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.
On the lip of the quarry opposite the blockhouse is the remnant of the lizza – the wooden rails down which they ran the blocks. Men braced them with ropes round their backs, then round stone bollards to put a brake on the 700-metre slide. (These bollards have now been thieved by sculptors glad of the ready-roughed-out stone.) The chief of the lizzatura put an ear to the creaking rails to check that all was going as it should. The men gave out a work-call, something like ‘Ou-ou-OU!’ At the foot of the mountain ox-teams hauled the stone down the valley road to the coast, to the harbour-mole which still juts into the sea like a dark limb sticking out over golden space. At our feet, above the huge white scree slope, a ledge in the mother-rock still bears part of a name chiselled in copperplate, ‘GHI-’.
Carlo expects another man to show us round some more – Professor Pierotti, the geometra, the surveyor. He arrives in a small car, its back seat strewn with books. Moustache, wire-rimmed glasses, woollen jacket and cap. A flow of information, which Ron seems to translate in full. He advised Moore which stone to choose. He takes a stub of red crayon from his pocket and sketches two curved shapes on a marble face: ‘This was what he wanted.’ Later he scuffs his boot in the meltwater of the marble floor and says, ‘This is the kind of rock we gave him’ – pure white, with no stains or flaws.
Fairweather cloud is streaming up the mountain, clotting round the apex of the great shorn planes, making it hard to see the rows of scars on a small cliff where quarrymen before the power-saw split blocks off by the method they used on the granites of Aberdeen and Lundy Island: driving in an iron bit with a hammer, then driving in the ‘butterfly’, the double wings or little iron wedges, on either side of the bit until the rock cracked. Behind this venerable scarp lies the snowbound road to Michelangelo’s part of the quarry. He was here because the Pope commanded him by an edict, obliging him to work for two years in this stony outback. I suppose he lived well enough, in the handsome square down below in Pietrasanta, where a plaque commemorates him. It must still have seemed from a Florentine viewpoint like being sent to Dartmoor, or Barrow in Furness.
We’re off to Prato, less than an hour on the autostrada. Somewhere I’ve heard that Moore made a piece for the city. The thing is, where in Prato? Some intuition sends me to a newsagent’s in the piazza nearby and there, on a spinner, is a postcard of the Moore, a great opalescent torso, floodlit, with an eye of black night in its middle and grass and shrubs round it. I buy the postcard and ask the shopkeeper Dove?, not really hoping to understand his reply. He stabs the air with a straight arm: ‘Direct that way,’ I think he says. We walk direct for three or four minutes till Anne catches sight of it, down a perspective of pruned plane-trees and department stores and cafés, at a busy landscaped intersection. Traffic lights are blinking, cars and mopeds idling or rushing. Among the hubbub stands Moore’s Forma squadrata con taglio (1974). Squared Form with Edge – the good old Modernist’s uncompromising name for his lovely creation, this animal from some other epoch and planet. It’s old-snow-greyish, with an elephant’s steady standing and composure, among the glazed Sixties façades and yellow-plastered walls with dark green shutters. It doesn’t tower, it’s quietly massy. As we stand looking at it, a man in jeans with cropped bleached hair grins at us, points at his own teeth, and says Quella molare! Is this the local nickname for the Moore?
From closer up some nearly human features come into focus. Pointy bumps on the faces of the trunk are bones or young breasts. On the far side, the tall, shallow backward-arching suggests a body from shoulderblades to lumbar region. A buttock bulges on one side. High on the right the concavity of a wave breaking mounts to a chin – the only uncurvaceous bit apart from the clean slice through the base, perhaps a foot across, giving cross-sections with the luscious thickness of cut leeks, or cheese.
A slight disappointment is the network of straight lines where the shaped blocks have fitted together in courses. Twenty-five years’ weathering is blackening these edges, interrupting the sheerness of the form, staining the marble here and there, spalling off tiny flakes like arrowheads. Of course they couldn’t haul a complete work this size down that hairpin road from Altissimo. The whole thing is monumental without bombast, meaningful without any motto proclaiming ‘To the Glory of’ or ‘Eternal Memory’ or ‘In Honour’. It’s eternal enough, pregnant with life-forms that have been on earth since prehistory. It’s plump and fleshly – in a medium of impenetrable hardness. It’s one of us – it is not the trampling of a tyrant, the horse of Napoleon or the boots of Stalin. The authorities can’t parade between its legs. If it was more humanoid, it would drift towards Hercules, or Tarzan or Stallone. It is strength – not harnessed to any triumph or Sisyphean labour. You need to stroke it – my hand cups down the haunch as happily as it would caress a beloved dog. It’s not sleek – I can feel the edges of raised veins and tiny pockets, rough as dogfish skin. The new-cleft stone at Altissimo was slick as ice, because rain and fumes had not yet rasped out the less hard ingredients.
