Marble has played a major role in the cultural life of Italy for several thousand years. From famous works of art, such as Michelangelo’s statue of David, to historical monuments, palace floors and architectural features, marble is a luxury stone that is both durable and highly attractive.
Marble is also a highly prized building material all over the world. Many of the planet’s most prestigious buildings and palaces are built using marble flooring, tiles and facades. The highly versatile, beautiful and expensive stone gives any building in which it is used an exclusive and luxurious atmosphere.
What Is Marble?
Marble is a type of stone that is made of naturally crystallized limestone.
Limestone is a sedimentary rock that is formed as organic materials, such as shells, coral and other organic debris, build up over time on the ocean floor. Alternatively, limestone can be formed by chemical sedimentary processes that take place in lakes or on the seabed.
Once the limestone is formed it may come into contact with extremely high temperatures and pressure below the surface of the earth. These extreme conditions cause the limestone to crystalize and form marble. The high temperatures and pressure also destroy most of the impurities that exist in limestone and the resulting stone, marble, is characterized by large sections of white rock with only small veins of color running through it.
The boldness of the colors in marble and the number of veins in it are determined by how many impurities remain in the marble after it has been crystallized. The exact composition of marble varies from place to place which means that every slab of marble is completely unique.
How Long Does It Take For Marble To Form?
Limestone takes millions of years to form but it can take as little as several hundred years for it to be converted into marble by the extreme heat and pressure beneath the earth’s surface.
A Brief History Of Italian Marble.
Marble has been quarried in Italy since ancient Roman times when it was called ‘Luna marble’. Also known as Carrara marble, the typically blue-gray or white marble was widely used in construction, sculpture and interior design due to its enchanting appearance and extreme durability.
Italian marble has been quarried in the mountains of Carrara and Massa in the Northern most parts of modern-day Tuscany. In the 17th Century, the marble quarries were operated by the Malaspina and Cybo families who ruled the provinces of Carrara and Massa at that time. These families also created the Office of Marble in the 1560s to better regulate the industry and ensure quality control to keep the price of their marble high.
By the late 1890s, Carrara had become extremely politically unstable and was a hotbed of anarchist activities. Laborers were often subjected to very low standards of health and safety in the quarries and fatal accidents were commonplace. As dissatisfaction grew among the quarry workers this led to major political upheavals.
One of the leading anarchists, Galileo Palla, once said that in Carrara even the ‘stones are anarchists’. Eventually, the quarry workers of Carrara went on to spearhead the Lunigiana revolt and uprising in 1894. Working conditions for the quarry workers did improve as a result; although in 1911 a cliff face collapsed and killed 10 workers who were relaxing on their lunch break.
By the end of the 20th Century, most of the 650 quarry sites in Carrara had been exhausted. During its history, the Carrara region had produced more marble than anywhere else on earth! Today, the famous pure white marble from Carrara can rarely be found as the deposits have been nearly exhausted. The main marble that is still quarried from the region usually has a grayish color and streaks of black or white mineral deposits in it.
How Big Is The Italian Marble Industry?
Italian marble is highly prized with 1 square meter costing up to $400 or more. Each year the Italian marble industry produces around 4 million tons of marble. The Italian marble industry is worth just over £1 billion annually and employs around 13,000 people.
How Big Is The Italian Marble Export Industry?
Each year, Italy exports 1.19 million tons of marble slabs and blocks to customers throughout the world. Italian marble exports are worth almost 380 million Euros per year.
Italy also exports roughly 0.5 million tons of finished marble products which are worth over 800 million Euros each year.
What Is Great About Italian Marble?
Italian marble is widely considered to be one of the finest in the world. This is a result of its relative purity, strength and its famous misty white/gray coloring. The high quality of Italian marble has made it a favorite material for sculpture artists, including legends such as Michelangelo who carved his statue of David out of Carrara marble between 1501 and 1504.
Italian marble is highly prized for its mineral purity but another factor that makes it so appealing is the excellent quarrying techniques that are used in its extraction. Since the establishment of the Office of Marble in the mid-16th Century, strict quality control and regulation of the marble quarrying industry has continued to set high standards which aren’t matched anywhere else.
Italian marble quarry workers are also some of the best stone cutters and carvers in the world and consequently, Carrara marble comes at a higher price than most other marble. Due to the increasing scarcity of the very purest Italian marble, it also fetches a good price on the international markets.
Important Marble Producing Regions Of Italy.
