Chapter 20 – Vignette
Carrara: Landscape of stone
Alison Leitch teaches in sociology at Sydney’s Macquarie University, and has a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Sydney. She has held teaching positions at the University of Texas in Austin; the University of California in Santa Cruz; New York University and Columbia University in New York. Her first fieldwork project in the marble quarries of Carrara was funded by the inaugural Frederick May Foundation scholarship for study in Italy in 1986. She has returned regularly to Carrara over the last 20 years, working on a variety of projects that includes recent research on the Slow Food movement, as well as collaborations with photographers and sound artists. She is currently working on a book of interviews with women sculptors living in Carrara.
In the late 1980s, when I travelled to Italy to begin work for my doctoral dissertation, the anthropology of Europe was regarded as a rather marginal field in Australian anthropology. There had been a brief flowering of interest in some of the debates emerging in the late 1950s and 1960s over comparative models of modernisation and development in so-called ‘peasant economies’ within Southern Europe; specifically in Spain, Italy and Greece. However, in reality the main areas of ethnographic expertise and intellectual debate centered on regions of geographic proximity and national interest, such as Aboriginal Australia, Melanesia and South-East Asia. Moreover, a certain kind of ethos around the necessity for hardship in fieldwork prevailed. In my undergraduate training at Sydney University, I had learned that the test of a real anthropologist was to live in a remote area of the world, preferably surrounded by swamps, rainforest or other difficult terrain, and to be subjected to the constant threat of life-threatening diseases or other calamities. Indeed, I recall how terribly impressed we all were when, during one memorable undergraduate lecture, our brave professor was unable to continue, suddenly struck down with a bout of sweating – the onset, apparently, of a malaria attack. This was living proof of a real ethnographer, one who actually bore the scars of fieldwork on his body! And judging by the number of quips I received about how clever I had been to conceptualise a project located within just a few hours of Florence’s shoe shops, it became clear to me that I was going to have go to some lengths to prove my own credentials as an ethnographer.
If I were honest, my desire to do fieldwork in Italy was not just motivated by intellectual interests, though these were certainly important. I had been inspired by a relatively new body of work that united ethnographic approaches to culture with the study of history. I was also passionate about labour history. Like anthropology, labour history had opened me up to imagining alternate realities and different ways of seeing the world. I was the product of an upbringing in a provincial country town, followed by student life in Sydney’s 1970s counterculture, where all kinds of social experiments in group living, including food coops and collective bookshops were the norm. Therefore, I had become intrigued with other historical examples of utopian thought and radical imaginaries. But probably more than anything else, the time that I had already spent in Italy during the early 1980s, years before I began my PhD research, was fundamental. I wanted an excuse to return to a place where I had earlier adventured – which I had found so emotionally and sensually thrilling.
My first Italian sojourn had begun with a year of rugged country living in an old farmhouse with no running water, but a great deal of conviviality, on the outskirts of Empoli, in western Tuscany. It was in this house that I first learned about the social rituals of cooking and eating in Italy; the pleasure of social gatherings; the words of Tuscan folk songs; the use of the passato remoto – the past historic tense – and the magical effect of fireflies illuminating the fields of grain on a late summer’s night. Once, on a train journey up the Tuscan coast toward Genoa, I became entranced by the sight of the sheer, white-flecked Apuane Mountains rising suddenly out of the coastal plain. With their jagged profile glistening in the faint pink evening glow, the mountain range was truly spectacular. As so often happens in the shared compartments typical of many old Italian trains, a conversation ensued. Noting my enchantment, a Sienese woman commented on the fact that what appeared to be snow was in reality marble dust, and, gesticulating dramatically, she announced, ‘That’s where the anarchists live’. Some months after this conversation, I had the opportunity to attend the annual anarchist May Day parade, which, in Carrara, commemorates the long history of libertarian socialism within local as well as international labour movements. In retrospect, it was perhaps this event, with its rich celebratory traditions, that later inspired me to undertake research into the history of local radical labour politics and the lives of workers in the marble quarries.
