Standing on the shoulders of giants in the marble quarries of Carrara

Standing on the shoulders of giants in the marble quarries of Carrara

Andrea Landi, a third-generation truck driver in an ancient and dangerous industry, emulates the feats of his ancestors.

Since the time of the Romans, the mountains of white stone that rise from the Mediterranean Sea above Carrara, Italy, have been, slowly and deliberately, carved out by men seeking the treasure within them. The marble of the Apuan Alps has, for more than two millennia, been renowned for purity and hardness. From adorning the walls of the Roman Pantheon to its role as the canvas for Michelangelo’s David, Carrara marble has long been used to showcase human creativity and ambition.

Until the early 20th century, the work of hauling the grey-veined rock out from the quarries was done primarily by teams of oxen, who dragged heavy carts from the mountains to the port of Carrara, where dockworkers then loaded it onto ships bound for far-off destinations. Inaugurated in 1876, a railway, which over time replaced the four-legged beasts, had itself been displaced by heavy trucks by the 1960s.

Andrea Landi is one of the drivers of these trucks. On a warm autumn day in the garden of the family home in nearby Forte dei Marmi, he sits in the shade of an olive tree and tells the story of how he became a quarry driver.

“Both my father and my grandfather drove their trucks to the quarries, and at the time they worked in much harsher conditions,” he says. “Every time they came back home, I saw it as the end of an epic adventure.

“They had become like mythological figures, and I wanted to emulate their feats. My passion was born upon seeing their hardships, their constant struggle against gravity, against the elements and the terrain they drove on, not to mention the risks that the mountain imposes.”

Changed working conditions

Today Andrea spends his days behind the wheel of a Scania G 500 XT 8×8, but in his father’s era, the working conditions were very different. “It was much tougher on you,” explains the elder Fabio Landi. “Trucks nowadays, you can drive them with the touch of a finger. Back in the day, you had rail tracks; you were tied to a steel cable. It was much more complicated back then, a whole different story. Nowadays, they load the truck, and that’s it.”

While working conditions were undoubtedly more difficult in previous decades, it’s still not simple work. As the mountains are slowly cut into and more easily accessible quarries depleted, the work moves further up the mountain to even harder to reach places. Andrea’s mother, Siriana, is all too familiar with the risks. “I’d already experienced this with my father and husband, so I wanted my son to be safe. But this is what he wanted; he wanted it more than anything else.”

Andrea’s Scania 8×8 makes regular trips to quarry number 133, which sits high up on a mountainside, accessible by a gravel road that twists and turns as it ascends, with inclines, according to Andrea, of up to 30 percent. The road’s switchbacks, bordered by near-sheer drop-offs, require a skilful operator and a dependable vehicle. Needing frequent repairs, the road itself can fall victim to the mountain when heavy rains wash sections of it down the alpine slopes.

Even when the road is fully intact, there is scarcely room for a pickup truck to make many of its turns without a three- or five-point manoeuvre. For a heavy, four-axle vehicle, this means repeated reversing, with no room for error. At least Andrea has the help of the truck’s two steered front axles.

On an early autumn morning, as the truck ascends, Andrea’s skilful hands gently guide the manual gearbox and 13-litre, 500 hp engine. Seeing this routine, one can wonder how it’s even possible for the truck to do this trip the other way around, with a 25-tonne block of marble on the back, the gearbox’s lowest gears and brakes the only things keeping it from flying off the mountain.

It turns out this is a real concern, one that Andrea is all too familiar with, as he recalls his most frightening moment behind the wheel. “I wasn’t driving a Scania. It was another kind of truck,” he explains. “One day, I was coming back from the quarry with the truck fully loaded, and suddenly at a corner, the brakes stopped working. The truck kept going, and all the braking in the world couldn’t stop it. After trying everything humanly possible to stop the truck, I just opened the door and jumped out.”

At this point, it’s easy to picture Andrea hitting the ground, tumbling to a stop, and then looking up to see his truck and its cargo flying off the road. But that’s not what happened. “Luckily, the truck didn’t fall off the cliff, because it ended up against the railing. As it hit the railing, the twinned wheels ended up pushing against the flatbed, and that acted as a sort of brake, stopping the truck.”

What Andrea did next was gutsy – he climbed back into the truck and kept driving. “I told myself that if I hadn’t done it straight away after all that, I probably would have quit for good.” Being more careful this time, he continued down the mountain, delivered his cargo, and then took the truck in for repairs.

Cutting marble blocks for the mountain

Today, as Andrea arrives at the quarry for a late-morning pickup, the sun peeks over the mountain, bearing down against the white marble floor of the quarry. The rock wall, ascending nearly vertically toward the ridge, appears blue in the mountain’s shadow. At its base, two workers wearing yellow jackets and helmets tend to a cutting machine, whose teeth slowly dig deeper into the mountain as it carves out rectangular blocks of stone.

Nearby, a front loader equipped with a forklift picks up a block of marble ready for Andrea’s truck. The block’s specifications, marked in permanent marker on its side, are 3.06 metres by 2.00 metres by 1.60 metres. It weighs in at somewhere between 24 and 25 tonnes.

As the forklift loads the block onto the truck, Andrea directs its operator, who gently places the mass of marble down on the truck bed. Two wooden beams, which run parallel down the length of the bed, creak under its weight.

After securing the block in place with a winch, Andrea brushes excess rock and dust from the vehicle before climbing into the cab to begin his journey down the mountain.

As Andrea descends with his cargo, the winding road turns into an obstacle course. At some corners, the truck looks like it could roll off the mountain, the cab hanging over the edge, held in place by the mass on the truck bed. At one hard left turn, he reverses, drives forward, reverses, propels forward, each movement bringing him closer to the edge and nearer to conquering the corner.

As he finally rounds the bend, three of the four steered front wheels lift from the ground, suspended over the road below, as the chassis creaks from the stress of its task and the weight of the marble. Guided by Andrea’s steady hand, the truck tips forward, its free-floating wheels landing hard on the gravel road, crunching the rock beneath them, and the vehicle proceeds to the next obstacle. Andrea repeats this cornering routine – to the right, then left, then right, then left – through a seemingly never-ending series of corners until finally arrives safely at the bottom of the mountain.

Asked if anything scares him, Andrea chuckles and quips, “Taxes?”

“If doing something scares you, it’s probably best if you don’t do it,” he says. “I’m also cautious, because you can’t ever be too confident.”

Today Andrea employs nine other drivers, but only two of them are allowed to take the 8×8 to quarry number 133. The rest have to settle for trips to more accessible quarries in 8×4 vehicles.

While Andrea’s passion, born from seeing the hardships and feats of his father and grandfather, lives on, he acknowledges that the job has gotten easier. “Our profession has changed dramatically, and for the better, that is undeniable.”

Though he’s now a veteran driver, and the mythological feats of his father and grandfather have become his day-to-day reality, Andrea still approaches his work with the same curiosity and adventurousness that he viewed the mountains with as a child. “It’s not like I’ve got nothing to learn anymore. You learn every day.”

 

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