At first glance, the Apuan Alps of northwest Tuscany’s Carrara region are pure white. Alison Leitch first saw them from a train window when traveling through Italy in the early 1980s. From a distance, she writes, their dazzling tops looked like snow. Her seatmate told her otherwise: The blinding whiteness was actually marble dust, a powdery byproduct of the famous quarries that gash through the mountains. Then Leitch’s seatmate explained that the Apuan quarries were the source of another legendary tradition. “That’s where the anarchists live,” she said.
Most travel guides to Carrara will tell you the town is famous for three things: marble, anarchism, and pig fat. This unlikely trio is intertwined as deeply as the mineral veins striating the mountains. Since ancient Roman times, Carrara’s Apuan Alps have supplied marble for some of the world’s most prized sculptures. Carrara is the marble of Michelangelo’s Pietà, of Jean-Antoin Houdin’s George Washington, and New Delhi’s vast Akshardham Temple. The stone, writes Leitch, is prized for its luminosity, its networks of blue veins, and its Rorschach blots of greyish-purple. In solid blocks, it can support monoliths; in thin slabs, it can be winnowed down to translucence.
But quarrying it is dangerous business. Extracting ancient, fossilized bones from vast mountains is body-breaking work, ruining laborers’ backs and filling their lungs with powdery calcium carbonate. Accidents are common and often fatal. Since 2016, at least three workers have been crushed to death. When Leitch, now a lecturer in sociology at Macquarie University in Australia, interviewed workers in the region in the 1980s, they detailed a dangerous history. “The marble of Carrara is not white: it is red, tinged with the color of human blood,” a quarry worker told her. These harsh conditions have long bred working-class activism, including one of Italy’s most enduring anarchist traditions.