I returned to Carrara in 1986 armed with notebooks, pens, a few key texts and a portable Olivetti typewriter! With the help of some old contacts, I eventually settled in Gragnana, a small village located on a winding back-road just outside the main marble valley. Though I was filled with excitement at the prospect of the work ahead, I also felt nervous, daunted by the task of gaining access to the obvious signs of life behind what seemed like impenetrable doors. Nor was I overly impressed with the visual aspect of the village. It seemed drab and dilapidated, quite unlike the well-kept medieval villages in other parts of Tuscany that I had been used to. Wandering around the maze of alleyways and passages that pass for streets, I often felt dismayed when my attempts at friendly greetings met with hard stares. While my immediate neighbours were extremely hospitable, inviting me in to eat or to watch television with them in the evenings, others looked askance, asking in the third person, ‘Ma chi è questa figliola?’ – ‘But who is this girl?’ I began to feel that the dire predictions of my friends in Carrara that I would not survive the reputed toughness of the Gragnanini would be fulfilled. I was reminded, too, of the marble plaque embedded in the gatehouse of the Fabricotti Villa I had seen on the way to Gragnana. It warned: ‘Badi agli affari tuoi e non ti impicciare degli altri’ – ‘Mind your own business and don’t stick your nose into that of others’.
One incident, early on, shook my confidence. It was a bitterly cold winter evening some months into my stay and I had just managed to stoke up the wood fire in the tiny living room of my apartment to the point where I was able to finally sit down, relax and begin reading. An hour or so later, I heard a terrible commotion outside my window. Then there was a crash in the apartment above. I had been told that the man who lived there was a bit of a drunkard. I was not to worry, as he was harmless, but prone to strange kinds of behaviour, such as shouting through the window at neighbours when he was in a rage. Apparently, some women in the village held this man in great disdain. Not only had he abused his wife while she was alive but now she was dead, he contritely went to put flowers on her grave every Sunday. That night, I imagined that my neighbour had imbibed one whiskey too many and so, even though I felt the building rock a little, unperturbed, I continued with my novel, eventually dozing off to sleep. The next morning when I went for my morning coffee in the local bar, Maria, the feisty 70-year-old proprietress, asked, ‘Did the earthquake frighten you?’ Here was a calamity that I had entirely missed. What kind of ethnographer was I? Why hadn’t I seized this opportunity to get to know people in the village better? I began to strongly doubt my powers of observation.
Gradually, with time, I began to be seen as more of a permanent resident who was becoming incorporated into my neighbours’ kinship networks, and I was included in the easy banter – indeed, often ribald conversations – that characterised communication between women in the village. One of my first and enduring impressions was the way in which villagers communicated with each other, shouting inside their homes and outside in the street, relaying messages between houses through adjacent windows. ‘Affacciati!’ – ‘Come to the window!’ was the way in which my closest neighbour called me to share a morning coffee at her house. In the late afternoon and evenings, the noise level increased as men drinking wine and playing cards in the numerous bars and political clubs in the village hurled insults and jokes, slapped each other, and pounded tables while winning a particularly good hand of briscola (an Italian card game). Memories of life and work in past generations were also often expressed through references to particular sounds: the clinking of hobnailed boots on cobblestones, as men marched through the village on their way to work in the early hours of the morning; the songs that women sang while doing their housework. Here, in this place saturated with memories, even the sounds of modern industrial technologies triggered the spontaneous recollection of earlier ways of working: the soft hissing of the helicoidal wires passing overhead; the metallic reverberation of hundreds of chisels and hammers hitting against stone; the work chants sung by teams of men struggling to move huge blocks of marble by hand and rope.
