. When his wife, who was already pregnant, bore a daughter, he named her Roosevelt. But such a name was unseemly after the Fascists came to power, so "Roosevelt" was Italianized to "Rosvelda." She married a Tuscan immigrant from San Miniato, who founded a business inventing and manufacturing glues, blades, and abrasives for those who worked the stone. Their son Luigi Brotini took it over, and invented more. More than half a century later, Luigi introduced me to the lore of Carrara and the majesty of the marble mountain.

Working for Adolfo did not sit well with his younger brother Aristide, also an able stone carver, who did not want to work for his brother. Or so my father tells me; his sister Claire, who is older and so in a better position to know, remembers a more romantic explanation for her grandfather Aristide's embarkation. She says he fell in love with an unlettered village beauty who was beneath the station of a respected stone clan. Marry her, he was told, and lose your place in the business. He married her anyway.

Eleven decades later, under the impression that Ermelinda Masetti had been the belle of the quarrymen's village of Bedizzano, halfway up one of the three roads that run from Carrara to the quarries, I rode there in an afternoon bus filled with rambunctious middle-school kids. The comune (city) offices in Carrara, under whose jurisdiction Bedizzano falls, had no records of any births matching hers. But not all births were necessarily recorded, and so I determined to check the baptism records at Bedizzano's parish church.

I waited at the bottom of the narrow stairs behind the little church while the afternoon catechism class finished up. The kids streamed out, and Father Guido Sanguinetti followed. If central casting were to supply a kindly village priest for one of those heartwarming coming-of-age-in-the-old-country movies that used to flood out of Italy, it would send in Father Guido -- who, I later learned, had shepherded the parish since 1947. He looked like a subcompact version of the singer Charles Aznavour -- a tiny, cheerful octogenarian in a black robe, dark beret, and enormous black-rimmed glasses, with a merry smile, an air of eager distraction, and the stride of a race walker. I trotted to keep up, though I was at least a foot taller, as he beelined across Bedizzano's stately little piazza. Without slowing, he greeted the cavatori and pensioners hanging about the piazza bars as though they were still his pupils, and chided one who had resumed smoking. Reaching his office, Father Guido pulled out one enormous leather-bound record book after another, poring over the names marked in browned ink in the fine, florid hands of a bygone penmanship. Nope, no matches there either.

As it turned out, the chase was a wild and goosy one. I was mistaken; she came not from Bedizzano but from another hillside hamlet, La Foce, on the high road to Massa, Carrara's decidedly nonidentical twin city. There, her relatives would later start the first gas station in the area and become prominent Fascists -- reputed participants in one of the most ghastly of many massacres the Germans and Italian Black Brigades perpetrated after making the Apuans their last-ditch defense against the approaching Allies. But it was not an entirely fruitless chase. Father Guido apologized profusely for coming up short, but then brightened. My great-grandmother's husband was a sculptor named Mazzei? Then he did have something to show me! He led me on another beeline to a storage shed -- the treasury, they would call it in a grander church -- whose rough wood shelves were lined with goblets, candles, and simple, folksy sculptures. The prize was a plaster bust of some long-ago duchess or marchesa, the model for a final marble, Father Guido proudly announced, by the distinguished sculptor Adolfo Mazzei. He led me back out to the piazza, where, midway between the two bars, stood this marble village's most prominent work in marble, the sort of monument that stands in piazzas all across Italy: a monument to the local boys who fell in the First World War. It was signed, in large chiseled letters, A-mazzei/Carrara.

No wonder Aristide left. He had to go all the way to America to get out from under his brother's shadow.

He arrived in Boston around 1890 and went to work in a marble shed in Lee, Massachusetts, due south of the Vermont quarries where Carrarese cavatori (quarrymen) and stonecutters (scarpellini or, in the modern spelling, scarpellini, literally "little chisels") would establish a "Little Carrara" at Barre. Today, just one master carver from Carrara, Giuliano Cecchinelli, is still active in Barre, though he works valiantly to keep the tradition alive. But in Carrara's hole-in-the-wall cantinas, when the old cavatori and scarpellini learn you're from America, many will break into stories of their years in Barre. Damn cold winters, they'll say; sometimes their hands froze to the stone as they handled it. But damn good money.

