At first glance, the modest Tuscan town of Pietrasanta looks much like dozens of similar old towns of 25,000 that dot the lush, undulating landscape of central Italy.
On its Piazza del Duomo are a rather spartan 14th-century cathedral with an interesting, if unfinished, red-brick campanile; a fringe of Renaissance and post-Renaissance buildings that now serve as apartments and small shops; and a couple of inviting, if unpretentious, cafe's splayed out on the stone sidewalk in view of the old, crenelated brick walls that once guarded the city from barbarians.
But what quickly sets Pietrasanta apart from other Tuscan towns is the ghost of Michelangelo Buonarroti that seems to haunt the town, giving it its distinctive historical identity and modern raison d'etre.
Though this genius of the Renaissance was raised in Florence, an hour's drive to the east, it was to Pietrasanta that he came 500 years ago, looking for marble to carve. And here he remains, as something akin to the local saint.
For Pietrasanta today, as it was in Michelangelo's time, is an artists' and artisans' mecca. It is to sculpture what SoHo is to painting, a place where those who practice the most demanding of the visual arts congregate and work in the ever-present shadow of Michelangelo's glory.
As a change of pace from seeking out Italy's artistic treasures in its fusty, all-too-often "closed for restoration" museums, Pietrasanta offers the curious visitor a chance to see art in the raw. This is a fascinating and unique place -- a living museum. For here among the dozens of artist and artisan workshops one is able to witness the artistic process of sculpting, from start to finish.
As the natives are quick to tell a visitor, it all began with Michelangelo. Though his artistic mark is best found in the streets and museums of Florence or on the magnificent ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, his mark as an artisan and worker in stone is to be found down any of the tiny side streets that radiate off Pietrasanta's Piazza del Duomo. It is here that you get a hint of the nature of the man behind the genius.
Michelangelo first came to Pietrasanta for the world's purest marble, found in the nearby Apuan Alps. In his various trips in search of the ultimate stone in the pristine, white quarries above Pietrasanta and the nearby town of Carrara (which has given its name to the marble), Michelangelo seems to have left his tracks everywhere.
He is known to have tramped through the hills on foot and by mule, personally checking for the best blocks of marble in at least three still-existing quarries. He is said to have slept in at least half a dozen local houses in the heart of Pietrasanta, and even buying a newspaper one hears his name evoked by the locals as if he were still a living native son, just another dust-covered stone carver from the studio down the street.
There is even a popular Bar Michelangelo on the piazza where a plaque testifies that in 1518, Michelangelo worked there while selecting the marble for the facade of the San Lorenzo church in Florence.
To walk down any side street of Pietrasanta today is to be constantly reminded of the master's craft. The town is one giant, throbbing, art studio. And from April to September, as many as several hundred sculptors from around the world can be found grinding, chiseling, chipping and polishing blocks of marble in the obvious, if unlikely, hopes of becoming new Michelangelos.
Just why this little town is and has been such a magnet for sculptors over the centuries is explained first by the simple fact that the 2,000-year-old Apuan quarries produce some of the finest and purest marble in the world.
"I was like a little child seeing the window of a sweetshop," said British sculptor Henry Moore of his first exposure to Apuan quarries in 1957. "All that beautiful stone. I could not resist the possibilities of so much marble."
Like Michelangelo before them, such modern masters of marble sculpting as Moore, Isamu Noguchi and Jean Arp have been drawn here by the special white marble that gleams off the tops of the mountains like glaciers of ice, making the peaks look snowcapped even in mid-summer.
But it is not the stone alone that makes Pietrasanta such a special place. It is the famous craftsmanship of its native stoneworkers who make the real difference. For success in the art of sculpting stone depends not only on the material and the artist's conception, but also on the skills and expertise of technicians who, ultimately, must help the artist realize his vision.
"What makes Pietrasanta so unique is that here an artist can devote himself to simply creating while 100 hands will do the hard work," said Irving Burkee, a sculptor from Phoenix, Ariz., who has been coming back to work here for a decade.
"Pietrasanta provides everything an artist needs -- materials, techniques, skilled laborers," Burkee continued. "All the artist needs do here is conceive and think -- the actual work is done for him."
To those not acquainted with the work of sculpting, especially in hard stone, such a remark might come as a surprise. But even Michelangelo may have used assistants to do much of the rough work, and the reality is that if a sculptor insisted that only he do the chipping, his production would be woefully limited.
A master such as Moore, in fact, often blocked out the sculpture in the form of a model, then went to one of the master stoneworking studios in and around Pietrasanta and commissioned them to produce the work in a larger scale. While he would often visit the studio to watch the progress, it was the local craftsmen who in effect did the work to his specifications.
To see the system work, a visitor need only seek out the area's most famed stone worker, Sem Gherardini, who runs a large, open-air studio not five minutes' walk from the Piazza del Duomo.
Born the son of a local farmer, Gherardini came of age under the German occupation and made a local reputation for himself as an anti-Nazi partisan. Instead of returning to his parents' farm after the war, he went instead to Florence, where he studied art and art history. Then he returned home to master the craft of stoneworking, first in a local studio, then, finally in his own studio, doing work for people like Moore and others.
A man of few words, Gherardini is always willing to take a visitor around to see the dozen or so marble-dust-enveloped sculptors who at any time seem to be working at what is generally just known as "Sem's place."
"We get two types of sculptors here," Sem said recently over the whine of stone saws and sanders. "We get the young who don't understand anything and always need the use of assistants, and we get the old who know all the techniques but don't have the time to apply them themselves."
One doesn't come to Pietrasanta, necessarily, to see good art -- though at times there is good art to be seen -- but to understand the process of making art and to get a glimpse, and perhaps an insight, into those who make it.
While the stone-cutting studios -- and bronze-casting foundries -- are what Pietrasanta is all about, no visit to the area is complete without a drive, and a mountain picnic, into the Apuan Alps. Here, on weekdays, trailer trucks fly down the precipitous roads with 10- to 20-ton blocks of marble for the cutting plants.
Inquiries among the sculptors who gather at the Michelangelo or the more famous Igea, on the Piazza Carducci, usually produce at least one who volunteers to guide you to the neighboring studios and the cold, still quarries above. The stone, they say, like Italy itself is something that gets in their blood.
"Once you get here, it is hard to break away," said Peter Zalai, a Canadian sculptor, over lunch one day. "Here within a 10-mile radius we can get everything we could ever want -- from the materials we work with, the techniques we need, the clean air we breathe and the food and wine we live on. For a sculptor there is no place like it anywhere."