Michelangelo’s Marble Quarries Today

Michelangelo was not lazy but in his whole life—a long one—he finished only about twelve or fourteen statues. Why?

For one thing, he lost many years in the mountains of Carrara and Pietrasanta, quarrying the marble for his projects.

Pietrasanta  (see this webpage)

The city of Carrara and its white marble quarries   (Wikimedia commons photo, released into the public domain by its author, Arpingstone)

That was very hard and dangerous work which had nothing to do with aesthetics. He had to build a road out of the quarry of Pietrasanta to transport his blocks on oxcarts. Once he was nearly crushed when the chain holding a block broke. At night he had nothing to do but brood.

Here is a letter he sent from the Pietrasanta quarry to his helper Pietro Urbano in Florence.


April 20, 1519

Pietro: Things have gone very badly. On Saturday morning I began to raise a column as carefully as I could, forgetting no detail whatsoever. After it had been raised a hundred feet a link in the chain that held it snapped and it fell down into the river and broke into a hundred pieces. It was Donato who ordered that chain from his friend Lazzero the smith, and if it had been as strong as it should have, it could have held four columns that size. It looked fine from the outside—there was no reason to doubt it. After it broke we could see that it had been a fraud, since the inside wasn’t solid and was no thicker than the handle of a knife—and we wondered how it could have lasted so long. All of us who were working near it put our lives in danger and that beautiful stone was ruined….The iron was raw and of very poor quality and it was chosen by Donato together with his friend to be worked on the anvil. So you see how he filled my order and what patience I have to have. I won’t be home for this year’s fair but will stay here and, God willing, I will begin to work.

To see what Pietrasanta is like today and how marble is quarried, go to this very interesting webpage made by Professor Levey. Michelangelo wouldn’t believe his eyes.


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15 Responses to Michelangelo’s Marble Quarries Today

  1. wrjones says:

    He also may have started some pieces and abandoned them. Which sculptor create the most pieces? How many did Bernini do?

  2. 100swallows says:

    Bill: Do you mean which–Michelangelo or Bernini?
    Bernini, who did scores at least. The trouble with counting them is that he had many assistants, like Rubens in painting, and no one knows how much of the sculpture that came out of his workshop was by his hand. But if you mean who in all of history turned out the most, that I don’t know. Of course you are talking about an artist–one who tries something new each time. There must be sculptors who constantly reproduced their own work and were prolific.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    The modern day quarry and marble carving technology was fascinating. Why is the Carrara marble the most valued in the world? Wherever I go, museums, government buildings etc. they never miss pointing out the white Carrara marble columns or artwork.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Carrara is a convention, like Champagne in wine. Travelling around Europe, seeing so much Carrara marble, one gets a little tired of it. There’s infinitely more crap in Carrara than good stuff.In all the cemeteries the hundreds of marble angels and Virgins and flowers are carved, of course, in Carrara. I wanted to make my first figures in Carrara and Fernando told me he thought I’d like a good black Marquina or a grey Calatorao (Spanish marbles) better, that Carrara was a bit sosa (insipid). That sounded like sacrilege but then I saw what he meant. For white marble inclining towards blue-gray Carrara is hard to beat. Spain has a white marble with orange streaks but it isn’t so fine-grained. Many of the famous Greek statues were carved out of Parian marble (from the Island of Paros). Those quarries were exhausted already in Roman times.

  5. wpm1955 says:

    Wow, I had no idea he had to quarry his own marble!!!

    Rather than sitting around brooding in the evenings, you would think he would relax by taking small pieces and working on small sculptures (like a foot high) to fill up the evening hours, and relax. Any thoughts about this?

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

  6. Brenda says:

    I believe Michelangelo was ordered to go to Carrara to choose the marble by his friend Pope Leo X. If I remember correctly, Leo was tired of Michelangelo’s petulance and sent him to Carrara to get rid of him for a while. I think it turned out to be 7 or 8 years. With friends like that…..

    As for working at night, and I can’t claim to be an expert on this, I think carving in general would be best done in the daytime to be able to see the flow of light over the surface being carved. I’m unsure whether torchlight would suffice. Having said that, how did he manage to paint the Sistine Chapel after dark? Who knows?


