Quarries and their role in the construction of Florence

An itinerary through Tuscany’s ‘cave’

Sabine Eiche
September 8, 2006

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 San Giorgio, in the Boboli hill between Santa 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 13th century, load after load of pietraforte was hauled over the Arno to the outskirts of Florence to construct the enormous basilicas of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. Even the piers inside these two churches are of pietraforte. Look at Palazzo Vecchio, the Log-gia 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 15th-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 13th century new quarries had to be opened further east, around Vincigliata and Settignano. By the 15th 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 San Lorenzo came from a site nearby, still known as the Cava delle Colonne.


Vasari tells us that Michelangelo got the pietra serena for the New 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, al-though the portico of the Uffizi, entirely in pietra serena, is a significant exception. Vasari (who built the Uffizi) says that he chose a vari-ety of pietra serena known as pietra del fossato, which was also used for the columns of the mid-16th-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 San Francesco and Fontelucente, and those at Mulinaccio below Maiano.


By the early 20th 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 pietra-forte quarries of Boboli was reopened, specifically to provide stone for the rebuilding of the bombed Ponte Santa Trinità.


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 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 19th century turned into an artificial lake in his park at the Castello di Vin-cigliata. 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 spa-cious terrace overlooking the hills on a balmy evening is a memorable experience.

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