When I first approached Carrara, along the crowded beaches of midsummer, the snow-covered mountains just above the city had to be an illusion. Heading inland from the carnival atmosphere of the coast, then through the tough industrial town, the white slopes became a more immediate, if still paradoxical mirage in the hot Tuscan sun. Climbing up into the marble works themselves, I found not snow, after all, but sweeping avalanches of scree and detritus. The pure brilliance of the scene was startling: not a tree, or hedge, or meadow, but one constant landscape of white. Even the river flowing down from the mountains, carrying the dust of countless marble sawmills, was a current of milk six days a week.
I had come to Carrara on a pilgrimage: to engage this renowned landscape with my eye and camera. Suspecting a powerful inspiration here, I had no idea of the true scale, the immense proportions I would find.
In my landscape photographs, I have concentrated on the structure of natural things and the effects of civilization--subtle and salutary or gross and rapacious--on the natural scheme. In the mountains above Carrara the effects of industry are indeed gross, but here civilization also raises a dissonant counterpoint to the authority of nature. A tiny medieval village, Colonnata, perfectly sited--its angular forms and church tower echoed in the surrounding excavations--supplies the scene with a profound visual harmony. I had photographed in quarries before--small family-run operations taking granite near the Connecticut shore--but the quarries of Carrara are in no way familiar. They are as imposing as the Grand Canyon, reaching down from the mountains like a carefully orchestrated disaster of vast and inhuman size. But this vastness, hardly picturesque, is the result of steady attrition at the hands of man, a canyon carved by centuries of labor and ambition.
With its overwhelming mass, as in no other place I have seen, Carrara is the scene for a primordial revealing of elements. At every turn the human as well as the geological record is exposed. The noble outcroppings of stone and the most mundane debris--layers of a complex history--were set before me, defined by brilliant, revelatory light. This was a landscape that could sustain me for years, and so I went to work, absorbed by the dust, in a fever of concentration.
As early as my first trip to Carrara, in 1987, I had heard of the vast underground galleries where marble is cut from the very center of the mountain separating the valleys of Fantiscritti and Torano. But any entrance to these mysterious vaults was not obvious on the surface, and on that first trip I was too engrossed in my initial explorations to ask. When I arrived in the quarries for the second time, however, in 1988, a discreet inquiry in the bar at Fantiscritti set me on the right path.
The bartender directed me to the inconspicuous mouth of a tunnel, through which, I was promised, ten minutes' walk underground would lead me to the galleria. But I should mind the mud, he cautioned, which could be deep in places, and slippery. It was an intensely bright and hot afternoon. The tunnel mouth, half hidden behind a rusting superstructure, was like a black curtain draped across the face of blinding white marble. I shouldered 30 pounds of equipment and trudged into the damp darkness.
After my first few steps, in the light spilling from the entrance, the narrow passage grew totally dark. I figured the way was just wide enough for a truck to get through--probably too narrow for truck plus photographer. I groped forward, the mud sucking at my boots, my only beacon a faint glow in the distance. I began to worry about what I would do if I met a truck...or something else. Too far to turn back and no place to go but toward the light.
The faint hum I'd heard when I entered the tunnel was much louder now, I noticed. The combination of mud, total darkness, fear, and a crescendo that began to shake my molars severely weakened my resolve. As the roar grew deafening I started to panic. The blackness took on first a rosy, then a deep red tone. I was seeing red with terror. I remembered stories of jet-fighter pilots "redding out" when they accelerate into the stratosphere. But I was going the other way, down into the lower depths, half-stuck in the ooze, engulfed now in a whirlwind, confronted with the quite real possibility that I might pass out, never to be heard from again. I had no way of knowing it, but I was approaching the monstrous overhead fan that ventilated the galleria.
Then, as I passed directly under the fan, a gradual diminuendo began. I could make out some details up ahead, I found my feet again, and the light beckoned. As the redness faded back to black, I knew I would make it. I made a mental note to bring a flashlight next time.
I emerged from the tunnel onto the floor of a most luminous cathedral, a space that could contain Notre Dame, hewn from the heart of the mountain. The floor of the central chamber comprised some three acres, elevated haphazardly by tiers of shelves stepping up the walls, each shelf three times the height of a man and communicating with adjoining platforms by ladders and long, oblique ramps glistening white. This must be the only place on earth where Carrara marble is used as roadbed.
After the roar of the tunnel, the galleria was subdued, despite the work going on here and the razor-sharp acoustics. Mercury vapor lamps in the distant ceiling suffused the place with a surreal twilight relieved only by smaller, brighter lamps where the saws were at their work. The air was densely humid, and hung with diesel fumes. From a mound of marble debris, mushrooms sprouted.
This geometric maze of vaults and cubicles, where floor, wall and ceiling can melt into a seamless, pure white mass and then emerge in a different guise, could have come from the hand of Piranesi. Two dozen workmen circulated slowly in trucks and bulldozers and on foot, each one oblivious to my presence. Even among themselves there was little talk. I had entered a different world in another time; I saw but was not seen. I had no idea where to begin.
