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D - 24: How David got from the Seafloor to Florence

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Less than thirty minutes after lifting anchor in La Spezia and putting the boat on a course South, the Apennine Mountains come back into view again. Towering high above the shoreline, their white peaks glimmer in the sun. So much snow still up there – so it seems. But the white we are looking at is not snow. It’s the white marble from the marble quarries. The white stone crystals reflect sunlight as if they were ice crystals on a glacier. The reflection is visible for miles from the sea.

The African continental plate is the culprit – again - as for the lifting of the granites of Sardinia and Corsica, the pushing of the Italian peninsula above the water line or the thermal winds in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The glittering white crystals are almost pure Calcite or CaCO3, lifted up from the ancient Tethys sea floor where they formed millions of years ago.

Marble quarries high up in the mountains above Carrara

The Tethys Sea, a U-shaped ocean, formed between the European-Asian plate to the north, the African plate to the west and the Antarctician-Indian-Australian plates to the south during the Triassic Period (250 million years ago). It was a shallow, warm ocean full of coral reefs, shellfish and plankton. All these creatures use calcites to form exoskeletons, which also serve as protective shells. Our own bones are made from calcites as well. When these animals died, they drifted to the seafloor where their bodies formed sediments which became the limestone rocks of the Alps, the Apennine and the mountains in Croatia. Calcites have many uses. The ones with perfect crystal structure are used as optical lenses, softer version as Alabaster, the most ordinary form however is used as building blocks. Marble is something different though. It is metamorphic. Under the pressure and immense heat of the folding crust, the calcite crystals re-crystalize into a mosaic pattern of carbonate rock. Primary sedimentary structures are destroyed and replaced by a pure crystallin order. Since the high pressure also shifts the crystal structure, the marble loses its transparency and starts reflecting the incoming light. That is why it looks so white!

Marble quarry high up over Carrera

The Romans quarried Carrera marble from the very beginning. It was the purest stone they could find. Of course, their most representative buildings like the Pantheon (for all the Gods) are made from it. Would not be surprised if Augustus’ grave, the Domus Aureus, was made from it as well. When you stand in front of it in Rome you are surprised by the pure white marble. But I could not find confirmation.

The marble quarries of Carrara are several hundred meters deep. Nature created a stock which will not deplete quickly but lasts for thousands of years. There is capacity for millions of marble Spas, bathrooms and kitchen tops. A kitchen top is actually less expensive that most believe. In Carrara it cost around USD 130 per square meter.

When the Roman Empire collapsed and the towns around the Mediterranean shrank or even disappeared, business for the quarries in Carrara was lousy. Nobody needed freshly cut marble. There was a lot of supply from the decaying towns. It was much easier to dismantle an old amphitheater than going to Carrara for a new stone. Realised this when trying to find out where the marbles for the Leaning Tower of Pisa came from. Giving the short distance of 60 km between Pisa and the quarries, I assumed the white marble was from Carrara. However, every source I consulted said the contrary: the marbles used for the Duomo and the Tower were trophy stones the Pisans brought home from their successful naval expeditions. Quite an achievement by itself! It also tells us that the Romans quarried so much that there was excess supply everywhere.

The white marble Duomo of Pisa in the evening sun

It would take a while until the new medieval power centers in Italy had used up all the marbles lying around. But eventually there was none left and new ones had to be quarried. Carrera was back in business again.

One of the most talented sculptures ever, Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarotti Simoni, loved working with freshly cut marble blocks from Carrara. He would intensively study the grains of the stone and then fit the sculpture to the marble block. He did this with both his master pieces, the Pieta and David. The Pieta expresses the sorrow of a grieving mother who lost her son. It is amazing what emotion the sculpture still conveys. You can see it in the San Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican. It is worth resisting the pushy tourist rushing by for a photo op and take it in for a minute – a glimpse of a moment of life captured for eternity. I found it deeply touching. And how Michelangelo worked the stone is a miracle.

Pieta – a not too perfect photo of mine - the Pieta is now protected by a glass screen

Michelangelo’s other masterpiece is David. He carved it for the space in front of the Signioria, the Palace housing the government in Florence. Whilst referring to a biblical story, it actually shows a defiant, young renaissance man taking on the world. The marble block Michelangelo got was not perfect thus he had to bend the statue slightly forward in order to bring the grain in line with the desired expression of David. In this, Michelangelo was just a genius. To grasp what statue would fit the marble block without having any precise measurement is something difficult to imagine. He did it with his intuition. We are born into a world of granted precision and perfection – it was not like this 500 years ago.

David by Michelangelo, completed in 1504

That David was erected in Florence but not in Pisa is a story already told. Had plate tectonics not pushed Africa into collision with Europe, Michelangelo’ would never had gotten his hand on the marbles which gave us David. It would have rested at the bottom of the sea, inaccessible forever. But Michelangelo also knew how to cast and paint. The human genius would have found another way of expression. It is good to know that circumstances matter. But what really matters is human ingenuity and will power.

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