Aristide, now called "Harry," soon moved back east, to the town of Everett, just north of Boston. He brought his young family over from Carrara and kept working the stone. He was not particularly religious himself, but he carved saints and Madonnas to inspire those who were. He carved gravestones and funeral monuments, now as then the bread and butter of the stone business. He won a part in two prestigious commissions: he carved stonework, including ornate inscriptions and bas-reliefs, for the Boston Public Library, America's premier Italian Renaissance palace, and he sculpted figures in the city's ornate Metropolitan Theatre (now the Wang Theatre), though its marble is mostly faux. When his daughter Alma, my grandmother, fell deathly ill with childhood pneumonia, the doctor drained her flooded lung cavity and treated her for months, then declined to take cash payment; he asked only for an exquisite small sculpture, a pair of clasped hands -- her hands -- that her father had carved. She cried when the doctor took it.

However uncongenial Aristide may have found the strict social code in the old country, he brought the same strictness to the new. He believed girls should stay home as their mothers had in Italy, and forbade my grandmother and her sister the movies, dances, and other diversions of the New World (which they snuck off to enjoy anyway). In photos he stands rigid as the stone itself, staring firm and unsmiling into the camera. His mustache is clipped and his hair close-cropped in the proto-crewcut called a "wiffle"; the effect is inescapably Teutonic. His wife, whom he doted on, called him "the German." He taught his children and grandchildren to sing, then tapped time with his cane as they did. The tunes he taught them were not Italian; years later, his granddaughter, my Aunt Claire, did a double take when she heard the same tunes sung at a German nightclub.

He inveighed often against "the Italians": "Italians are just no good," Aunt Claire recalls him saying. "Don't you marry one!"

"But Grampa," she replied, "we're Italian."

"No, we're not," he intoned. "We're Tuscan!"

My grandmother recalled how her father would come home after a day in the workshop, go to the bathroom, and cough up blood. But marble may not have been the culprit. In Carrara they say that marble dust does not hurt the lungs, at least not white statuario marble, which is very nearly pure calcium carbonate. But granite, which is full of abrasive silica, causes wasting, killing silicosis. And Aristide surely had to work granite in Massachusetts; it abounds in stony New England, and is much harder and tougher than marble. Before the advent of respirator masks and airflow systems to suck up the dust, generations of stone carvers and quarry workers died young providing enduring monuments to those who'd lived to ripe old age.

When I start to explain why I set out to write a book on Michelangelo Buonarroti and the marble quarries of Carrara, my friends say what the reader may well be thinking: "Ah, you're writing a book about going back to your roots" -- as if the world needed any more such books. But roots go only so far for most of us. I confess that I took some pleasure when people around Carrara -- after asking about my ancestry (Scigliano, from my paternal grandfather's side, is a Calabrese name, as strange there as it is here) and learning of my scarpellino great-grandfather -- would say, "O, sei proprio carrarino!" You're one of us! And I had no qualms about exploiting the access that this connection thrice-removed sometimes afforded. But I had no intention of writing about "my roots," or any illusion that they were the stuff of epic.

But earlier, in a college preceptorial on Michelangelo Buonarroti, I encountered something that was. Call it genius, or terribilita, as Michelangelo's contemporaries did, it smacked me in the face like a gale wind. I felt that wind again a decade later when I arrived in Rome for the first time since childhood and beheld firsthand the Vatican Pietà, then Moses at the truncated tomb of Julius II, and then, in Florence, David and the Medici tombs. As I marveled at what genius had wrought from the same stone that the Mazzei once worked, I longed to see the marble mountain. But circumstances did not cooperate, and I never connected with the cousins who dwelt there still.

I finally arrived on a long-delayed train from Rome, late at night in early January 1985, during the coldest winter in Italy in a hundred years. The snow that slowed the train now filled the night sky, and the mountain of white marble was invisible and unapproachable, lost in a different whiteness. And so I pushed on to Milan.