I made a photograph of a long abandoned bulldozer half submerged in a pool of milk. Venturing further into the great hall, I climbed an iron ladder onto a block of stone. From this vantage point, 20 feet above the floor, I found my picture: two men at work squaring another block with an electric diamond-wire saw. One of the men, astride the block, stood between me and the lamp they were using. I set up my tripod, stepped under the dark-cloth, and saw the most sublime vision on the groundglass. The man on the block was silhouetted before the opal light from another chamber, embraced by a luminous halo.
I could not pull myself away from the image in the camera, afraid I might lose it forever if I looked away. I focused as well as I could and inserted a film holder, figuring that the right exposure was equal to the length of time the men would stand still. They were intent on the flying saw blade, not moving much. I opened the lens and held my breath: the men were frozen. After a few seconds, when the man on the block began to move, I shut the lens. My supplication to the gods of photography had been answered, and I thanked them.
On one of my trips to Carrara I was fortunate to become friends with Fausto Guadagni, the proprietor of Locandapuana, a fine restaurant in the hilltop village of Colonnata, and the owner of a sculpture gallery in his home across the street. The large windows of the gallery look out over the village to the mauled landscape beyond.
On the days his restaurant was closed, Fausto would guide me on a giro, a tour, through the countryside to visit abandoned quarries, forgotten villages, and other places I would never have found on my own. Usually we would end the day with a meal in a remote trattoria. At one obscure place deep in the country, Fausto asked what they might be serving for dinner. The owner hesitated, then looked out the window to see what was stirring in the yard:
"Well, we have some chickens..."
"All right, then. We'll have chicken."
What followed was, for me, an historic meal: salty, hearth-baked flatbread with lardo (cured pork fat, the specialty of this area), followed by grilled eggplant, rustic home-made wine, and, of course, the freshest roast chicken I'd ever had.
Fausto is a man of many talents. He not only runs the restaurant and the gallery, but he is the local manufacturer of lardo. Only after several visits did I appreciate that lardo is the perfect regional dish for reasons cultural as well as gustatory. It was clear to me from the start that lardo's content of pure, seasoned fat made it a most efficient food for quarry workers in the old days, when most of the labor was excruciatingly manual. A cut that today might require 20 minutes for the diamond-bladed saw would have taken two men--each at the end of a nine-foot blade--all of one day and part of the next. That kind of work was fueled by a diet of lardo and, on good days, an onion.
Pure and white as snow, lardo is also a perfect culinary analog to the product of the quarries. Like the best Carrara statuary marble, it is free of imperfection, white on white, able to stand on its own without adornment.
From a dark cellar under Fausto's gallery some three tons of this delicacy emerge each year. There the fat is cured in huge marble tubs carved by hand in the distant past. He fills the tubs with slabs of paunch fat, coarse salt, and rosemary. He may use other spices too, but he has never said much about it to me. Regularly descending to the curing room, Fausto stirs the slabs with his own hands, up to his elbows in brine, clearly proud of this year's vintage.
Fausto is the keeper of the legacy, the purveyor of tradition. He maintains a link with his ancestors who chiseled the crude tubs. The tubs themselves--roughly hewn and weighing several tons each--are objects of astonishing beauty. They have the dense patina of countless vintages and over time have absorbed the essence of each ingredient.
While lardo was once a staple food, today it is served as an antipasto, as the prelude to a meal. Fausto carefully slices it paper thin and serves it on a plate with olives and pickled red onion. When I sit down to eat Fausto asks: "Some lardo?"
Now this is, to say the least , a dense food, but I politely agree to "Just a bit, thanks."
He always brings a great plateful, more than an amateur like me could consume in a week. It is always complex and savory, rich with salt and herbs, a taste close to the earth, tempered by its yearlong rest in stone.
I return to Carrara again and again. My investigation is never-ending; I am never quite satisfied.
On the last day of each visit I go to the same spot high above the city, to my crow's nest--a platform of slabs at the edge of a switchback. It was late in the afternoon as I pulled into the narrow turnout; the stone had been washed clean by a downpour since blown inland, over the rim of the valley.
For two weeks I had intently photographed the quarries; now I sat surveying the huge mass of air that hung between me and the eviscerated mountains. At one end of my view nestled Colonnata, the shape and scale of its twelfth-century steeple restated in the soaring cuts of the slopes above. At the other end lay the sea, with just a trace of the island of Gorgona visible on the horizon. The middle distance was littered with a dozen or more quarries, suddenly silent now, after the day's work.
Four years earlier I had made a photograph from this exact spot. While some things had changed, the details that informed my picture were still recognizable. The more active quarries had insinuated themselves even further into the mountainsides; the village was the same: I could see Fausto's house, where I had so often been a guest. And an ancient semicircular stone wall--just a speck at this distance--that had so compelled me to explore every dirt path on that hill until I found it.
What would I find when I came here again? Where so much is brought to light, what have I failed to see? For all its heritage and antiquity, Carrara is a place in flux. The elements collide here--fire and water, stone and sky--with man a transitory player. Something old persists, much is gone forever. We busily unearth and then obsess with squaring the irregular, smoothing rough edges. The quarryman removes his stone; I go away with pictures. The camera records both the leaving and the taking.