Louise Roddon, The Daily Telegraph, June 12, 2013
In Carrara's Nicoli sculpture workshop, imperious marble busts share workbench space with simpering putti, solemn madonnas, and a giant head of Michelangelo's David. Like some surreal beauty parlour, each work receives the tender ministrations of goggled craftsmen who smooth, plane and polish these stone faces against the background thrum of mechanical grinders. And as I nervously await my turn with the chisel, a miasma of fine white dust mottles the air, transforming this studio into an exquisite Narnia.
I've come to Tuscany's workaday Carrara to follow in the footsteps of Michelangelo. Not for me the usual tourist itinerary of church gawping and crowded art galleries. On a new two-day break that combines this brief sculpture class among powder-tinged statues with a visit to the region's famous quarries, I'll be experiencing the essence, the distillation if you like, of the world's most memorable marble creations.
But first off, a chat with Francesca, direct descendant of the workshop's 19th century founder. Carrara once boasted over 100 similar establishments - the marble equivalent of bronze foundries - but nowadays, only Nicoli's is still in operation. "I blame democracy!" laughs Francesca. "No more Saddam Husseins wanting huge likenesses. No more Gaddafis or Napoleons. We've survived thanks to the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Henry Moore and Anish Kapoor - all of whom stayed here, either picking out their favourite block of marble which we source, or getting us to work up the final piece from small plaster casts."
She hands me over to pony-tailed Raphael – a craftsman with a smile as sweet as the madonnas of his namesake – though actually, I'm forbidden to work with a hunk of marble: "Are you mad? Do you want to ruin your hands?" asks Francesca, offering instead a small piece of alabaster. For the next hour, and under Raphael's kind tutelage, I attempt to sculpt a cat, and my tools include a mechanical gouger that vibrates so violently in my hand, that I'm trembling for the rest of the class. Sculpting is harder than I'd imagined, and shamefully, my creation loses an ear and its tail, ending up like a jagged relief of a feisty Manx.
But no matter. I'm about to swap marble dust for the mellow towns of Pietrasanta and Serravezza – the former, boasting countless chic art galleries, and a rose window on the west front of its ancient Duomo that was carved from a single block of marble – the latter, a sleepy enclave straddling the milky-toned Versilia river.
Seravezza is where Michelangelo once lived during one of his quests to uncover new seams of perfect white stone. It's a funny little place with a tiny piazza darkened by the mist-swathed Apuan Alps that encircle this stretch of Tuscany. Even in searing summer temperatures, these mountains cast a bizarre snowy-looking face on the surrounding towns – their sides scarred white from the workings of dozens of quarries that have nibbled away at their precious core for over 2,000 years. From these same quarries, blocks of marble were rolled away on iron balls and sent to Rome to become Trajan's Column.
Later, at Henraux Quarry, some 1,200 metres above sea level, I meet with Pierotti Franco – a cheery Carrarese with a voice like clinking chisels. The air is thin; ribbons of ethereal cloud-mist blurring the vertiginous drops, obscuring, I am told, fabulous views over Cinque Terre in one direction, and Corsica, the other - while underfoot, gloopy white mud sucks at the soles of my hiking boots. While Pierotti talks, fork lift trucks effortlessly shift mammoth hunks of marble into pristine piles, and wire cutters work through the mountain face like some giant cheese slicer through Parmesan.
Pierotti tells me how Michelangelo designed a road to link these quarries to the port at Forte dei Marmi – the ritzy seaside town where I am based. On that occasion, the artist was living alongside his quarry workers, and I am shown a facsimile of a letter describing his mountain hut, its margins peppered with charming drawings of their shared food: a little fish, a neat bread roll, wine and sausage.
Though based higher than Michelangelo's favoured quarry from that period, Henraux boasts an equally fascinating past – spanning a commission to meet Napoleon's egomaniacal order to fashion 14,000 marble busts, to personal visits from Henry Moore and Jean Arp. Today, it is lorries rather than oxen that carry the marble down to port – vast weights that have helped form Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque, countless American office facades, to the soaring Emirates Towers in Dubai.
There is one question I'm burning to ask, with demand as strong as this, will the marble ever run out?
Pierotti looks rueful. "One day, perhaps. But ," he casts his arms wide, "these quarries are huge. We have to live in hope."
"In the Footsteps of Michelangelo" is offered by Hotel Principe Forte dei Marmi, a member of Great Hotels of the World (020 7380 3658; ghotw.com ). The rate is 350 euros per person per night half-board, including a visit to the quarry and sculpture studio experiences, museum entries in Pietrasanta, aperitivo and lunch in Colonnata. British Airways ( ba.com ) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow to Pisa from £140 return.