Arts & Tradition

A Day in the Life: The Marble Quarries With Michelangelo

BY Eric Bess TIMESeptember 21, 2022 PRINT

Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of the greatest Italian Renaissance artists to ever live. He was great not only because of the artworks he produced but also because of what he was willing to endure to produce them.

One of the things he endured was the dangers of the marble quarries in the mountains of Italy, where artists acquired the marble for their sculptures. Most artists would arrive at the quarries to select the marble they wanted and then leave.

Michelangelo, however, sometimes stayed at the quarry and helped the workers during the dangerous and difficult job of separating the marble blocks from the mountain itself, and he ensured the marble’s safe passage to the bottom of the quarry where it would be shipped to Rome or Florence.

Epoch Times Photo
Unfinished portrait of Michelangelo, circa 1545, by Daniele da Volterra. Oil on wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

William Wallace’s book “Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times” helps us imagine what it would have been like to work with Michelangelo at the marble quarries in Renaissance Italy.

A Day at the Quarry

Epoch Times Photo
Let’s spend a day at the quarry where Michelangelo found some of his best marble. Carrara marble quarries in the mountains of Tuscany, Italy. (Federico Rostagno/Shutterstock)

Let’s imagine this: We traveled here months ago by mule, so we’ve already been here awhile; selecting the marble, separating it, and lowering it down to the valley is a long process. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this, since our patron, Michelangelo, is one of the most famous and busiest artists of our time.

Michelangelo is always working on grand projects required by cardinals or popes. We are unsure if anyone has ever extracted marble blocks as large as he desires them. With that being said, we are doing our best to accomplish his wishes as safely and as quickly as possible.

He has already selected the cleanest and purest marble to his liking, and now we separate it using the ancient Roman method of chopping fissures into the marble and then inserting wet wood, which, when expanded, splits the marble from its source.

After the marble is separated, we shape it and carefully place it on a sled that we made. Some of these slabs of marble are over 30 feet high and could easily injure one of us if we are not careful, which is why Michelangelo is there to monitor our every movement.

"Pietà" by Michelangelo, 1497. Marble
In 1497, Michelangelo made his first trip to the Carrara marble quarries in the mountains of Tuscany, Italy, and he carefully selected the block of marble that would become the Pietà: one of his most admired statues. “Pietà,” 1497, by Michelangelo. Carrara Marble. Saint Peters Basilica, Rome. (Public Domain)

He not only supervises us but also selects and inspects all of the materials he ordered to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible. He often takes notes and draws diagrams to make sure we are undertaking the best way to complete the journey ahead of us.

The next part of the journey is very important and most treacherous. We know of people who’ve lost fingers, limbs, or died in this part of the process. We tie the marble to a large sled that has been placed on a track and tie ropes all around the marble.

Then all of us, including Michelangelo, grab a rope, take a deep breath, and descend very slowly, one step at a time, down the side of the mountain. Gravity is not on our side; we might damage the marble if we descend too quickly. Our muscles ache and we are out of breath, and it feels like we are only moving about a dozen yards an hour!

We will do this every day until we reach the bottom of the valley, where the marble will begin a 150-kilometer journey to Florence. It will be taken to sea by an oxcart and shipped to Pisa. From Pisa, it will travel up the Arno River to Signa, where it will be transferred to oxcart again to be delivered to Florence.

I’m sure we all hope that our hard work will pay off and that this great sculptor of our time will create works of art that will endure for centuries to come.

Every day, we wake up and we hurry to our jobs or to school. We become part of a routine that seems to encapsulate us. In this series, “A Day in The Life,” we take a moment from our hectic, fast-paced world, step outside of our routine, and imagine what life may have been like across cultures and eras.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).
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