  7. 100swallows says:

    Brenda: See my comment to you about Leo and the ten years under this post:

    There’s no question that carving is better in daylight but both sculptors and painters sometimes worked at night with torches and candles. Both Michelangelo and Goya, for example, worked with candles in their hat. Why that was better than big candles standing around, I don’t know. Goya’s son said his dad liked to put the finishing touches on a painting at night. I doubt that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine at night.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Madame Monet: I guess Michelangelo was too pooped to work on a figure after a day’s labor in the quarries. But I don’t really know why. You’d think he could have filled a box with little wax models–ideas for figures. Maybe he did. Remember that sculpting a figure is such a long process that he would never have been able to carve most of the figures he sketched. For himself he seems to have done little, unlike many artists:he always did commissioned work. Also, sculpting is not really relaxing. It’s true Vasari says Michelangelo would get up when he was unable to sleep and work on a figure; but it wasn’t so much to relax as to be “doing something”.

  9. Joe Dirvin says:

    Some 25 plus years ago, while traveling to Pitetrasanta, where my friend, a sculptor, went both to search for bianca “P” marble for a commission awarded to him and also to visit his ancestral home; we encountered many people involved in the marble culture and business.

    We searched for several days before a local guided us to a quarry at Massa Cararra (sp.), where my friend “might” begin to ask to purchase a large dimension of Bianca “P” (Perfect white)marble. Another friend, who was himself a sculptor and a teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was noble enough to drive us about for several days. The marble was purchased in a few days.

    It ws my understanding that the powers that be did not wish to part with the bianca “P’ marble to just anyone. For example, a sculptor, with a studio in Pietrasanta itself, expressed two of his most recent observations. These thoughts might explain the initial reluctance and well-pondered consideration that needed to occur before the bianca “p” was found. One observation by the local sculptor was that many visitors to Pietrasanta came and bought marble “only to torture it.” The other was that my dear friend had “a grandfather’s-grandfather’s knowledge of marble, tools, sculpture and beauty.”

  10. 100swallows says:

    Joe: That sounds strange and familiar too. Strange because business is business and the white marble either is or is not for sale, right? And familiar because, if Italy is like Spain, any unusual and independent search for anything invariably meets with trabas (hitches). You are made to feel you are looking for the Holy Grail. Those impediments might be administrative or personal–envy, laziness. Of course meanwhile you meet very generous people too, like that local who guided you to the “sanctuary”.
    That guardian of the holy marble made your friend pass a sort of purity test. Funny.

  11. cantueso says:

    I forgot again why Michelangelo did not send somebody else to the quarries.

  12. I am tired of this bull that Michelangelo did all the quarry work and every bit of sculpting himself more modern Sculptures have dozens of helpers why would Michelangelo not. You mean to tell me he sculpted ALL the stone work at the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican. he made the design and many other hands where involved. Give me a break. Art historians want a romantic vision of the lone Artist working away why would Auguste Rodin centuries later have helpers yet a Sculptor under commission from the pope himself be working alone extracting huge blocks from a quarry. It is ludicrous. He worked on the more important details and his individual works but I am sure he had plenty of help with the grunt work involved in working in stone.

    • 100swallows says:

      Michael: I don’t know where you got that bull. The quarry work that Michelangelo did is documented. Altogether he spent years in quarries. Read the letters he sent from Carrara and Pietrasanta. He did indeed extract huge blocks but no one says he did it alone. And as for his statues and architectural projects, he had assistants for them all his life. He even let some of the helpers, like Pietro Urbano, Federigo Frizzi, and Raffaello da Montelupo, finish his figures, so there will always be doubt about just what work is theirs.

      There IS some old bull about his work as a painter. In Vasari’s biography he wrote that Michelangelo did the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel without help from anyone. That was ratified by Michelangelo’s other biographer and assistant, Condivi. I don’t think anyone ever believed it.

  13. Italy says:

    The real Marble Quarries of Michelangelo are the ones on Monte Altissimo closer to Pietrasanta not Carrara

  14. Anonymous says:

    Read “The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone to understand where Michaelangelo got his marble and why he quarried some of his own. Good audiobook on Audible.

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