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.


Michelangelo Moving Marble – Part 1

A fascinating video of the movement of marble (a 12-minute-long YouTube video) in Carrara prompted this posting on the Herculean efforts that Michelangelo went through to move the same stone in the early 1600s. It is a slight adaptation from my book Stories in Stone.

In December 1516, Michelangelo convinced Pope Leo X and Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici that they should let him design a new façade for the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. The façade would be, he wrote to the Cardinal’s treasurer and liaison, Domenico Buoninsegni, “both architecturally and sculpturally, the mirror of all Italy.”  Michelangelo proposed a more audacious undertaking than anything he, or anyone since antiquity, had done. The last great, full marble building in Rome had been built in 203 C.E, and the entire façade of San Lorenzo would be marble, including a dozen, monolithic columns.

Michelangelo’s initial task was to acquire the stone. He could have worked with a middle man, who would find, cut, and deliver marble, but Michelangelo didn’t trust the ones in Carrara and nearby Seravezza. They cheated him. They didn’t understand marble. They didn’t even know how to quarry marble, or so he wrote Buoninsegni. In order to ensure good rock during the years he worked on San Lorenzo, Michelangelo traveled to the quarries, or cave at Carrara and Seravezza 19 times and spent 18 months organizing and supervising an ever-changing group of helpers. At Seravezza, he also had to coordinate building and widening several miles of new road, part of which required men with picks to cut a route deep into the marble mountains.

After finding the right stone, Michelangelo would have hired a crew of cavatori or quarrymen, and scarpellini, or stone carvers to cut blocks out of the mountain. First, they cut a narrow trench, then they pounded in either iron or wood wedges and forced the stone to split into a clean face.

Marble did not leave the quarries as blocks; the notoriously penny-pinching Michelangelo wasn’t about to pay to transport any excess stone or for stone that might have hidden flaws. To aid the scarpellini in roughing out blocks, Michelangelo produced pages of drawings, often in multiple sets, detailing length, width, and breadth of the blocks. One book of his drawings shows 22 different shapes, many of which required several exact copies. The pages remind me of the shop tickets I saw at modern mills in Indiana and Minnesota.

[nggallery id=18]And then the fun began. Not only did Michelangelo have to figure out how to move his unwieldy blocks, by land, by sea, and by river, but he had to pay exorbitant fees. In ancient Greece, for example, transporting stone had cost ten times the cost of quarrying, and costs doubled for every 100 miles moved overland in Roman times. By Michelangelo’s day, fees had dropped, but still constituted a major cost of working in marble.

In moving stone, Michelangelo, and for that matter all movers of masses, had a simple goal, resist the pull of gravity. Any time gravity led a block astray catastrophe struck. A block could slide too quickly down a slope and maim or kill. A heavily laden cart could sink into a road built across a swamp. A block could drop from a hoist and turn a boat into driftwood.  To counter the adverse and untimely affects of gravity, Michelangelo relied on rope and men.  Neither came easily. He wrote his brother that if the Carrarese “are not fools, they are knaves and rascals.” A crew walked off the job taking the 100 ducats he had paid them and the ropes, one of which weighed 566 pounds for a 422-foot length, could take days to arrive from Pisa, Florence, or Genoa. Michelangelo’s detailed records show that rope accounted for 18 percent of the total transportation costs. He also had to borrow pulleys, buy wood for sleds, and order custom-made turnbuckles and iron rings.

With all of the equipment ready, the men could load the block… I will continue the story in my next posting.