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Authors: David Macfarlane

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BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
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CHAPTER SIX

I
T WAS LATE
in the muggy August of 1922 that Julian Morrow—not yet Sir Julian—noticed a couple in the old part of the town. They were on the bridge of the Via Carriona, inspecting a marble statue. Visitors, obviously.

Morrow stopped. He smoothed his moustache and beard with his left hand as if moulding thoughtfulness into his face.

He was wearing a comfortable suit of the palest yellow—the light, rumpled linen a far better choice for the weather than the houndstooth jacket of the gentleman he was considering. It was already hot.

Julian Morrow drew a handkerchief from his breast pocket. He patted his brow. He adjusted a soft-brimmed Borsalino. It was a favourite of his summer hats. He was about to start over the street but his crossing was interrupted by two heavy carriages pulled by yoked oxen.

It was unusual to see tourists. Carrara was off the beaten
track. A correspondent for an English travel journal had recently complained: “Thanks to a surfeit of marble, there is not the shadow of anything that can be called ‘society’ in Carrara.” This, so far as Julian Morrow was concerned, was not a bad thing.

The wagons each had a single canvas strap holding rough blocks of stone in place on their wooden flatbeds. An old woman and a few hungry-looking dogs hurried out of the way.

Morrow’s calculations were these: The couple was English, possibly American. Of some means, judging by the cut and quality of their clothes. He guessed that they were in Carrara because the wife—younger, very pretty—had an interest in art or history or something of that nature that the husband, Baedeker in hand, was accommodating.

This presented promise. But what is important to know about Julian Morrow is that his calculations were so coincident with his own pleasure that he hardly thought of them as calculations. It was what he most enjoyed about this place: business was part of the same pleasure he took in the temperature, in the light, in the mountain air on his freshly shaved cheeks. It was a delight resplendent and swift, like water slipping over stone.

There had been some morning rain in Carrara.

He looked down at the toes of his own shoes, poised at the curb. They were the darkened brown of a saddle. They were well worn but well looked after. They were made of excellent leather. The runoff from the morning shower was clear in the marble gutter.

J
ULIAN
M
ORROW WAS SOMEONE
who was good to know—certainly that was the reputation he fostered. He invited people to visit him. That these people might prove to be customers and clients was not beside the point. It was just not an objective
Morrow was inclined to make very obvious. He was too good a salesman for that. They came to see his quarries, to tour his workshops, to stay with him at his villa.

His love for the place was so obvious that it was not so much an emotion that he shared as a characteristic he was unable to hide. His girth was substantial and his shoulders were broad, but these were only part of the reason he was so often described—even by Italians—as larger than life.

He loved the industry and art of the place as much as he loved the hills and the sky.
“Buon giorno,”
he called to everyone on the sidewalk as he made his way through the clattering morning streets of Carrara.
“Buona sera,”
he called to everyone in a café when, after his
digestivo
, he stepped briskly into the early evening light of the square. He broadcast his affection effusively—exclamations at the excellence of a fish soup endeared him to the cooks who prepared it, to the waiters who served it, and to the restaurant owners, who always greeted him so warmly when he stepped through their doors.

He was the best of guides. He took his visitors to this statue, to that bridge, to a white marble baptismal font in a country church that they would never have found on their own. He took them to eat in country inns where there were no menus because there were no choices to be made. They drank the local wine. They ate whatever the kitchen had prepared. The lunches lasted for hours.

On Sundays—the only day of the week when the quarries were not worked—he took his house guests on hikes into the mountains for picnics. He pointed out the cliffside that Michelangelo had imagined carving into a colossus as a beacon for ships. He helped them discern the purple shadow of Corsica on the horizon. He gestured to the south, in the direction of Torre del Lago, the home of Giacomo Puccini.

As he set out the meal his cook had packed for the Sunday picnic, it was Morrow’s custom to sing “Un Bel Dì.” This was a performance, but he did not let its lack of spontaneity diminish the pleasure he took in delivering it. Pausing, with the cork half pulled from a bottle of wine, he looked west to the distant blue line of the Mediterranean.
Vedremo levarsi un fil di fumo sull’estremo confin del mare
. Morrow’s speaking voice was gruff, but his singing was surprisingly musical. He transposed Butterfly’s soprano with improbable respect.
E poi la nave appare
. His guests often thought they heard a catch in his voice, so moved was Julian Morrow by the aria that he had decided, seemingly on the spur of the moment, to sing.

The food was the simplest fare, but more than a few of those fortunate enough to experience an al fresco luncheon in the mountains with Julian Morrow would claim it as one of the best meals of their lives. The moist bread, the smoked sausage, the hard goat’s cheese, the blood oranges, the bottles of a local white wine so young it was almost effervescent were all set out in the sharp sunlight on a rough wooden table used for the same purpose by the quarry workers. At his customary lunch spot, there was a wall of marble that rose over them. The floor of the plateau was carpeted with wild thyme. The red-roofed towns and the bone-coloured beaches were far below.

As they ate he showed his guests—“somewhere out there”—the distant sea where Percy Shelley drowned. Morrow was then often asked: Could he recite a few lines? He wondered if he could. He poured out more wine for the table. “Ah,” he said. “Let me see.”

“Ozymandias” was what came to mind. All fourteen lines.

His guests were charmed. Everything about Morrow was charming—his villa but one example.

His residence was a former convent in the hills above the
town of Pietrabella, and his visitors remembered it as the most pleasant of homes. Summer breezes passed through it like billowing silk.

The linens were exquisite. The soaps felt like cream. His servants were present when he wanted them to be, invisible when he did not. The stone floors were cool underfoot as his visitors passed from their toilet to their beds.