The Carrara Marble mines have been in operation for more than 2000 years and extend for 58 km through the Apuan Alps in Northern Tuscany. The marble deposits extend for 2000 meters into the earth’s surface and have already produced more marble than any other location on earth.
The main provinces where Italian marble is quarried are Carrara, Massa and Lunigiana. There are roughly 650 quarry sites in the Apuan Alps however most of these have been exhausted of the highest quality marble by generations of extraction.
What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of Marble?
The following are some of the important strengths and weaknesses of marble that you should be aware of before you decide to purchase:
Advantages Of Marble.
- Marble is a highly attractive stone that comes in several main colors, including white, gray and black. Marble is usually veined by mineral deposits which gives the stone a hugely appealing look.
- Marble is a versatile building material that can be used for tile flooring, columns, facades as well as detailed sculptures and artwork.
- Marble has a perennial appeal that will never go out of fashion. The timeless elegance and otherworldly tones of the stone’s coloring mean that as marble deposits are depleted it only becomes more valuable with time.
- Marble is a favorite material for sculptures because it has a slightly translucent quality that imitates human skin very well. This is due to marble’s unique subsurface scattering quality that gives sculptures visual depth and a very realistic feel.
Disadvantages Of Marble.
- Marble is a difficult stone to work with and so only highly trained and skilled laborers, stone cutters and technicians can install marble flooring and other features in your house. This makes it quite expensive to install any kind of marble features in a property.
- Marble is a calcareous stone which means that it can be damaged if it comes into contact with any acidic substances. This is known as ‘acid etching’ and can ruin marble by staining it a pale brown or yellow color. As a result, marble that is outdoors can often be stained or damaged by acid rain and other environmental pollutants.
- Marble is a very heavy stone so you need to make sure your property has the structural strength to accommodate it if you plan to install marble fittings, flooring or features.
- Marble requires relatively high levels of maintenance to ensure that it remains in pristine condition. Ideally, you should employ cleaning professionals to clean your marble flooring or features on a regular basis.
Famous Works Of Art Made From Italian Marble.
There are some great works of art made from Italian marble:
Pieta By Michelangelo.
Pieta is often said to be Michelangelo’s greatest masterpiece and depicts the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ in her arms. The faces and bodies of the figures are so hyper-realistic that it feels as though the Virgin might look up at any moment!
The highly evocative sculpture represents the sacrifice that Jesus made to take the sins of the world onto his own shoulders, an act that ultimately cost him his worldly life. Made using white Carrara marble, the Pieta is the only sculpture that Michelangelo actually signed with his name. Michelangelo’s signature is hidden behind the shoulder of the Virgin.
The Veiled Christ By Giuseppe Sanmartino.
Currently exhibited in Naples, the Veiled Christ is one of the finest pieces of marble sculpting in the Western World. The unbelievable marble work of the veil which covers the face of Christ is so well carved that it appears to be made of real cloth and not stone! In fact, the stone carving of the veil is so intricate that a myth arose in Naples that claimed Giuseppe used a mysterious alchemical technique to achieve the remarkable results of his sculpture.
The urban legend claims that Giuseppe used a real veil and then calcified the cloth into marble crystals using a secret alchemical method. However, analysis of the sculpture has shown this to be untrue but it’s not surprising that people would have found it hard to believe that anyone could have carved such a realistic veil out of stone.
David By Michelangelo.
The state of David is one of the most valuable cultural artifacts of the Italian Renaissance and is on display at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. The sculpture depicts the boy David who defeated the giant Goliath and epitomizes the heroic archetype who faces and overcomes his fears.
The David statue was built out of one large slab of marble that was excavated from Carrara in Tuscany which meant that Michelangelo could not afford to make a single mistake in his stonework! Undoubtedly one of the most iconic works of Italian art of all time, the statue of David is a perfect example of why marble is such a highly sought-after material for artists and architects to work with.
Taj Mahal – Agra, India.
The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum to his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz died during child birth. The Taj is a symbol of India’s rich history and heritage. Construction began in 1631 and ended in 1653. The façade of the Taj is built in white marble, mostly mined from the Indian state of Rajasthan.
Italian Marble Is The Best In The World.
Without access to plentiful marble, many of the great monuments, palaces, churches, cathedrals and artwork that have defined the character of Italy would simply have been impossible! In many ways, Carrara marble is the unsung hero of the Renaissance and many of the Italian-born architectural periods that have shaped the modern Western world.
There is no nation on earth that has excavated more marble over a longer period of time than Italy. In fact, it’s hard to calculate the positive impact that easy access to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of marble has had on the culture, architecture and art of Italy, dating right back to Roman times.