To the province of Massa in the Lunigiana – the north-western tip of Tuscany. Out of the high mountains, five million tonnes of Carrara marble are extracted each year, mostly for decorating expensive bathrooms, the powdery calcium carbonate remains being used to bulk out yoghurt and toothpaste. Up in the immense, Tolkienian quarries, the endless vista is of valuable, grey-pale rock being sliced away by machines where once Roman slaves toiled with picks and wedges. Today the clamour of drills overwhelms everything . . . until the ear gradually locates the purling sounds of radios all about.
From one truck cabin, a late-morning host on Radio Deejay talks about his addiction to Coca-Cola. On Nostalgie Italia the presenter deliriously introduces his favourite tracks from Rubber Soul (“Baybee you cana driva my car!”). Outside the quarries, radio transformed this frontier region of chestnut forests leading up to the Apennines. The system of mezzadria – crop-division between landowner and tenant farmers that formed the basis of rural life here – first began to disintegrate when remote communities started listening to the wireless and hearing of life beyond the podere.
By the mid-1950s almost half had departed for Turin and America. Some even tried to walk to England, not realising there was a sea in between. Yet in the quarries, since 177BC, the toil has been steady, the mountains slowly being dismantled in blocks so gigantic, it took Mussolini’s men six months to bring one piece down using rollers and rope.
On Rai Radio 1 now, under the whack and whine of cranes, someone reads out texts about migrants and death tolls, about “the building of walls and frontiers”. In Rome last week, a young student was burned alive in the street by her ex-boyfriend, and a lawyer makes a guest appearance, urgently promoting the domestic violence helpline Telefono Rosa.
Nobody on the marble face is listening exactly, but it’s enough that the human voice is there. A defence against the perpetual sonic muffler of the quarry. So overwhelming a place – and so dangerous – that few think to turn and look down, past the thin roads twisting through distant wild olive and Aleppo pines, to the glistening sea.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe