“Let me take you someplace.”
We followed a narrow, hazardous route at a considerable speed, rounding hair-pin turns on a one-way road without shoulders. Beneath lay an open gorge of dazzling white stone, lustrous and blinding in the sun. A wall of clean rock faced us opposite, formed by a series of squarely cut ledges arranged like steps leading up to the sky. Ahead was a dusty road, glittering with white pebbles and a powder like snow that turned up into clouds as the bus drove along. We were scaling the cliffs of the Apuan Mountains from the backseat, catching our breath at every reeling turn, watching the ground disappear below.
From the coast the peaks rose somewhat unexpectedly out of a calm and undisturbed landscape of gently rolling hills, loosely decorated by little houses and various farming shanties. Over a scene of verdant vineyards they loomed like sleeping giants, stretching their broad backs against the sky, their jagged steeps glowing brilliantly in the dense atmosphere.
“They look like snow-capped mountains,” he had said to me then, “But that isn't why they're white. That's solid marble. The quarries are up there- they've been cutting stone out of those mountains for centuries, since the Roman Empire, and have barely grazed the surface. They'll never run out.”
Passing up through the basin he pointed out over the quarry where dusty men were operating machines with the finesse of schooled acrobats. “Michelangelo took the stone for his David from this place. He chose the block himself, one solid piece. The Duomo of Florence is from these pits. How many of Italy's treasures were born out of this mountain, do you think?” He grinned, perhaps pleased with his own poetics. We ventured further up an ambling trail hugging the walls of a yawning white chasm. He gestured toward the road we followed. “We're going to Colonnata, the quarrymen's town.”
“What's there?” I asked with a certain measure of expectancy.
“Nothing.” He replied. “Pig lard. That's the local specialty, we'll have some.” I dissented mutely, and he grinned with satisfied amusement at the impression he'd made. “You'll see, it doesn't disappoint. Colonnata, I mean.”
What is there in Colonnata?
Squeezed onto the ledges of a narrow valley cut into the mountain, Colonnata emerged like a patch of moss clinging tightly to a rock and growing organically over it. The houses were short and dwarf-like, as though trying to strengthen the grip on their foundations, stacked haphazardly atop and beside one another. It appeared, at first sight, less like a town than like a model of one. From the central piazza there rose a solemn bell tower, perhaps the only distinctly vertical element of the village, grey and medieval in aspect. In the distance could be heard the low rumble of the quarriers at work, like heavy thunder pealing. The amber light of a fading sun cast long shadows over the red, terracotta roof tiles, beyond which could be seen the jutting spires of the great Apuan cathedrals. The air was fresh and clear.
“This,” he said with a wide sweep of his arm, “is the place that made Italy.”
I knew he was simply trying to pawn an inspirational idea, and that he believed, as I did, that it was the creative genius of artists and architects that made the grandeur of Italy possible. But his dramatic statement lent something to the scene, an ineffable sense of timeless importance, as permanent as the mountains themselves.
“Still, it is beautiful, isn't it?”
It was, admittedly; though the place was small, and didn't have magnificent palazzos, memorials, tombs or churches, there was a charm to the streets and alleyway corners. Aloft like a city supported by clouds, the windows opened to a vista of the Tuscan countryside tumbling out into the Mediterranean Sea. Where the sidewalk ended, a plummeting canyon began. Marble framed the doorways, made benches and railings, even door jams, creating an effect that was altogether surreal. It seemed to represent, simply by its existence, the loftiness of passion and the ardor of ambition. I thanked him for bringing me here.
“I was here once before, a long time ago,” he responded warmly. “I always wanted to come back, but I didn't have anyone to share it with.”
I understood then what there was in Colonnata: the power of a shared experience. And a shared pig lard sandwich.