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Marble that built Florence Cathedral in record demand

The Pantheon temple in Rome glistens with precious, white marble from Italy’s town of Carrara, a stone that was prized by the ancient Romans and Renaissance masters. Now, extraction rates of 5,000 tons per year for a modern building bonanza is cutting into the city’s scenic backdrop. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from Tuscany.

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    Florence is a visual feast. One secret to its twinkle: Carrara marble among the most prized building materials in history. Virtually every Italian city can boast of a monument made from Carrara marble. But perhaps none is more famous than the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, right here in Florence.


    Its tower soars almost 300 feet into the sky, and nearly every inch is clad in lucious marble. Marcello del Colle oversees restoration. He tells me the Cathedral is so big, and its marble so delicate, that restorers had to begin fixing it as soon as it was completed in the 15th century. They haven't stopped fixing it for more than 500 years.

    Apart from modern scaffolding and elevators, little has changed since Medieval times, including the source of stone trucked in from the Tuscan hills and carefully delivered to Del Colle's workshop. It's a spectacle in itself. Each block weighs approximately one and a half tons and takes a crane, a forklift, and Del Colle's entire team to unload.

    Here inside the same workshop where Michelangelo sculpted his David, the marble will be transformed into statues of Popes Celestine V and Leo the Great, to replace their weathered predecessors perched outside the cathedral. Michelangelo once said it was his role to free the form from the bondage of stone. Del Colle says his process is similar.


    So we're going to see a replica of this statue emerge from this block of marble.


    That statue over there is trapped inside this block. All we have to do is remove the extra marble. That's how sculpture works. You can take stuff away, but you can't put it back. This type of marble is the top of the line for sculpture. It has a very fine grain, and its very own particular transparency that gives it warmth and makes the statue softer in appearance, more human.


    Today, that softer, human touch has made it a hot commodity in modern construction around the world, from colossal Buddhas and temples to luxury hotels and high-end bathrooms. Roughly one million tons of it are quarried every year at the source in Carrara, a couple-hours drive northwest of Florence. Deep inside the guts of the Apuan Alps, you'll find cathedrals of a different making, wall-to-wall, and floor-to-ceiling, solid Carrara marble.

    What once took an army of oxen and brute force in the Renaissance is now done with bulldozers and diamond-toothed saws. It's a profitable business, with Carrara marble selling at up to 6000 Euros per ton. Carlo Colombi is the commercial director of Marmi Carrara, the company that runs this marble quarry. It's 50%-owned by a multinational construction giant: the Saudi Binladin Group. Its founder was Osama Bin Laden's father. Colombi says that modern excavation techniques allow it to turn out 100,000 tons per year.


    Now we are cutting 20, 22 centimeter per hour. So before we need one week to cut one block. Now we need six hours.


    The company has used this marble to refurbish mosques and other structures at Mecca and Medina. Not even the smallest bits of it go to waste. The excess is used in paint, cosmetics, and even toothpaste. But all this digging has taken a visible toll on the landscape. Mirco Felici is a local sculptor who's come to handpick a block of marble.


    So these two hills they actually used to be one hill?


    Yes, a long time ago.


    Centuries of digging split the hill down the middle. And in just a few more decades, he says, one half might vanish. He adds that, just as in sculpture, once you've removed the marble, you can't put it back. According to geologists, more marble has been extracted in the past two decades than in the previous two thousand years of quarrying.

    Today, some 5 million tons of mountain are removed annually. Only one fifth of that is marble block. The rest is discarded rubble and dirt. But experts predict that even at today's rate of extraction, the supply will last for several more centuries, ensuring new construction and restorations for generations to come. That's if tomorrow's technology and soaring demand don't speed up the digging even more.

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