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Places of Cycling: David and the Anarchists

Words by Paul Maunder w/images from Getty Images

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For a land of lush green hills and blazing blue skies, the color white is surprisingly significant. In Tuscany we ride on or skitter across, the strade bianche. White dust blooms under our wheels. And at Carrara, a hundred kilometers north of Florence, white has for centuries been symbolic.

Fantiscritti Quarry. Carrara. Tuscany. Italy. (Photo by: Claudio Ciabochi/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Carrara sits on the Tuscan coast, a sleepy enough seaside town. Look inland, however, and you will be confronted with the Apuan Alps, a range of jagged white and grey peaks that look more like Mordor than Italy. Venture up into these hills to find a strange landscape. Huge chunks have been gouged out of the mountains; these are the Carrara marble quarries. Marble has been extracted here since Roman times. Used for buildings, monuments, and sculptures, Carrara marble is a valuable commodity, prized for its purity. There are three major open-air quarry sites, each with constantly changing terraces of stone. Nearby tunnels lead to enormous underground quarries, as big as cathedrals.

Carrara marble has been used by builders and artists since Ancient Rome. The Pantheon in Rome is constructed of it. Michelangelo came to the quarries to personally pick his material for his five meters tall masterpiece David, now residing in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.

Five centuries after the original David was fashioned, Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra traveled to Italy to pay his own tribute to Michelangelo’s work. Kobra is famous for producing multi-colored murals in cityscapes but in 2017 he chose a different setting. On a huge white marble wall high in the Carrara quarries, he painted a harlequin-colored image of David. It was exhausting work; just getting to the quarry every day took an hour by jeep, over dangerous tracks, and the site was very exposed to the sun. The mural took ten days to complete and is still accessible to (determined) visitors.

Michelangelo Buonarroti is the undisputed protagonist of the art of marble, so they hired the well-known graphitist Kobra for a themed mural on the top of Carrara’s quarries (Photo by: Federico Tovoli / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If Carrara has handsomely served the Italian elite by providing them with beautiful buildings and statues, the town has a harder, counter-balancing political position too. At the end of the 19th-century political radicalism and anarchism took hold of the Carrara quarry-workers. In 1894 the New York Times reported that revolutionaries deported from Belgium and Switzerland had traveled to Carrara and inflamed the already feisty local stoneworkers. The first anarchist group in Italy was established in Carrara, and the quarries continued to have a reputation for anarchist politics well into the middle of the 20th century.

While the Carrara anarchists may have held an abstract belief in anarchism in its purest sense (that is, the abolition of hierarchical government) their activism was focused on more pragmatic objectives. They campaigned for workers’ rights (the quarries were brutally tough places to work), they campaigned against state repression, and they fought fascism. This last front became a defining characteristic among the quarry workers during the first half of the 20th century. As Mussolini’s fascists rose to power during the twenties and thirties, Carrara’s anarchist brigades frequently had violent encounters with groups of fascists. During World War Two the Carrara anarchists became partisan fighters, taking on the Nazis and their local allies, and working to keep the local hospital funded and supplied.

Anarchism never became a serious force in Italian politics. After the war, its attraction faded, anarchist groups, blurred into other left-wing organizations. In Carrara, though, it is not forgotten. Every May there is an anarchist festival in the town in which comrades are commemorated. The marble industry continues, though at a much smaller volume than a century ago. And on high, David watches over the quarry, its bright new guardian.