When the Hills Were Alive With the Sound of Quarrymen

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Has it ever occurred to you that the stony city of Florence was literally carved out of the surrounding hills? It’s quite true. Countless local quarries provided the blocks of stone for the walls of Medieval and Renaissance churches and palaces, and for the columns and architectural ornaments to decorate them. Pietraforte, a kind of light brown limestone, came from quarries at Costa S.Giorgio, in the Boboli hill between S.Felicità and Porta Romana, at Bellosguardo, and around Marignolle and Le Campore, all south of the Arno. To the north, the hills of Fiesole, Maiano and Settignano provided the blueish-grey sandstone pietra serena.

In the thirteenth century, load after load of pietraforte was hauled over the Arno to the outskirts of Florence to construct the enormous basilicas of S.Maria Novella and S.Croce. Even the piers inside these two churches are of pietraforte. Look at Palazzo Vecchio, the Loggia dei Lanzi, the Bargello and Orsanmichele, and you are looking at pieces of the southern hills transformed into architecture. The gigantic blocks of rustication that you see on the façades of the fifteenth-century Palazzo Medici were cut out of pietraforte quarries. Filippo Strozzi, whose palace rivals that of the Medici in size, had endless loads of stone brought from quarries at Boboli and Marignolle. It is said that between November 1495 and March 1497, Strozzi’s heavily laden carts rattled over the Arno more than a thousand times. At Palazzo Pitti the builders had it much easier, since their source (the Boboli hill) was right behind the palace. In fact, Palazzo Pitti sits on the hollowed out part of one of these quarries.

If pietraforte was used mainly for the construction of walls, pietra serena was used above all for columns, stairs, doors and windows. The oldest of these quarries, dating back to Etruscan times, were at Monte Ceceri, in Fiesole, and they continued to be worked during the Roman and early Medieval periods. The demand for pietra serena was so high that in the thirteenth century new quarries had to be opened further east, around Vincigliata and Settignano. By the fifteenth century, when Brunelleschi’s architectural style boosted the popularity of pietra serena to unprecedented heights, it was also being extracted at Golfolina, west of Florence.

Brunelleschi chose quarries that would provide enormous blocks of pietra serena from which he could cut entire column shafts. He quarried the stone for the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti at Trassinaia, near Vincigliata. The columns for S.Lorenzo came from a site nearby, still known as the Cava delle Colonne.

Vasari tells us that Michelangelo got the pietra serena for the Old Sacristy and the Laurentian Library from a quarry in the valley of the Mensola, below Monte Ceceri. Because pietra serena does not weather well, it was normally reserved for the interior of buildings, although the portico of the Uffizi, entirely in pietra serena, is a significant exception. Vasari (who built the Uffizi) says that he chose a variety of pietra serena known as pietra del fossato, which was also used for the columns of the mid-sixteenth-century Mercato Nuovo (popularly called the Straw Market). Not much time passed before pietra serena became so sought after that the Grand Dukes of Tuscany decided to restrict access to the Fiesole quarries found between S.Francesco and Fontelucente, and those at Mulinaccio, below Maiano.

By the early twentieth century most quarries around Florence had closed. Probably the last Florentine monument with stairs and columns carved out of pietra serena was the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, begun in 1911. However, after the Second World War, one of the pietraforte quarries of Boboli was reopened especially to provide the stone for rebuilding the bombed Ponte S.Trinita.

But even when they are abandoned, quarries are not forgotten. Some are commemorated in street names, such as the vicolo della Cava, a tiny lane off the Costa San Giorgio that once had led to a quarry above Boboli. Some survive because they’ve been put to other uses, such as the Cava delle Colonne, which John Temple Leader, in the nineteenth century, turned into an artificial lake in his park at the Castello di Vincigliata. Maiano is the location of one of the best known abandoned quarries, a huge amphitheatre carved out of the hillside, now used by rock-climbers. Nearby, in a small building constructed for the use of the quarrymen by the same Temple Leader, is the renowned restaurant Cave di Maiano (055-59133, open daily for lunch and dinner). The fare is appropriately wholesome and very tasty. Eating out on the spacious terrace overlooking the hills on a balmy evening is a memorable experience.

Many other quarries are preserved in the local memory and visited by excursionists, especially on the north side of the Arno. For the past two years, the group Anpilandia has organized a Sunday hike in May following the trails of the old quarrymen in Fiesole and Settignano (for information contact Consiglio di Quartiere 2, 055-2767841; or ask Sig.ra Rita at Trattoria Osvaldo at Ponte a Mensola, closed Tuesday and Wednesday, 055 602168; while there, taste her wonderful farfalle al frantoio!).

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This page last updated: September 7, 2006.