Four of us set out from Florence, with dawn beginning to light up the waters of the Arno, for Carrara, city of marble, sea, quarrymen and anarchists.
One of the most beautiful areas in Italy.
Where the global marble business has stolen the ancient commons of the local inhabitants with the complicity of political forces of the right and left, and every year extracts five million tons of irreplaceable limestone: some 80% is scrap used as calcium carbonate CaCo3, a filler in paper, glass, plastics, paint, beauty creams, but above all, toothpaste.
Ingredients of Colgate Triple Action original mint toothpaste
We are going to attend a crowded conference to which every local councillor had been invited, yet not a single one had the courage to show up.
You may not know that in the northwestern corner of Tuscany there is a mountain range, unique in Europe, a mere 55 kilometres long, that has nothing to do with the nearby, smooth Apennines: the range is that of the Mountains of the Moon, known today as the “Apuan Alps“, because of their craggy peaks – from the Pania della Croce I looked over the Tyrrhenian Sea from Elba on the left to Corsica to beyond Genoa on the right, nearly to France.
Here you can see a beautiful collection of photos by Emanuele Lotti. I'll steal just one of them, where you can see the twilight shadow of the Pania reflecting on the sea:
Those mountains were raised from the bottom of the sea floor, by countless billions of tiny uncelebrated lives of creatures with calcareous shells, corals, molluscs, and fish with their bones. It took them some three hundred million years, till all their seaworld was thrust up into the sky.
“Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change,
into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.”
Those flickering underwater lives became the world’s most renowned source of marble. Marmo di Carrara…
A world of peaks and caves and underground cavities like the Antro della Corchia, but like many others no one has yet explored, something like what Gimli spoke of in the Lord of the Rings:
“My good Legolas, do you know that the caverns of Helm’s Deep are vast and beautiful? There would be an endless pilgrimage of Dwarves, merely to gaze at them, if such things were known to be. Aye indeed, they would pay pure gold for a brief glance!’
‘And I would give gold to be excused,’ said Legolas; ‘and double to be let out, if I strayed in!’
‘You have not seen, so I forgive your jest,’ said Gimli. ‘But you speak like a fool. Do you think those halls are fair, where your King dwells under the hill in Mirkwood, and Dwarves helped in their making long ago? They are but hovels compared with the caverns I have seen here: immeasurable halls, filled with an everlasting music of water that tinkles into pools, as fair as Kheled-zâram in the starlight.”
Antro della Corchia
The law that has been cast over the world in the last centuries knows only the faceless state on the one hand, and private property on the other: where private stems from the Roman idea of someone de-priving everybody else of something.
Both the state and private property were alien to the Commons of those who were bold enough to live in the mountains: shepherds, farmers and quarrymen of the marble that could be used for a pillar in Rome, then for a statue by Donatello or – much more often – for a gravestone to remember the dead: a friend of mine has a house at Minazzana, where Michelangelo, just 22, used to stop over, to select the right marble for the Pietà.
Some ninety years ago, one of the greatest and least remembered poets of the English language, Basil Bunting, came to live under the shadows of the Mountains of the Moon:
White marble stained like a urinal
cleft in Apuan Alps,
always trickling, apt to the saw. Ice and wedge
split it or well-measured cordite shots,
while paraffin pistons rap, saws rip
and clamour is clad in stillness:
clouds echo marble middens, sugar-white,
that cumber the road stones travel
to list the names of the dead.
There is a lot of Italy in churchyards,
sea on the left, the Garfagnana
over the wall, la Cisa flaking
to hillside fiddlers above Parma,
with light bow blanching the dance.
Marblequarrying is by its very nature irreversible destruction. Basil Bunting could already hear the “well-measured cordite shots“, but before that came two thousand years of pickaxes hewing the rock.
The countless thousands of quarrymen who fell to their deaths, who were crushed as they rolled gigantic blocks of marble down the lizze, wheels made of tree trunks, could never regrow what they destroyed.
Yet the mountains were vast, gravestones countless yet small, and Michelangelos few: the true assault on the mountains is far more recent – in the last thirty years, more marble has been extracted than in all previous human history.
The first change came in the eighteenth century, when Tuscany’s most beloved ruler, the enlightened Pietro Leopoldo, suppressed the ancient custom of the death penalty.
But while he was at it, he also began to suppress the ancient custom of democracy; and started the privatisation of what had once been Commons, usi civici, domini collettivi, as they are still called today.
This was when a young man from Wakefield in England, William Walton, embodying the whole New World, arrived in the village of Serravezza:
“An active young man well versed in commercial and financial practices, young Walton is also gifted with a remarkable aptitude for solving organisational and technical problems and in this early period of his stay in Italy he looked around
in search of the most profitable industrial or commercial activity.”