Years later I returned to Italy, crossed the Apennines in blinding sleet, and arrived to a fair morning in Carrara. I located my father's cousin Luigi Brotini, who lived in a marble-lined house with his Sardinian wife, Cecilia. Luigi was a better host and guide than anyone curious about the cave (quarries) could hope for. The family firm, which his sons now managed, made the bits and blades and grinding pads that thousands of local lavoratori, artigiani, and scultori used to cut and shape the stone. He seemed to know everyone on the mountain and in the valleys below, and still had boundless energy and enthusiasm for the subject of marble at the age of seventy-three. A madcap week in the cave and workshops, stumbling after the tireless Luigi through the white dust and debris, only piqued my hunger to know this hard, pale land and to understand these men of stone and this stone of men.

I did not intend to write anything about them, yet their stories begged to be told. But where to begin? The vertical moonscape of peaks and quarries and the twenty-six-hundred-year history of their conquest and exploitation -- a history drenched in blood and occasionally limned by genius, peopled with slaves and centurions, emperors and brigands, butchers and poets, anarchist saints and Fascist demons -- and throughout, the stoic stonecutters and quarrymen, moving mountains with their bare hands: it all seemed a spectacle too ample for any chronicle to comprehend. Even the ordinarily sardonic, saturnine Michelangelo Buonarroti was swept away by this spectacle.

And there the streams converged. Michelangelo's exploits loom over Carrara and its quarries just as his art does over the history of Western sculpture and painting. Tramping around the calco-strewn slopes, or watching the master carvers at work in their powder-covered workshops, I was everywhere reminded of the restless feet that trod here and the powerful hands that took the marble's measure more than five hundred years ago, when Buonarroti came, as he put it, to "tame these mountains" and steal their stone. It seems especially apt to speak of the man and mountain together, almost as characters in a dual drama -- at once a love story and a contest of wills. "A force of nature," we would call Michelangelo today, and the term fits. In appearance he was very unlike the ex-model, Charlton Heston, who played him -- a man of modest height, slump shouldered and spindly legged, with an oversized forehead, a squashed nose, and a scraggly forked beard, given at times to sloppy dress, poor hygiene, paralyzing depressions and panic attacks, and flights of suspicion verging on paranoia. But there is an elemental, overpowering quality to his work and, beneath his quirks, to the man who made it. It is magnificent and monstrous at once. Terribilita, his contemporaries called this quality, invoking the dread as well as exhilaration that his art evoked even in their worldly hearts.

Perhaps no artist save Shakespeare (who was born two months after Michelangelo died) has cast so outsized a shadow, a shadow that falls especially long across this place. It is common to speak of his life as pulled between two poles -- Florence with its artistic and political ferment, its Medici tyrants, and republican revolutions, and Rome with its imperious popes, scheming cardinals, and lavish projects. But his orbit had a third pole: Carrara, where he found his ideal medium and restorative solace and inspiration -- as well as danger, frustration, wearying intrigue, and bitter disappointment. We cannot fully understand Michelangelo, or the importance of Carrara and its marble, without understanding his relationship to them.

Michelangelo was a sculptor by vocation, but he also stands among the great masters in architecture and painting and the near-great in poetry; he was a transformative influence in all these arts. His formal schooling, like Shakespeare's, was slight, and he too had but little Latin and no Greek. But he was recognized even in his lifetime as a supreme example of the universal Renaissance genius, surpassing in some ways even his rival Leonardo da Vinci. "The divine Michelangelo," Giorgio Vasari called him, structuring his series of artistic biographies to build to the apotheosis of Michelangelo's achievements. Just as, in the Old Testament and in the Sistine Chapel ceiling scheme, the prophets Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jonah were supposed to presage Christ's arrival, so Giotto, Donatello, Masaccio, and the rest were cast as warm-up acts for the artistic messiah, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Leonardo played the part of John the Baptist.

