Michelangelo Marble Road


Pietrasanta Apuan Alps Marble Quarries at Night
Apuan Alps Marble Quarries at Night

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s immense labour of love (love for art and love for one of art’s greatest materials, marble) originated in the town of Pietrasanta, a Medieval little gem in northern Tuscany, between the Apuan Alps, gigantic mountains made of marble, and the sea.

Here Michelangelo Buonarroti, the greatest sculptor of all times, received from Pope Leo X an order that he couldn’t refuse, or rather he could but the attraction was too strong to refuse.

In its long life, Pietrasanta had been under the alternating rules of the near ciies of Pisa, Lucca, Genoa. All this ended when in 1484 it was occupied by the Florentines.

Only 10 years later, in 1494, Piero de’ Medici, called Piero the Unfortunate and son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, handed this land to the King of France Charles VIII. The governor of the King of France in Italy eventually returned the control of Pietrasanta’s territory to Lucca in exchange for 29,000 ducats of gold.

Under Lucca’s authority the town remained until 1513, year in which Pope Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici), arbitrator of the dispute between Lucca and Florence, assigned Pietrasanta and its district to the latter.

Apuan Alps view from the Versilia Riviera
Apuan Alps view from the Versilia Riviera

As part of the Florentine Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Pietrasanta prospered economically and flourished culturally, as the whole of Tuscany did during the Renaissance. These were years of political stability as well as economic expansion.

Here in Pietrasanta, in the Rocca di Sala, the Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1561 signed the decree granting to the great Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini the house in Via del Rosario in Florence where Cellini would set up the workshop for the fusion of Perseus, his masterpiece, now holding the head of Medusa under the vaults of the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria, Florence.

The city of Pietrasanta was still growing, the defensive walls were expanded and strengthened. And, most importantly, marble quarries were opened.

Now that the area was part of the Tuscan Grand Duchy, the Medici Pope Leo X realised that it was no longer necessary to buy marble from Carrara. He had marble within the state of Florence. So he ordered Michelangelo Buonarroti, who at the time was working on the facade of the Church of San Lorenzo (the patron saint of the Medicis) in Florence, to plan a road from the sea to the marbles of Seravezza and Pietrasanta.

Plan a road? Michelangelo had already turned himself from painter and sculptor to architect (with Bramante he designed the magnificent Dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and he also designed other parts of the great church’s architecture), so the artist, perplexed at first, thought to himself: why not from architect to engineer?

Michelangelo and the Apuan Alps Marble
Michelangelo and the Apuan Alps Marble

The challenge was enormous, and proved to cost him lots of blood, sweat and tears, but was extremely rewarding. He had to visit the Apuan Alps himself, still virgin territory at the time, trekking on perilous paths, but when he reached the seemingly inaccessible peak of the Monte Altissimo and touched its side, he thought that he had never seen or felt marble as pure, statuary and perfect as this, not even the nearby Carrara’s marble which was easier to extract. This was “the gods’ own stone”.

And, as a true new man of the Renaissance, the complete man who was supposed to work manually as well as intellectually, he supervised the building of the road, laboured as a navvy and worked in the quarries around Pietrasanta.

But his dream was never realised, at least not by himself. The ecstasy dissolves into agony: in March 1520 Michelangelo is disengaged by Leo X from the contract for the façade of San Lorenzo and the road is interrupted. Cosimo I will complete it and also build the beautiful Medici Villa of Seravezza for the family summer holidays and to extract “the Gold of the Apuane”: by now the myth was born to stay and not only Pietrasanta but the whole of the Versilia region experienced a major economic development.

Today we’ve lost the sense of the sacred that inspired Michelangelo. No sculptor has ever equalled Michelangelo, no painter has ever equalled Leonardo da Vinci. Art and music have ceased to evolve decades and even centuries ago. Man is better, even more intelligent, when he is closer to God and inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is true in everything man is and does, but in art we can see it most immediately, without the mediation of thought, just through the senses.

Michelangelo Buonarroti came here to choose the most valuable marble for his sculptures. He stayed in Pietrasanta between 1516 and 1519 . According to some recent studies, it might be the work of Michelangelo the design of the bell tower of the Duomo of Pietrasanta, renowned for its unusual spiral-shaped self-supporting staircase, until now attributed to the Florentine architect and sculptor Donato Benti, who was the director of the works at the time.

From then, Pietrasanta became known around the world for marble processing, a gathering place of well-known and emerging sculptors alike.


Photo credit: Alpi Apuane Veduta by Nanjo29. Ameglia Castle with Apuan Alps by Mikenh.