Walton turned the world of small craftsmen upside down:
“By 1866 Walton headed an industrial and commercial empire which covered all the aspects of marble production, quarrying, transport, sawmills, and sea transport to the customers”
British and French fought each other in a senseless war that led to the death of millions; but found themselves together in exploiting the Apuan Alps.
Jean Baptiste Alexandre Henraux, a Napoleonic soldier charged with the task of stealing works of art out of Italy and bringing them to the Louvre, took the fine title of “Royal Superintendent of the selection and acquisition of white and statuary marble from Carrara for public monuments in France“.
In the very same years when the colonizers of North America were stealing land from the Native Americans, Henraux and his heirs opened 132 quarries, seizing possession of the commons belonging to the Comunità civica della Cappella “Civic Community of the Chapel”, so named for one of those places of worship where mountain people looking at the skies and feeling the icy wind, thank the saints for still being alive.
The chapel of Serravezza
Today, the Henraux have faded out: in 2014, the company was bought out by CPC Marble & Granite, based in Cyprus,
“the major supplier of all finishing material to Makkah and Madinah Holy Mosques Expansions”
but above all, a member of the Binladen Group Global Holding Company: in 2018, Osama‘s less famous brother, Bakr, while in gaol for corruption, transferred his share to the Saudi government. So today, Anrò as the locals quaintly call the Henraux company, is actually a part of the worldwide network of Saudi power.
People from Riomagno, Azzano, Fabiano, Giustagnana, Minazzana, Basati, Cerreta Sant’Antonio and Ruosina, to cite ancient names, dispossessed like the Sioux and Mapuche: it is curious to note how many Italians stand for distant peoples, yet know nothing about their neighbours. And how other Italians, who complain of Islamic invasion when a few immigrants come to pray together, fall silent when the Saudi government takes over slices of Italian land.
Fragments of Italian laws still recognise the basic principle underlying the Commons: that there is not only the bureaucrat versus the individual, but that what existed before both, also has rights: not the ‘it’ of the state versus the ‘I’, but we-our-people.
Today, the Comunità civica della Cappella is claiming back the stolen land.
And it has won cases in court.
So, the centre-right mayor of the municipality of Serravezza invented an agreement with the landrobbers, to give them almost everything, while leaving some woods in the hands of the Civic Community.
This decision required the approval of the representatives of the Civic Community, who of course were not willing to sign.
Then the Regional Government, in the hands of the centre-left party, found a way to prevent the Civic Community from regularly electing a board which could object to the decision of the centre-right mayor.
Corporations, faceless global acronyms, can today exploit not only the lands the commoners once owned, but also public lands, with what are called “grants“. Grants are for a limited period, but as they expire, the Regional Government has devised a creative way of greenwashing.
The commoners’ pickaxes left minimal waste; but the well measured cordite shots turned most of the marble into waste, currently 75% is allowed, in some cases, 95%.
However, if companies, instead of just leaving the waste on the ground in the great ravaneti which mark the territory, turn even that waste into profit for themselves as calcium carbonate for toothpaste and beauty cream, their grants are extended for years.
A typical ravaneto
The rest of the waste becomes marmèttola, a fine white powder which enters the mysterious underground cavities of the Apuan Alps, where rainwater flows in becoming springs and lakes, and renders these waters undrinkable.
Ironically, this whole area is officially a “Unesco Global Geopark“.
As everywhere else, global corporations seek local complicity.
First of all, speaking of employment. The local newspaper, reporting the conference we went to (or rather, “ecologists march on the Apuan Alps“), quoted a marbledealer in its title, “If we close down, we’ll all die here”.
Ecologists march on the Apuan Alps: “If we close down, we’ll all die here”
Actually, the global corporations have cut every possible workplace, through technological innovation. With production at a level never seen before, employment is down to a few hundred people, against 20.000 employed some decades ago.
At the same time, marble blocks, instead of being processed locally, are shipped directly to China. However, the first cut is made in Italy, which is enough to make patriotic rightists feel all is well.
The Fondazione Marmo, the Marble Foundation paid for by the global dealers, pays for many local initiatives where a park becomes “green” and “inclusive” through planting some trees, marble statues speak of “peace“, “marble is on the side of women“, “marble for health“. And other Orwellian words which make every left-leaning heart beat happily.
Thousands of local people, in a small community, can be bought over this way, blending the donation of minor hospital equipment, with the mirage of jobs, with the idea of continuing the work of Michelangelo.
While the cancer rate in the area, unsurprisingly, is the highest in the region, as is the unemployment rate.
And of course, there will be no water in a few years, when all the springs have been poisoned, and no jobs when artificial intelligence has taken over even the job of the people who write obedient titles in the local press.
“The lodes lead away north towards Caradhras, and down to darkness. The Dwarves tell no tale; but even as mithril was the foundation of their wealth, so also it was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin’s Bane.”
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Most of the information here comes from what people who live in the district have told us, partly over the years, partly during the conference in Carrara. Which is why not everything is sourced with links.
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