At the same time, Michelangelo was the harbinger of chaos who wrote finito to the rationalist Renaissance. He precipitated the era of lurid color, flamboyant gesture, dramatic exaggeration, and highly personalized style called Mannerism, sometimes (implausibly) defined as "in the manner of Michelangelo." He was in many ways the first modern artist: the first Romantic, the first Expressionist, the proto-founder of a score of different schools. He was the first artistic superstar, in an age when artists were just beginning to discover the fruits and burdens of celebrity. He remains the only one whose merest jottings -- his letters are concerned largely with money and petty family disputes -- are subjected to repeated translation and the elaborate exegesis of both scholars and popular novelists. Even a pair of simple menus he jotted down one day are more often reproduced, and more familiar to the general public, than masterpieces by nearly every other Rennaissance artist. We can surmise his tastes were simple; we know that one day's fare consisted of "one salad, four loaves of bread, two fennel soups, one herring, and one round pitcher," presumably of wine. The accompanying sketches show he would have made a great menu artist.

His rare pronouncements on art were treated as oracular in his time, and still are in ours. When the genre of biography was just being revived, he was honored with three biographies in his lifetime. Other authors, most notably the irrepressible Portuguese painter and poseur Francisco de Holanda, recorded (or perhaps concocted) lengthy dialogues with Michelangelo in which the master casts wise pearls to his apostles.

The Francisco de Holandas of our time write press releases and situation comedies rather than pseudo-Platonic dialogues, but they still haven't let off exploiting Michelangelo. If anything, they drop his name even more often, and just as self-servingly. "Michelangelo" has become a metabrand, a universal code for artistic achievement just as "Kleenex" is for paper tissue and "Xerox" for photocopies -- with the added advantage that using "Michelangelo" indiscriminately won't draw letters from his lawyers. He is the default example of excellence and the much-abused term "genius," and not just in discussions of art.

His name serves as handy shorthand for writers celebrating virtuosity in any field, however mundane. Newspapers have lauded Olympic swimmers and runners, molecule-bending drug designers, a celebrated butcher, and an Indiana pumpkin carver as the Michelangelos of their professions. To call a certain $37,500 bicycle just a bicycle "would be like calling Michelangelo's David just another sculpture." The marketing chief for the 76ers basketball team "works in the medium of bobbleheads and Beanie Babies the way Michelangelo worked in marble." Still, the trope has a distinguished literary lineage: Marcel Proust described the family cook going "to the central market to get the best cuts of rump steak, beef shin, calves' feet, like Michelangelo spending eight months in the mountains of Carrara choosing the most perfect blocks of marble for his monument to Julius II."

"Carrara," or (as it's almost inevitably paired) "Carrara marble," has become just as ubiquitous a metabrand, the emblem of luxury with a dash of Old World dignity and élan. In the electronic marketplace of ideas, stature is measured in online hits, and the Google search engine, when I last checked, turned up 47,400 references to "Carrara marble," plus another 18,400 to its Italian equivalent -- more than twice the total of the references to the three major American marbles (Georgia, Colorado, and Vermont). As press releases and newspaper puff pieces tell it, the counters in swank new Manhattan restaurants, the bathrooms aboard cruise ships, and the lobbies of new five-star hotels and class A office towers are never clad in mere marble; they're done up in Carrara marble. Since marble comes from scores of places around the world, it's a fair bet that much of this "Carrara marble" is about as Carrarese as a Starbucks triple-tall skinny vanilla latte is Italian -- or at best it was cut and polished in Carrara after being quarried somewhere else.

This glamour is incongruous, because most of those who gush over luxurious Carrara marble would probably run for the nearest Hilton (or at least the nearest cute Tuscan expat haven) if they actually saw the town of Carrara. If you find anyone who appreciates the town itself, cleave to him or her, because you have found a friend with discernment, imagination, and adventurous spirit. The real Carrara is raw, rough-edged, and quirky. It is that anathema of guidebooks, an "industrial" community whose residents do something other than cater to tourists. Lock the doors, Myrtle, we're heading for San Gimignano.

