HALF AN HOUR’S drive north of Pisa, wedged between the Ligurian Sea and the Apuan Alps, lies the Tuscan town of Pietrasanta, which roughly translates as “holy stone.” This is the place Michelangelo is said to have come when he was looking for the world’s most perfect marble, so it comes to an as little surprise that today with thousands of tonnes of that same stone extracted each year Pietrasanta has become one of Italy’s chicest art destinations.
In the town’s main square, modern marble sculptures lead to a 14th-century cathedral where art installations hang from wooden beams. The streets are lined with sleek galleries and fashionable cafés, where artists gather to discuss the latest artwork or exhibition openings. In the late summer, Pietrasanta smells like olives and honey, the scents wafting down from the nearby hills. But there is also grit in the air: a chalky, white powder that comes from the 30 or so marble sculpture workshops operating in the town.
Here, local craftspeople are so skilled that they can produce replicas of nearly every sculpture imaginable, from intricate angels and dancers to exact copies of Michelangelo’s David. Many of the workshops have opened their doors to visiting artists, with sculptors from all over the world traveling to Pietrasanta to glean a piece of this local know-how. “There is a savoir-faire of making sculptures here that is like nowhere else in the world,” says French artist Sylvestre Gauvrit, who moved to Pietrasanta to master the art of carving marble. “The technique is in the air, and you live it, you breathe it. There is a special kind of magic that means, for artists, Pietrasanta is a place of inspiration.”
The jeep bumps and jerks, its wheels are bouncing over the dusty white road as we wind through Tuscany’s Apuan Alps. To our left, the scene is bucolic: pink wildflowers growing alongside pine trees and open fields. To our right, things are different: chalky white cliffs jut from the mountains, gleaming in the late summer sun. In the distance is Monte Altissimo, the 1,600m-high mountain Michelangelo supposedly hiked in search of Italy’s most-prized marble.
I am here with Henraux, Italy’s biggest producer of marble products, to visit their Cervaiole quarry, from which they extract thousands of tonnes each year. My driver, Luca, a geologist with Henraux, is unfazed by the bumpy ride. “Our jeeps are specially designed for these roads,” he says, changing gear into first, sending us ricocheting uphill, chinks of marble falling down the mountainside. We reach the top, a moonlike landscape of upside-down staircases and sparkling cubic structures. It is here, at one of Italy’s most crucial marble quarries, that a team of engineers, geologists, construction workers, and designers work together to extract, carve and transport huge slabs of marble down the mountain to Henraux’s 55,000m2 factory in Querceta, where it will be transformed into hotel lobbies, kitchens, and bespoke sculptures. It is an age-old tradition perfected over Henraux’s almost 200- year history. “Henraux has always been about interpreting new possibilities for marble and the marble industry,” says Paolo Carli, CEO of Henraux, since he took over the running of the company in 2003. “Today, we have the same vision. We are a modern company with major equipment, robotic systems, and computer-controlled cutting machines, all of which reflect the current era of the stone industry. Alongside new equipment, Carli’s tenure has been about forging closer ties between art, architecture, and design. “I want to support new generations of artists, give them a space to create precise pieces of the highest quality,” he says. To do this, he turned four of Henraux’s factories into gallery-like complete with modern sculptures, workspaces, and a kitchen “for entertaining.” He also set up the Henraux Foundation, which supports and funds cultural projects in Tuscany and offers a biennial prize to young artists creating works in marble. “Pietrasanta is a major art center and has a great community of artists, so there are a lot of possibilities to grow and see how art and architecture can work in different ways,” says Carli.
Looking around Henraux, it is a clear business booming. But competitors are catching up, with Asia moving in fast on the EU’s dominance as the world’s biggest marble producer and exporter. “It is difficult,” admits Carli. “We have huge warehouses, huge factories, and extremely high-quality control. In China, production is much cheaper.” It might be assumed that this makes it difficult for Henraux to compete – but there are important elements that set the company apart. Carli looks around Henraux HO: young Italians are sketching, photographers are busy shooting the company catalog, bespectacled artisans are smoothing marble sculptures. “Quality, he says. “And know-how – a skill that can only Come from here, from this region, where we live and breathe marble. It is simply a part of us.”
In a dusty, light-filled workshop on a residential road in Pietrasanta, Italian artisan Massimo Galleni pushes his spectacles to the end of his nose and peers up at the face of his latest project: an ethereal ballerina he has been working on for the past month. “She is almost finished,” he says, picking a chisel from his coat pocket. “But there are a few things I can still do,” -he pauses, and begins to work at her alabaster hairline, carving a lock of wavy hair so that it frames her milky marble face – “to make it perfect.”