As in the other surrounding marble villages, nostalgia for the past was articulated through stories about the absence of such familiar sounds. Katerina, the wife of a retired quarry worker who is now in her early ‘80s, was a close neighbour in Gragnana whom I quite often visited in the evenings after dinner. She and her daughter Eliana, who lived next door to me, were members of a close-knit shepherding family; several generations of this family still lived in the village. Once, in the middle of a conversation over coffee in her house, Katerina movingly recalled the sounds of her youth. The teams of men walking to work ‘used to sing’, Katerina remembered. ‘At four in the morning you used to hear the sound of people going by in the street. You used to hear the sound of their boots. Now you hear the bus, that’s all. But before they used to sing stornelli when you went to bed. But now! The women used to sing while they did their work. But now! Who sings any more!’ (Stornelli refers to a type of improvised song, often on satirical or romantic themes, that takes the form of a verbal duel between singers.)
During the first few months, I spent much of my time familiarising myself with the mountain landscape. Sometimes I walked for miles in dense forests of chestnut trees; I explored paths that women told me they had once taken looking for firewood and charcoal. I became fascinated with the abundance of wild foods I could gather, such as spring asparagus, edible weeds and berries, as well as an extraordinary variety of mushrooms, including the prized porcini. Higher up in the mountain pastures, occasionally I came across one of the few remaining shepherds who were still spending their summers making delicate sheep’s milk cheese to sell in local markets. From Campo Cecina – close to the summit of Mount Sagro, with its spectacular view down into the sea beyond – I could scarcely distinguish the quarries almost hidden under vast rivers of white rubble. At this distance they seemed mysterious and out of reach, accessible only to small trucks able to negotiate the narrow quarry roads; roads with notorious hairpin bends. Eventually, with the help of my neighbours – often the wives of quarry workers – I was able to spend many days closely observing work practices in several quarries. Commenting on my dusty boots as I returned home at the end of the day, people in the village gleefully even began calling me the ‘Madonna dei Cavatori’ – ‘quarry worker’s Madonna’, a nickname that also playfully resonated with the anticlerical traditions of the area.
As I travelled around the area collecting histories of work and stories of domestic life, I slowly came to understand this compelling world of marble. When I left Carrara, I continued to think and write about these experiences and the ways in which quarry workers had been represented in historical texts. A thesis was eventually produced (Leitch 1993) as well as articles in academic journals (Leitch 1996; 2000; 2003a). Years later, I returned to work on other projects: a soundscape (Leitch et al. 2003); collaborations with photographers (Leitch 1999; 2003b), as well as new work on the politics of ‘endangered foods’, and visual representations of work. But for the ethnographer, the people who inhabit these texts have a living counterpart in the world. These people – the quarry workers and their families – with whom I lived 20 years ago are always in my imagination. While the physical landscape never ceases to move me – the scale of the mountains, the quality of white light, the translucence and patterning of the stone, the sculptural forms shaped by the action of human labour – this is a storied place, a dwelling place dense with the memories of lived relationships and quickened emotions. Its visual power derives as much from its evocation of human presence and embodied histories as from its unique geology. And while the stories of life and work I collected so many years ago are so clearly embedded in this place, now my own life’s journey has also become part of this extraordinary landscape of stone.
Leitch, Alison. 1993. ‘The killing mountain: Work, gender and politics in an Italian marble quarrying community’. PhD thesis, Sydney: University of Sydney.
Leitch, Alison. 1996. ‘The Life of Marble: The Experience and Meaning of Work in the Marble Quarries of Carrara’. Australian Journal of Anthropology 7 (3): 235–257.
Leitch, Alison. 1999. Afterword. In Leivick, Joel. Carrara: The Marble Quarries of Carrara. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Leitch, Alison. 2000. ‘The Social Life of Lardo: Slow Food in Fast Times’. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 1 (1): 103–118.
Leitch, Alison. 2003a. ‘Slow Food and the Politics of Pork Fat: Italian Food and European Identity’. Ethnos 68 (4): 437–462.
Leitch, Alison. 2003b. ‘Memories of Pork Fat’. In Biagini, Luigi. Il Lardo di Colonnata. Milano: Federico Motta Editore.
Leitch, Alison et al. 2003. Primo Maggio Anarchico 2002: A Soundscape Documentary of Anarchist May Day Celebrations. Carrara: La Cooperativa Tipolitografica.
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.