Likewise, many of those who blithely invoke Michelangelo's name might be dismayed by a closer look, or an honest look, at him. The fascination with Michelangelo shows plaintively in the contortions that his scholarly disciples turn to deny or excuse aspects of his character that they find unseemly. For example, on four occasions, as a youth and young man and in middle and old age, he took flight when political turmoil, invading armies, or supposed Vatican rivals loomed in view. Once, in 1529, he even abandoned a position of high trust as chief of fortifications for his besieged city (though he later returned and resumed his post). These bouts of panic hardly jibe with the steadfast heroes he sculpted -- David, Moses, The Defiant Captive, Brutus -- or with the nonchalance he showed in the face of natural dangers, such as tumbling blocks of marble on the steep Apuan slopes. Nevertheless, Charles De Tolnay, the dean of Michelangelo's many twentieth-century biographers and an indefatigable apologist for him, found an ennobling logic in these episodes: "These escapes are actually symptoms of a sense of responsibility for his genius which seems to be constantly present in Michelangelo. At the first indication of approaching danger, he takes to flight."

And then there is the thornier matter of Michelangelo's sexuality, which one biographer after another has tried to present as sublimated and unconsummated (possible), nonexistent (implausible), or heterosexual (preposterous). Irving Stone's novel The Agony and the Ecstasy, which has likely done more than all other books together to shape popular impressions of Michelangelo, gives him three female love interests, none well grounded in historical evidence: Lorenzo de' Medici's consumptive youngest daughter, with whom he mutually pines from puberty on; a Bolognese grandee's ravishing mistress, who falls for him -- squashed nose, bodily stench, and all; and a lady of the Roman night who gives him "the French sickness," syphilis. Perhaps he got a discount as an employee of the Vatican, whose priests and visitors supported a booming fleshpot sector.

Luckily for Stone, novelists needn't defend their presumptions. Biographers must, but the best argument the neo-Victorian advocates of a "manly" Michelangelo can muster is that he couldn't possibly be an "invert" because no one who is could render such sensuous female figures as Eve in the Sistine ceiling's Temptation panel, Dawn in the Medici Chapel, and the painted Leda. Michelangelo may indeed have used a female model for Eve (though she is incongruously brawny for a girl who was supposed to have been born yesterday). He certainly seems to have used one for Dawn, though her expression is anxious rather than beckoning; she is a conspicuously soft contrast to the wiry masculine figure, with saclike breasts hanging from taut pectorals, of her sister Night. But the Leda, known only through copies, is a twin to Night. And even if these few exceptions were alluring nymphs, they would still be far outnumbered by the innumerable beautiful male nudes Michelangelo carved, painted, and drew throughout his career, from the decidedly unbiblical youths lolling behind the Holy Family in his Doni Tondo tempera panel to the army of cavorting, contorted ignudi on the Sistine ceiling and the swooning, langorous figures of the marble Dying Captive and the charcoal Ganymede.

It is true that the unclothed body, even when enticingly formed, can be used to convey many ideas other than enticement: innocence, perfection, wisdom, freedom, pagan antiquity, even divinity. (Titian's Sacred Love is nude, while his Profane Love is clothed.) But when Titian and Botticelli sought to convey such ideas, they painted female nudes. Michelangelo almost invariably, and obsessively, depicted idealized male figures. Two voluptuous female nudes do not a skirt chaser make.

Still, hard evidence is lacking. Unlike the roguish Benvenuto Cellini, Michelangelo was never prosecuted for sodomy, which was a crime in their day though common among the artistic and intellectual elite. Whatever we might surmise from the preoccupations of his art, the whisperings of his contemporaries, and his passionate correspondence with the dashing young courtier Tommaso de' Cavalieri, we cannot know that he had homosexual relationships. We can know only to what objects his imagination ran, and not even all these, since he destroyed most of his private drawings. But the fact that we still speculate on his erotic affinities, and that there are those who concoct absurd "defenses" four centuries after his death, is one more proof of the power of the fruits of that imagination.