We take another of the hairpin roads, north-west of Camaiore, up into the Alpine foothills. At about six hundred metres we come into a coldly shadowed basin of leafless sweet chestnuts, shuttered houses, a rim of sunned limestone crags higher up – no woodpiles, no washing on lines, no children playing football. It’s like going deaf, this drowning silence. The shadow gloams like a midwinter day in the North when the sun never quite gets up. Santa Anna di Stazzema: 560 women, men and children were slaughtered here by the Wehrmacht on 12 August 1944.
It must get well visited, like Culloden, Vassieux in the Vercors. There are dozens of marked spaces for cars and coaches, a small tabacchi (closed for siesta), a handsome museum (open weekends only in the winter). On its end wall a grey metal panel 12 feet high and 18 across reproduces in shallow relief the man from Guernica in pyjama trousers, falling into flames. A small Calvary models Jesus in bronze that tapers downwards in a long drip, as though the event was rendering him into tallow: cf. the death-camps.
A broad track climbs uphill towards a monument. On the flanking crags are Stations of the Cross, metal plaques screwed to the rock, each one double, showing Jesus on the way to Golgotha and so on with a 1944 counterpart. A hillside with bodies failing head first out of holes above a heap of struggling bodies, a German levelling a gun. Fleeing, struggling people on a slope among trees, a bicycle in the foreground, God in the sky shining a gilded beam on a man being shot. A villager in trousers, shirt and boots carrying an ammo box between trees, another carrying a gunbarrel, supervised by steel-helmeted Germans. A woman in a shift standing on one leg and taking a shoe off her other foot, two guns threatening her. Some of the sculpting is awkwardly lifelike, some is furiously Expressionistic, even one of the Jesus scenes, which shows him on his side, far gone, with one executioner manhandling him onto a leaning timber while the other shoves a leg into his crutch and hauls at him with wanton force – all modelled in writhing clay, as against the posed news-photo look of the modern scenes.
The monument on the hilltop is an ossuario where the burnt remains of 560 people were gathered under a big, square-topped tower with photos of the dead on all four sides under oval plastic mounts, mostly taken by a photographer down in Pietrasanta. Nardinis, Bertinellis, Pierottis, in best clothes, neat haircuts, unnaturally set-faced for the studio camera. An old man with flat cap and heavy moustache. A noble-looking woman, maybe thirty, with an almost fierce, straight look. Stocky, middle-aged householderly couples. A couple in their thirties in best, or second-best, clothes, with a baby – the youngest victim, aged four weeks.
To one side a huge granite plaque on sturdy alloy stanchions lists the names of all the known dead in raised metal letters, with a note that some of the vittimi could not be identified.
The coming of spring is signalled by dark purple flowers under the trees. The spaces between the bare trunks have that look as if they were waiting for something to come between them, an animal, a stranger. They are waiting for nothing, the clock stopped here fifty years ago. Brecht wrote:
What kind of an age is this, when
Talking about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many outrages!
Ron comes past the cottage with a load of timber and paint for his renovations and tells us the story of S. Anna as he got it from the museum conservatore. He belonged to the village and was six or seven in 1944. There was no road then, only trails. The Germans came up at 4 a.m. No partisan movement had arisen there – partisans from elsewhere had promised to come to their help if necessary, but this did not happen. The soldiers were herding people in from the nearby hamlets, perhaps 150 troops, not all German. The children were lagging behind, barefoot, hurt by the sweet-chestnut burrs on the path. The soldier in charge shooed them away into the forest, then fired his machine-gun into the air to make it seem he’d killed them.
When a big crowd had been herded into the centre, where the car park is now, they set up a tripod for a machine-gun and an old man said: ‘They’re going to take our picture.’ They mowed them down, threw hand-grenades into a house full of people, burned the houses. Many of the slaughtered were refugees from the coastal plains, from Naples up to Genoa, escaping the Allied bombing. Details got out through people who were buried beneath the dying and dead. The curator’s mother, grandmother and siblings were all killed. There were about six pregnant women, some nearly at term. The Kommandant was called Raeder, an Austrian, a one-armed man who’d supervised atrocities in the East. He died in an Italian prison in the Eighties.
As I write this down I find myself wondering: what were the Santa Anna adults and the many refugees from the coast thinking when ‘their’ Air Force bombed the Balearics across the sea there seven years before? Or when ‘their’ Army gassed and shot the Abyssinians? Or when ‘their’ Duce posed with Hitler? Various things, I suppose, like ‘He’s a rogue but at least we have a job now,’ and ‘Anybody else would be no better,’ and ‘The blacks are savages, always at each other’s throats,’ and ‘Let’s hope he sorts out those Spanish Communists,’ and ‘He must be okay, the Pope has blessed him’ and ‘Uncle was right, we should have put him in jail before he got so big.’ I hope some Santa Annans resolved to vote for the Left when the Terror blew up in its own face and democracy was established. I hope the soldier who fired into the air got home without more opportunities for murder and lived out an ordinary life – he might be in his late seventies today. (Presumably, though, he used his gun on the village people when he rejoined his mates.)
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.