Travel | Pietrasanta, Italy

Pietrasanta Sunrise from Santa Lucia by Peter Adams,painting, southwest art.
Pietrasanta Sunrise from Santa Lucia by Peter Adams

By Leslie Busler

Pietrasanta’s culture is rock solid—literally speaking. For centuries the small Italian villa on Tuscany’s Versilian Coast has attract-ed sculptors to its nearby white-marble quarries. In fact, Michelangelo was among the first to discover the marble-laden moun-tains of Carrara and harvest stone for his sculpture. Today the Tuscan hamlet attracts artists from around the world, a phenomenon that began in the 1960s with a resurgence in the popularity of stone sculpture. “It is every stone sculptor’s dream to go to Pietrasanta because of its history and tradition,” says Colorado sculptor Elsie Wood, who has organized several trips to the region. “It’s been a sculptural mecca for centuries—a lot of old masters as well contemporary sculptors like Henry Moore have worked there.”

From quaint olive groves and grape vineyards to the coastal plains and rolling hills of the Apuan Alps, this mellow region is an artists’ haven. Nestled up against the Apuan foothills, Pietrasanta is about an hour’s drive from Florence (or you can take the train), and the medieval cities of Pisa and Lucca are even closer. It’s less than two miles from the Mediterranean Sea, where there are restaurants, resorts, and plenty of outdoor activities. From the fine, white sandy beaches you can look back toward the mountains and marvel at the white-marble slants that make the peaks appear to be blanketed in snow.

Reminders of Pietra-santa’s stone-sculpting heritage are omnipresent: “A fine white dust covers everything in Pietrasanta, even the wine glasses in the bars of the Piazza …” says one tour guide. It and nearby Carrara are the marble capitals of the world—Pietrasanta more of a fine-art center known for the quality of the stone and bronze work produced there, Carrara a wholesale center where commercial marble products are produced. In other words, if you want a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, Pietrasanta is where it’s done; your marble fountains are produced in Carrara.

Harlow Family Group by Henry Moore,sculpture, southwest art.
Harlow Family Group by Henry Moore

Though you’re deep into everything Italian here (you better have that conversational Italian pocket book), you’re also quite likely to bump into a Californian or New Yorker. Kyle Smith, a sculptor from Albany, NY, came 20 years ago and never left (she now owns and operates Artspace Valdicastello, a marble-carving workshop). Two years ago Peter and Elaine Adams of the California Art Club visited fellow club member Albert Brenner and his wife Susan, who spend eight months a year in Pietrasanta. “The entire place has a very bohemian feel,” says Elaine. Susan Brenner agrees. “There are sculptors just everywhere. This is a worker’s town. Albert calls it artists’ summer camp. There’s a lot of camaraderie, people comparing notes and sharing ideas.”

Sprinkled around Pietrasanta’s 15th-century Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) are dozens of sculpture studios, historical buildings and churches, current sculpture exhibits, monuments, shops, and restaurants. This is the place to mingle with artists, as many come here to relax after work. Adams suggests sipping a cappucino at Bar Michelangelo, an aptly named eatery where you can meet many artists and take note of the cultures that converge in Pietrasanta by eavesdropping on the multilingual conversations.

Foundries and stone yards, many of which create reproductions of famous sculptures, are located just blocks from the piazza. Studio Sem is one of the oldest stone yards, having gained a reputation in the 1960s by producing works by the likes of Henry Moore and Georges Adam. Cervietti Franco & Co. is another, specializing in original historic and contemporary plaster casts including those of Michelangelo’s Moses, David, and Pieta´ made for the Italian State Museum; there you can also see casts of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne and Canova’s Three Graces. At any of these you’ll find rugged Italian stone workers, from apprentices to master carvers, busy chiseling the facial features or wavy hair of any number of famous pieces. The local bronze foundries—Fonderia D’Arte del Chiaro Massimo and the Mariani foundry are two the Brenners recommend—are also worth a visit. It’s best to call ahead for a tour or to visit with an artist friend.

Within the piazza are some of the region’s finest monuments, works by the likes of Vincenzo Santini, Fernando Botero, Henry Moore, Donato Benti, André Bloc, and Stagio Stagi. At the north entrance of town lies the Piazza Matteotti, where Botero’s The Warrior stands forbodingly. Further evidence of famous visitors lies in the Museo dei Bozzetti (Museum of Sculptors’ Models), which houses a collection of 200 sculptural sketches and models used by artists from the 19th century to the present. It’s located in the former convent adjacent to the church of St. Augustine, which is home to 15th-century frescoes and 17th- and 18th-century paintings. Changing exhibitions as well as musical performances are often held within St. Augustine’s cloister.

St. Martin’s Cathedral, built in the 13th century, houses art from the 1600s and 1700s. Byzantine and Gothic elements can be seen throughout all the architecture, including the cathedral’s red-brick bell tower and the 16th-century Palazzo Moroni, today the Versilian Public Achaeological Museum. One more church, that of St. Biagio, has wood polychromed sculptures of St. Biagio and St. Antonio Abate; be sure to check out the two frescoes by Botero, depicting the gates of heaven and of hell.

Thursdays are active in Pietrasanta, with outdoor markets taking place throughout town. These are the real thing—no touristy trinkets to speak of; Italian clothes, dishes, and shoes are among the items for sale at the open market in the Piazza Statuto.

Artists come to Pietrasanta to be inspired and they come to learn. There are more than 100 workshops in town, each teaching the careful craft of stone carving. Several take students on tours of the quarries and nearby towns. There are more than 300 quarries dotting the steep Apuan valleys of Colonnata, Fantiscritti, and Rav-accione. Some 800,000 tons of marble and granite are quarried from the sites every year. Adams found that the quarrying, even seen from a distance, was awe-inspiring. “You can hear the thunder of the stones being cut, then tumbling down. You see the clouds of dust rising from the mountains,” she says.

Take a fascinating trek through the mountains so you can see them up close. Contact the Carrara Tourist Office (0585.240046) for in-formation.

Make it into Carrara to check out the Museo del Marmo, which displays more than 200 kinds of marble and granite and has exhibits detailing the quarrying process. Also don’t miss the Romanesque-Gothic duomo dedicated to St. Andrew, the first church of the middle ages built entirely of marble.

Featured in June 1999