Every sculptor and painter who has since tried to capture the human figure or soul has followed in Michelangelo's wake -- or fought to escape it. I've heard both an Iraqi-born sculptor in Seattle and a painter-turned-television documentary producer in Boston say it was Michelangelo who inspired them most of all, whose example gave them the courage to strike out as artists. His own strength never flagged -- though he grumbled for five decades about the miseries of growing old -- nor did his passion for working stone. Six days before he died, just shy of eighty-nine, he was chipping away at his last marble Pietà.

This passion extended to three other arts: disegno (deseigno in his day, a word that meant both drawing and design), which he saw as sculpture's foundation; architecture, which he saw as its extension; and poetry. The last he pursued both avidly -- leaving behind more than three hundred madrigals, sonnets, epitaphs, and unfinished fragments -- and sculpturally, hammering out blunt, plaintive verses like figures in stone. But his passion did not extend to other arts, not even to other sculptural media. In nearly eight decades of work, he produced at least three hundred marble sculptures (many unfinished) and conceived or roughed out scores of others that he never managed to execute. At the same time, he is known to have executed just two bronze statues, one wooden crucifix, two finished easel paintings (one of which survives) and two unfinished ones, one snow statue (at the insistence of his rapscallion patron Piero de' Medici), and four monumental frescoes. Two of those, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgment, are the most celebrated frescoes and arguably the greatest painting cycle ever undertaken. But he complained bitterly about having to paint them, insisting that painting "is not my profession." He would say the same of architectural projects.

Such demurrals may have been self-serving -- a stratagem to lower expectations and make his eventual achievements seem all the more miraculous -- but the fact that he made the claim most plaintively to his father, to whom he had nothing to prove, suggests that it was on at least some occasions heartfelt. Coerced, cajoled, and lured by his own ambition into unfamiliar media that he mastered in spite of himself, he lamented in the chords of exile his banishment from his true medium, and from the marble mountain that supplied that medium in such abundance.

Perhaps he could not return there, but I could, and I decided to retrace his steps, and trace the part that mountain's celebrated stone played in the creation not just of some of the greatest works of art ever shaped by human hands, but of our essential models of beauty, order, and civilization.

Copyright © 2005 by Eric Scigliano

Meet the Author

Eric Scigliano's ancestors were quarry-men and stone carvers in Carrara. He is the author of Love, War, and Circuses: The Age-Old Relationship Between Elephants and Humans and two regional books, Seattle from the Air and Puget Sound: Sea Between the Mountains, and the co-translator of Trinh Công So'n's wartime poetry. An award-winning journalist, Scigliano has written for Harper's, Outside, Discover, and many other publications.

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Michelangelo's Mountain: The Quest For Perfection in the Marble Quarries of Carrara 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Biography, art history, and geology all in one well-told story. An exceptional read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Of the millions of people who have stood in line waiting at Florence's Galleria dell' Academia di Belle Arte to see the incomparable statue of David by Michelangelo, I wonder how many thought about the marble with which the artist worked. Very few, I'd imagine. Yet the story of the marble quarries of Carrara is as dramatic as many of the beautiful pieces wrought from their stone. Eric Scigliano, whose ancestors were quarrymen and stone carvers in Carrara, relates the fascinating story of Michelangelo's search for the stone he wanted, his continuing relationship with the city where he found it, and that city today. Only recently the 17-foot-tall statue of David was restored, and the world was reminded of its beauty. Scigliano reminds us of the risks taken by quarrymen and by Michelangelo himself as they worked together to find the perfect stone, one that would do justice to Michelangelo's vision. The artist's quest is set among the machinations and maneuvering of Renaissance Rome, Florence, and Carrara, a compelling story in itself. Readers will learn that there is over 2,000 years of 'extractive industry' in Carrara, and it continues today. During his lifetime, Michelangelo probably spent two years there, first arriving in 1498 to find the stone for the Pieta. In regard to the San Lorenzo Church facade, there was all but open warfare between the Carrara marble masters and the Medici rulers in Rome and Florence. Author Scigliano researched assiduously, laboriously searching Renaissance archives and often deciphering documents that had not been translated before. The result is a memorable work, one that will fascinate not only art lovers and historians but all.