If you are a Renaissance fangirl/fanboy or want to experience one of the world’s most unique landscapes, a visit to the Carrara marble quarries in Italy’s Apuan Alps is a must.
Famed for its high quality and beauty, Carrara marble has been quarried from the same mountains for over 2,000 years. It can be seen in cathedrals, sculptures and monuments, from the sublime cathedral in Orvieto to the Pantheon, one of Rome’s most famous landmarks.
These marble-laden mountains are an extraordinary sight. Looking at the Apuan Alpine peaks you would be forgiven for thinking that they are snow-capped. In fact, their quarried faces glisten with marble.
To learn more about one of Italy’s most iconic exports, discover how to visit the fascinating and spectacularly scenic Carrara marble quarries.
A Short History of Carrara Marble
The story of Carrara marble begins 65 million years ago when natural deposits of limestone below sea level were compressed by the high water pressure. Continental plates began to press together, pushing up against one another to form the marble mountain that we see today.
Carrara marble has been quarried since Ancient Roman times, then called the “Luna marble.” The deposits were next to the sea which was ideal for transportation. In those days the marble was rolled down the mountain by hand.
This was the Renaissance’s raw material and was the starting point for many of Florence’s finest sculptures.
Michelangelo made many trips to Carrara to select pieces of the stone for his works, including David in Florence and the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is said that David was inspired by the brawny Carrara masons.
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Types of Carrara Marble
The quality of the marble depends on several factors, such as its colour and how many cracks it has.
White Carrara marble is the most prized because of its purity (it is 98-99% calcium carbonate). Due to its softness, it is the ideal raw material for sculpting.
In contrast, blue-grey marble is harder and has more impurities, namely carbon, clay and iron. This makes it good for building.
Whilst Carrara has a lot of grey-blue marble, there is less white marble.
Where are the Carrara Marble Quarries?
The Carrara marble quarries are in Tuscany, around four miles northeast of the city of Carrara at the foot of the Apuan Alps.
The Carrara Marble Quarry Tour
The 50-60 minute excursion conducted by Carrara Marble Tour offers an excellent insight into the quarrying of this precious limestone.
Staring at the parking lot at Fantiscritti, our guide and driver Pipo bundled us into a 4×4 and negotiated his way along a steep marble road to quarry n.83 Canalgrande Alto, at 1,000 metres above sea level.
The views from here over the Apuan-Versilian coastline and the Ligurian sea are sensational.
The quarrying industry in Carrara directly employs about 1000 workers. Quarrymen are just that; the labour force is almost 100% male and working here is a tradition passed down through generations of local people.
There is a solitary female; the site’s Health & Safety manager. It takes a woman to keep this many men under control!
Marble is quarried at Carrara year-round, stopping only when heavy rain makes conditions on the access road dangerous.
And this can be a hazardous occupation. Pipo tells us that in the last ten years, 14 people have died. But on a positive note, the mine’s safety record is improving.
In the distance, we could see the quarrymen hard at work.
A large block of marble, called a bancata, is cut from the ground and is then split into smaller blocks with diamond chains. But, weighing in at 20 tonnes, small is a relative term here. These blocks are taken to the harbour of Carrara for shipping to China where they are cut and processed.
Quarrying marble is hard work and the men need sustenance. The typical meal of local miners is lardo di Colonnata I.G.P., a herb-infused backfat that is left to age in white marble vats in the nearby village of Colonnata.
At the end of the tour, you get to try lardo, cut into thin slices, with a glass of red wine. It wouldn’t be my first choice of lunch, but when in Carrara …
How to Do a Carrara Mine Tour
This Carrara marble mine tour operates from March to November. In 2021, it costs 12 euros per person.
Tours are 50 minutes and can be taken in Italian, English, or French. It is not possible to book in advance unless you are part of a group of at least 20 people.
To get to the starting point of the tour from Carrara, follow signs for Cave and then Fantiscritti.
There is also a small museum, gift shop, restaurant and toilet facilities. In summer, there are mini-bus tours inside the mines.
Can you visit the Carrara marble quarries without a tour?
Although it is possible to visit some of the mining areas and the museum under your own steam, I recommended taking the tour. The views alone warrant the modest cost and you get to see the quarries close-up.
How to get to Carrara
Carrara is situated on the coast of northern Tuscany in Italy. By car, it’s an hour north of Pisa or a 90-minute drive south of Genoa or an hour north of Pisa.
If you don’t have a car, the nearest railway station is Carrara-Avenza which is on the Genoa-Pisa branch line.
I visited the Carrara marble quarry as a shore excursion from Livorno, a popular port of call on cruises of the Western Mediterranean.