On a day of naked sunshine, austerely cool and pure, I drive with Ron de Cambio, caretaker, from Peralta, ten miles north of Viareggio, between stone-yards where pallets stacked with car-sized blocks of white and roseate marble stand like wagons in a marshalling yard. At Forte dei Marmi the road hairpins upwards past Seravezza through leafless forest, past crags latticed with icicles, towards Altissimo. Michelangelo chose stone and worked here, so did Henry Moore. A photo of Moore, sunburnt in a short-sleeved shirt, eyeing a boulder among clean-shaven cliffs and curls of old steel hawser, and soaring white-faced mountains, has drawn me to this place.
On the terrace outside our cottage, the shiny black delta-shapes of carpenter bees have been flashing about among the blossoming rosemary from ten o’clock each morning. Up at 5000 feet, on the other side of a spur of the Apulian Alps, thin fresh snow crusts everything. We cast about and fail to find the quarry road. A phone call from a wayside snack bar, which is shivering-cold in spite of a well-stocked potbellied stove, puts us on course again. We go back through the Cipollaia tunnel and turn off up still more hairpins. Three days ago Anne and I turned back here, deterred by the notice warning us about Explosives, Landslides, Heavy Vehicles and Unauthorised Persons. We come out now onto a belvedere beset by dazzle, height and drop. This quarry is a mountain whose top they’ve been shearing off since 1882, when a Belgian firm called Henraux took it over.
We go into the main Portakabin and introduce ourselves to the foreman, Carlo Cecchi, wind-reddened, grizzled, genial, in a checked shirt, then walk out onto a floor of marble, white as mint cake. Walls of it climb vertically on three sides, twenty feet, sixty, a hundred. At the back of this atrium, whose scale equals a cathedral or a Canadian bank, a stepped roof, like the underside of a staircase, makes a bridge above our heads. The sun’s rays ricochet from a thousand planes like shot off armour. It’s as though we’re balanced on a titanic crystal that climbs as high as the sun.
Cut blocks rest here and there, one with a diamond-shod steel cord tensed motionless a quarter of the way through the stone. ‘They are trimming off poor-quality rock,’ says Carlo while Ron translates. On the lip of the quarry’s giant bite out of the mountainside, a blockhouse perches with its empty eyes towards the gold of the Mediterranean in the middle distance. Here was a strongpoint on the Gothic Line, Carlo tells us. In our playroom, in 1944, my brother and I were busy sticking little British and American flags on pins into a wall map of Italy and drawing red-ink arrows to mark the Allied advances. The Gothic Line was where the Wehrmacht planned to make a stand. After a few months our armies pierced the Line near the east coast between Ancona and Rimini. The desperate Germans burned and shot their way backwards towards the Alps.
Carlo tells us that a gun was mounted in this blockhouse to shell the Allied Navy off-shore from Carrara. There is a passage inside it with two right angles to protect the gunners from the direct brunt of the noise and shock. Now wild goats shelter in it and climbers abseil from it down the far cliff and climb back up.
The squared pure-white faces and profiles of the quarried marble make Cubist sculptures against the intense blue of a smokeless sky, like rectilinear icebergs or African forts. On the rock-faces block-sized oblongs have been incised, ready for the chainsaw – it looks like the biggest sarcophagus in the world, lacking only the coffins and caskets, the posies and the names.