In the documentary Il Capo, The Chief, by Yuri Ancarani, the visual is stunning. The filmmaker focuses on a quarry boss who uses hand gestures to guide the excavation to the moment when huge blocks of marble are freed from the mountainside, in Carrara, Italy. The marble is white, with thin, dark veins through it—Michangelo’s David and Pieta, the Pantheon and perhaps even the marble plaque from Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone were made from this rock, which has been praised since Ancient Rome.
The video channel website the Nowness gives us this excerpt and thoughts from Ancarani:
“I was so taken by the chief, watching him work,” says Ancarani, who’s film is currently showing as part of Artists’ Films International, a touring program of film, video and animation, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. “How he can move gigantic marble blocks using enormous excavators, but his own movements are light, precise and determined.
There's no indication in this excerpt whether il capo's missing digit tips are related to his work. But a blog post from Kelly Borsheim observes that none of the workers she saw at Carrera wore protection for ears, lungs or hands.
Stanford professor Marc Levoy documented the process of marble quarrying at another, nearby open pit at Pietrasanta. He notes that many other marble quarries around the world are mines. He writes:
During the Renaissance, marble was quarried by inserting wooden pegs into naturally occuring cracks in the rock, then pouring water onto the pegs to make them swell. Eventually the rock would split, liberating a piece of marble. The principal tool of modern quarrying is a wire cable 1cm in diameter, fitted at 5cm intervals with diamond-studded collars. Holes are drilled in the mountain, the cable is threaded through the holes to form a loop, and the loop is driven at high speed by an electric motor.
Working conditions at these marble mines have historically been oppressive. A New York Times article from 1894 reports that many of the quarry laborers were ex-convicts and "fugitives from justice." The conditions create a cradle for revolution in Carrara, and it became "the original hotbed of Anarchism in Italy." That political moment may have passed, but one aspect of life in the quarry has remained constant: this is hard work.