Michelangelo's quarry faces a ruinous future future

THE TOWERING white cliffs which dominate the town of Carrara still echo with the sharp whine of quarrying equipment, but many of the men who carve the world's most sought-after marble from the Tuscan hills may soon be forced to abandon their ancient craft.

IMEG, Carrara's largest cutter and distributor of the marble favoured by Michelangelo, is in the hands of a receiver who is working to keep the company alive. "We don't even want to think about the effects of a definitive closure: it would be devastating for the whole area," said Maria Taddei at the Tuscany regional council. "When marble falls, it hurts. If this company goes under, a whole centuries-old system collapses."

That "system" has ensured Carrara's dazzling but over-abundant marble remains a costly luxury. Since the days of Michelangelo, co-operatives have hewn the stone from the hills above Carrara. The blocks are passed to craftsmen who cut them into usable slabs and set international standards for marble working, and then to companies which regulate the flow of stone. While hammers and chisels have given way to machines, and the market has shifted from Europe to up-and-coming countries of the Middle and Far East, the system has remained firmly in place.

"Without the system, there would be no checks and balances, nothing to keep the price from plunging," said Ms Taddei. Until it was declared bankrupt this week, IMEG dominated the system. Without IMEG, the Carrara marble industry may implode. "The system is vital, and IMEG is vital to the system," said a Carrara councillor, Ildo Fusani, who put the company's woes down to "incomprehension and lack of communication" between former owners, the local Petacchi family and an Israeli businessman, David Fisher.

Attempts by Mr Fisher to streamline operations by closing peripheral plants and laying off workers did little to improve the atmosphere. When a fire devastated IMEG headquarters, locals put it down to arson. But Carrara's town council is determined to keep the company alive, said Mr Fusani.

Purchasers are being sought in Italy and abroad, IMEG employees are being urged to consider a buy-out, and local business figures are studying the possibility of a concerted takeover. "But it's such an unwieldy company it's not going to be easy to sell it," said the owner of small marble concern. Mr Fusani said: "The three stages of the marble industry have to be kept together. This isn't protectionism, this is common sense. It's the only way Carrara can work."

For Carrara, keeping the marble sector going is vital: half the 3.6 trillion lire (pounds 1.2bn) of stone exported by Italy in 1996 was Carrara marble. Moreover, the industry and its associated services are the biggest local employers. "If a company like IMEG dies, a part of the town dies," said the quarry owner. "Everyone pays: the truck drivers, the suppliers, even the cleaning contractors." Yet there are those who have been expecting a crisis in Carrara's marble industry for some time.

The British sculptor Matthew Spender, a Tuscany resident, says a crisis has been inevitable since the emphasis in Carrara shifted too far towards profit and away from the marble and its artistic potential, the factor which made the area's stone world-famous. "Marble has stopped being a craft and has become an industry," said Spender, who readily admits to "picking up bits and pieces from the quarries whenever I need them.

"The people involved no longer see the stone as a material which may contain the most beautiful thing on earth. All they are interested in is eating up the mountain and making money out of it," he said. "That's not what Carrara is about."

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