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From Michelangelo to Moore, Pietrasanta Carves Its Niche

May 01, 1988|MARTIE STERLING | Sterling is a free-lance writer living in Aspen, Colo

PIETRASANTA, Italy — On that gleaming Italian coastline beside the Mare Ligure, where the bright Crayola colors of Viareggio's summer cabanas blaze against the seascape, the Appenine Mountains tumble down about the shore. As they approach Pisa to the south, they pause to plant creamy stone togas in solid massifs of rock.

These ranges, wintry-white all year, are mountains of marble. Chippings from many millennia form the great quarries of Massa, Carrera, Querceta. Here lie the world's foremost repositories of "Holy Stone." Discovered centuries before Christ, they have been the treasure of sculptors from Michelangelo to Henry Moore.

Since Greek sculptor Phidias first experimented with marble statuary, and the material was imported to Rome from Carrara in the time of Augustus, "Holy Stone" has smitten artists of every age. Its luster and feel cause the most humble craftsmen to grow dreamy-eyed with visions of masterworks.

From the time of Rome's greatest glory, the town of Pietrasanta ("Holy Stone" in Italian), with its neighboring mountains of marble, has been the heart and soul of world sculpture.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Home of the Week: The Home of the Week in the Sept. 6 Business section said the master bath of the Cheviot Hills home featured "Carrera marble floors." The floors are from the Manhattan Marble line. Carrara marble -- spelled that way -- is from the city in Italy of the same name. A number of Times articles have misspelled Carrara marble as Carrera.

Eavesdropping on a Love Affair

A visit to this unprepossessing Tuscan village a few kilometers north of Pisa is like eavesdropping on an ardent love affair. Onlookers feel shivers of anticipation amid articulate and impassioned grappa drinkers gathered in dusty coveralls at the Iris, Igea and Michelangelo bars.

Pietrasanta's public square is made for ringing speeches, especially from the platform near the lovely 14th-Century duomo built of soft white, ocher-stained marble from the nearby Ceragliola quarry.

There are burnt-umber tile roofs, the requisite cathedral and campanile. Around the corner on the Piazza Carducci (circa 1324), ancient plane trees spread beneficent arms over garrulous groups at the outdoor tables of the Bar Igea.

Here the old expression, "In the art world there is no truth--only opinions," comes vividly to life. Amid shouts of "Ciao!" and "Bellissima!" , the air thrums with German, Japanese, Swedish, English.

Sculptors from Beijing to Bonn, eyes afire, arms akimbo, carve exquisite shapes and excitable sounds in the Appenine air.

From the town's many cooperative studios to its back street ristorantes, the air is filled with sifting clouds of plaster, with the searing heat of crucibles, with impassioned debate over the curve of an armature.

Sidewalks dance to the cacophony of power tools. Daylight glitters with the bright, cruel sheen of airborne bronze filings. Here, at the center of "the work," creative excitement rises to a feverish pitch.

The Simple Pleasures

Pietrasanta is not a milieu of Ferraris, Fendi furs and grand opera. Nor is it on the beaten path of the world's art addicts. It is the site of mellowed Tuscan buildings, of chisel-scarred hands, of lusty talk and of simple pleasures--the carving, the stone, the local vino.

The town does not cater to the senses in the manner of a Venice or Florence--but seeing it gives the layman a small understanding of the enormity of a work of sculpture. It is the center of a cruel, demanding art.

In this Promethean place, bronze plaques mark where Michelangelo worked and slept. Altissimo, the storied quarry where he chose the stone for his pietas and "David," is closed. But the shades of his genius linger. All Pietrasanta is his legacy to the world of sculpture.

Every man and woman gathered over cappuccino to argue ideas and rest from the rigors of sculpting is infected with his spirit.

The world of marble is tremulously exciting, to be a bystander for a moment in Appian time.

Driving into those mountains past small, rosy towns set in deep gorges, you are astonished at the mounds of pilings balanced carelessly as building blocks, at work yards heaped with stone slabs the size of dreadnaughts. You brush perilously close to trucks catapulting downward with 20-ton blocks of marble for workshops and foundries.

Disembarked in wide-open quarries, you are dwarfed by diamond band-saws so immense that they reduce a foreman and his crew to the size of ants at a Brobdingnagian picnic. Shattered fragments of crystalline Carrara shimmer like wildflowers in a meadow, thousands of pieces there for the picking. Seduced by marble, you reach again and again to slip yet another colorful chip into your pockets.

Back in town, under a caressing summer sun, we inquired about our American friend, Ric McClain.

"Reek . . . ? Ah-- Reek-ay !" exclaimed the bartender.

No Vacation for Him

We looked up and there was McClain, surrounded by fellow artists, looking as finely Italian as a racing cyclist--not at all like a downhill skier from Aspen, Colo. His marble-dusted work shirt, roughened hands and weary, red-rimmed eyes convinced us that Italy, for McClain, is no vacation.

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