The sculpture, a replica of Carlo Finelli’s Three Graces, is made from the popular Bianco P marble, an opaque stone found in the Apuan Alps, a low lying, marble-rich mountain range that stretches through northern Tuscany. Commissioned by a gallery in Florence, once complete, the statue will be hoisted onto a lorry and driven north, where it will be presented at Salone del Mobile, a popular design fair in Milan. Work such as this is Galleni’s bread and butter. In his studio, discarded pieces of marble littered across the floor, Galleni creates perfect copies of some of Italy’s most famous works using just photographs or drawings as reference. It is a skill that comes from more than 35 years in the trade. After finishing art school, Galleni began working as an apprentice in and around Pietrasanta, opening his own studio in 1996. These days his work is more in demand than ever. “Work is good,” he says. “I have had commissions pretty much constantly since I opened. But it is the style of job that has changed. I used to be doing exact copies of Michelangelo’s David, but now people want more intricate detailed sculptures. And they want them quickly,” he adds, laughing. “They always want them quickly.”
And they are willing to pay. For Italians, marble sculpting is big business right now Galleni’s American and Russian clients, for example, are prepared to hand over around €50,000 (US$55,000) 1or a lifelike marble statue. To keep up with demand, in 2015, Galleni did something he had been avoiding for years: he bought a Scultorob – a €300,000 seven-axis robotic system for milling models and prototypes. “I am a traditionalist, and I love working by hand. I did not want to turn to electronic machinery, he says. “But other studios had started doing it, even if they were not saying so, and it made their work faster. They could turn around three sculptures in the time it took me to do one. I started to fall behind.”
Initially, Galleni was afraid the robot would replace his workers – he employs seven artisans, some of whom work only by hand and others who use computer technology with traditional techniques. But the arrival of the automaton actually increased their work. Galleni and his team now use it daily, with artists from other studios and countries visiting to rent it out for 1,000 a day.
As we talk, the words artist and artisan flow through conversation almost interchangeably. But Galleni is careful to note the difference: he is an artisan, not an artist. “If you want to be a musician, it is hard to be a conductor,” he says, gesturing around the studio where lifelike plaster renderings of Venus de Milo and David stand close to workbenches I decorated with chisels, hammers, and sanders. “Yes, here I am the director of the studio, but in reality, I am the musician who simply replays someone else’s creation. I would never think of exhibiting because I would not do an artist’s work well.”
There is no shortage of art studios in and around Pietrasanta, but there is nowhere quite like Studio Sem. A small and unassuming premises set among grape trees and olive groves of Camaiore, a 10-minute drive from Pietrasanta, it is the studio du jour for the design world’s movers and shakers, including British artist Damien Hirst.
Its popularity among artists is partly thanks to its history: from the start, founder Sem Ghelardini championed modern abstract art, inviting young Italian artists to work alongside modern masters such as Henry Moore and Picasso protégé Henri-Georges Adam – something relatively unheard of in the heart of Italy. “Back in the ‘8os, many European artists flocked to Studio Sem for help in producing both bodies of work for major exhibitions and monumental work,” says Keara McMartin, who runs Studio Sem. Today they come for the studio’s know-how, as well as the marble — thick slabs of it, sourced from all over the world.
Alongside the alabaster Carrara marble from the nearby quarries, there are creamy pinks from Iran, blue marble from Angola, even emerald from China.”There is nowhere else in the world these artists could access all this marble,” says McMartin, gesturing to Norwegian artist Turid Gyllenhammar, who is at the studio carving 40 dresses, each in a different colored stone. It is a project that will take her years to finish.
For artists like Gyllenhammar, the appeal of working with marble is twofold. It is easy to manipulate due to its softness, yet it is hardwearing and can weather almost all conditions. But McMartin is more philosophical about its allure. “Marble is alive. You touch it, and you have got part of the earth in your hands. You really feel it. We have created sculptures where we employed extra artisans to help us finish, and when it was done, you could really feel the energy of all the people who had worked on it. They had their heart into it, and you could feel it. Bronze will never give you that.”
Around us, the seven artisans who are employed by Studio Sem go to work, sanding, carving, and polishing sculptures for Italian and foreign artists, some of whom only come in at the end to do the final touches. “It is definitely a collaborative process, and understanding the artist’s vision can take time and a lot of patience,” says McMartin. “Our skill is that we can carve just about anything, but there is always the question of pushing the stone beyond its limits; the consequences that come with extraordinary carving – for example, thin, suspended chains hanging in mid-air or draped fish netting made from marble. And it is work like this that truly excites us.”