Michelangelo’s Marble Madness – Part 2

Equipment in place, Michelangelo was ready to begin moving marble. It would almost kill him…twice. Here’s my follow up on Michelangelo’s epic attempt to quarry in Carrara.

The men now tied the block to a hardwood sledge called a lizza and slid it down lizza paths, or lizzaturra. The ones I saw in Carrara, which haven’t been used in decades, reminded me of ski slopes that my braver friends descend.  The lizza traveled on greased or soaped poles laid like railroad ties. To slow the descent, rope men wrapped ropes around posts embedded along the lizzaturra. As the block passed over a pair of poles , men picked up the poles and moved them around to the downslope side of the block. Rope men kept the rope taut around the posts until they ran out of rope and had to move their arm-thick-lines to the next post.

“It has been a bigger job than I anticipated to sling it [a column] down,” Michelangelo wrote to a friend in August 1518. The column was the first to be quarried for San Lorenzo, and the first marble column quarried since Roman times. Michelangelo continued: “Some mistake was made in slinging it, and one man had his neck broken and died instantly, and it nearly cost me my life.” They had gotten the column to within 35 yards of the road.

[nggallery id=19]Seven months later Michelangelo tried to move another column. His workmen had lowered it only 100 feet when a custom-made, metal ring broke and the column shattered. “After it broke we saw the utter rascality of it…the iron in it was no thicker than the back of a knife,” he wrote in April 1519. Again, Michelangelo and his assistants almost died.

Not deterred by his near death experiences, Michelangelo finally willed his columns off the mountains and to the road to the sea. “Conceive a channel of water running over a rocky bed, beset with great heaps of stone of all shapes and sizes, winding down the middle of this valley; and that being the road,” wrote Charles Dickens of an 1844 visit to Carrara. Nothing had changed in 500 years, he observed. The carts were clumsy, the mistreated oxen often died on the spot, as did their drivers, “crushed to death beneath the wheels.” Despite the death of untold oxen and drivers, well maybe Dickens exaggerated, marble reached the sea after a journey of five to eight miles.

To get it on a boat, which Michelangelo had spent several months locating, required building a ramp, digging a trench to get the boat lower, and dragging the marble up the ramp. Workers loaded the block with a three-legged hoist and hoped nothing would break. Of course an iron ring did.  No boat suffered and no one died but the breakage delayed the process by another week. After loading, the boat sailed thirty miles down the coast to Pisa. Using another hoist, the men unloaded the blocks into a storage yard, where they sat, waiting for winter, when the rains arrive to raise the Arno River.

“I am dying of vexation through my inability to do what I want to do…the Arno is completely dried up…On this account I am more disgruntled than any man on earth,” wrote Michelangelo. Even Il Divino had to wait on the weather. Winter was also a fallow time for fields, which allowed Michelangelo to hire unneeded oxen. He needed them to pull barges loaded with stone 55 miles upriver to Signa, an impassable point on the Arno about 10 miles from Florence. Depending upon weather and the recalcitrance of oxen, the trip took from one to four weeks. At Signa, the men unloaded blocks onto oxen-drawn carts for the final one or two day trip into Florence.

The first marble reached Signa in January 1519. By March, 16 shipments ferrying 49 blocks had arrived. The first of Michelangelo’s planned dozen columns made it to Florence two years later.  No others arrived. Several broke or never left the quarry and six reached the coast, only to vanish to history. Despite his fame, Michelangelo’s disappearing columns did not lead to the famous phrase “He lost his marbles.” Or maybe it did; 13 months prior to the arrival of the lone column, Pope Leo X had cancelled the San Lorenzo project. Michelangelo didn’t go crazy but he did write that he had been “ruined over the said work of San Lorenzo” and suffered an “enormous insult.” Oddly, additional marble arrived throughout 1521. Michelangelo could use the stone somewhere.

His labors are the labors of countless others who struggled to get stone out of the ground and transport it across land and water.  Quarrying has been called the most conservative of all crafts because it changed little from its origins 4,000 plus years ago to the late 1800s, when machines took over from men. We rightly marvel at the great works of architecture from the pre-industrial world. We extol their design, their ingenuity in construction, and their durability. Perhaps we ought to marvel more that they even got any stone to the sites.


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