The mineral riches of Monte Altissimo were already known to Michelangelo, who explored there around 1518, and Cosimo I de’ Medici, who started the excavation of its marble for statues in 1568.
In 1821, following a long period during which marble quarrying and processing had been abandoned, Marco Borrini, from Serravezza, became the owner of a large part of the marble-rich land of Altissimo, and set up a company with the Frenchman Jean Baptiste Alexandre Henraux to reopen the quarries and start extracting the deposits. Henraux, then “Royal Superintendent for the Selection and Purchase of White and Statuary Marble from Carrara for Public Monuments in France”, had grasped the economic potential and quality of Serravezza’s marble. The business quickly enjoyed huge success. In a little over a decade the quarrying industry developed rapidly, with the number of quarries rising from 11 to 132, and the number of workers, including quarrymen, sledmen, squarers, stonecutters and cart drivers, rising from a few dozen to 1,600. Around 1830 there were 249 stonecutters working for Henraux.
Inspired by the fortunes of the new holding company, Borrini-Henraux, numerous entrepreneurs invested in Versilia. The company was filling a number of prestigious orders at the time: in 1845 the Tsar of Russia requested enormous quantities of marble for St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Among the connoisseurs of Monte Altissimo statuary marble was American sculptor Hiram Powers, whose works are now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The unexpected expansion of the marble industry in the first half of the 19th century led to the growth of the town of Serravezza. Forte dei Marmi also became an important site, as the marble was loaded from its beach onto special boats to be shipped to its destination. It was an era of huge technological advances and profound change for the surrounding area.
Jean Baptiste Alexandre Henraux died in 1843, and his nephew Bernard Sancholle Henraux became the sole proprietor of Monte Altissimo and the company. The prized marble from the quarries around Versilia was by now in great demand abroad, and Henraux became a leader in the Italian stone industry, a role which the company consolidated throughout the second half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.
Following the Second World War the company took on some important Italian and international commissions. In 1962 it was responsible for the multicoloured marble floor of the parvise of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Between 1945 and 1962 Henraux was involved in the rebuilding of the Monte Cassino Abbey, destroyed by American bombing during the war and reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964; almost all of Henraux’s workers were employed in the massive task of reproducing the original marble sculptures and architectural elements.
A fruitful and long-lasting relationship with the renowned sculptor Henry Moore started in 1956, when Moore visited Versilia to choose the travertine for a large sculpture he had been commissioned to create for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
It was the first encounter for the Henraux team with the cutting edge of contemporary sculpture, and marked a turning point for the historic company, as well as having significant consequences for the whole Versilia area, which in the space of a few years was to become the main point of reference for sculptors around the world. In fact it was at this time that Erminio Cidonio, the company’s managing director, decided to specifically promote the marble as raw material for modern sculpture. As well as continuing a very positive collaboration with Moore, he also developed relationships with both great maestros and up-and-coming young artists, who all came to visit the workshops in order to draw on the experience and professionalism of Henraux’s artisans. Among the best-known names were Jean Arp, Joan Miró, Georges Vantongerloo and Isamu Noguchi. In 1962 Henraux established Marmo, an international art periodical, run by publisher Bruno Alfieri and featuring contributions from the greatest art experts and critics of the time. In 1963 the idea of creating a contemporary sculpture centre in Querceta started to take shape. Workshops for young artists were held by celebrated sculptors from Italy and abroad, assisted by local artisans, and a museum was established for works produced during the workshops, donated by the artists or purchased by the company.