The architects and builders, municipal officials and church leaders, developers and hotel owners, aristocrats and society doyennes, landscape artists and decorators who arrived in Carrara as Julian Morrow’s invited guests, left as his friends. A miniature
David
, about six inches in height and carved in white marble, arrived after their visit, with Julian Morrow’s business card.

M
ORROW
I
NTERNATIONAL
produced chancels, vestibules, lobbies, war memorials, altars, public conveniences, mausoleums, garden ornamentation, tombstones, embassy foyers, bank counters, office building facades, boardroom panels, and the grand bathrooms of royal suites, to name but a few areas of specialization. The brand was known anywhere anyone wanted substance, dignity, formality, luxury, and (it had to be admitted, on occasion) ostentation.

“From excavation to installation” was the company’s early motto. This was phrasing that wanted for dignity, so Julian Morrow felt. His wife proposed “Purveyors of Fine Italian Marble”—a suggestion he politely ignored long enough for the company to attain a level of success that required no elaboration beyond his surname.

Julian Morrow had not been born into stone. He had not grown up surrounded by marble. He was raised in a coal town in South Wales, the son of a mine company manager and a
schoolteacher. As a young man he had seen opportunity in the construction trade. It was a skill he had: seeing opportunity.

Morrow was already married, with three young daughters, and his building company was already successful when he embarked on a European trip with his wife and mother-in-law. It was, by far, the longest time he had spent alone with both of them together. His wife had planned the holiday six months after her father’s properly mourned death. It was in the second week of their itinerary that Morrow was unexpectedly obligated to get off the train in Carrara. For business.

Morrow made arrangements to rejoin the ladies at the Hotel Baglioni in Florence two days later. He was confident he would not be missed. He’d been having some difficulty getting a word in edgewise. He wasn’t sure, exactly, what his business in Carrara would prove to be. But he’d never been happier to get off a train.

On his first day in Carrara, he stepped from a smoky café in which he had taken shelter from a passing rainstorm. As he did, he looked down at the sidewalk’s curb and realized what it was made of. It was hard to tell if it was the marble itself or the shaft of sunlight on the white stone that could make something as ordinary as a gutter so beautiful.

He did not need more society—although the ceaseless conversation his wife and mother-in-law had been having since Calais made him realize that his view was not everyone’s. The teas, the engagements, the babies, the illnesses, and the achievements in banking and accountancy of his many in-laws and their charming circle of friends were not great passions of his. Society had assisted him in his rise, but now that it was without this particular utility it was no longer as engrossing as it once had seemed to be.

He had been longing for something when he stopped off in Carrara. He wasn’t quite sure what.

I
N THE CHILL STRICTURE
of Cardiff’s sea-weather, in the restraint of boiled beef and parsnips, in the muted browns and civil greys, Julian Morrow was a provident husband, an attentive father, and a successful businessman. But Carrara brought out something else in him.

He fell in love with everything: with the distant peaks and unfolding valleys, with the intimacies of narrow, sleepy streets, with the narrow runs of millstreams below the open windows of bedrooms. He loved the weather. He loved the air. He loved the pouts of acquiescence, the slow untying of sash and ribbon. He found profitable reasons to return. In less than a year he owned his first property.

Now he visited his quarries. Now he climbed to newly opened marble terraces, argued with his managers, strode through shipping yards. He inspected orders, and he joined shoulder to shoulder with his men in the high-ceilinged, arch-windowed studios when they hoisted a piece of stone to their wooden, iron-braced turntables.

He loved mornings filled with work that was so physical it could resist the chill of the mountains. He loved the noontimes subsequent with sunlight, warm as fresh bread. He loved sleeps after lunch, rich in dreams. He loved the soft country ditches and the little roadside crucifixes. He loved the dusk of cypresses, and the hoist of skirts pressed against the stone of ancient walls.

T
HE TOWN OF
C
ARRARA WAS
, as Morrow liked to say, an acquired taste. It had long possessed beauty that he happened to love: the beauty of work and the beauty of industry.

By the eleventh century, the population had retreated to the hillsides, away from the pestilence of the seaside marshlands. With the rise of the region’s towns came the need for building
material, and marble was the material close at hand. Those who first went looking for it simply followed the rivers and creeks and streams upward to the sources of the hard, smooth stone. The trail of little water-tumbled pebbles—some pure white, some misty grey—led into the foothills and up into the gorges of the mountains to vast deposits of marble. Quarrying began, and gradually, as the reputation of Carrara marble spread, the town took on its inevitable role. Pisa wanted stone. Florence wanted stone. Rome wanted stone. Carrara devoted its industry to unearthing, carving, and shipping the marble the world wanted. In 1922, that’s what it still was doing.

The workshops of Carrara were always busy, the streets often jammed with wagons down from the quarries. The Carrione River ran white with commerce.

Morrow could watch an artisan at work and lose all track of time. It was an idiosyncrasy of his. He loved the noise. He loved the dust. He was far from indifferent to art, but he knew that the real domain of his soul lay in transaction. His visits to Carrara became so extended, the distinction between home and away began to blur. He’d been in Italy for almost two months by the muggy August day in 1922 when he encountered the couple on the cobbles of the Via Carriona bridge.

T
HEY WERE STUDYING A STATUE
. It was made of local marble, as almost everything is in Carrara. But the statue was much older than any other monument they had yet seen in the town.

The man was tall, pallid, with a grey moustache. He was consulting his Baedeker, apparently without success.

The woman’s auburn hair was not entirely concealed by a wide-brimmed hat and the wrap of a pale silk scarf tied under her chin. Her coat and dress were full length and cut for walking.
One of her boots had an elevated sole, Morrow noted, and both were laced in a tight criss-cross that made him think of corsets. He often did.

When the woman stepped back to take a longer view of the statue, he could see that she had a pronounced limp.

“Damn useless book,” Morrow heard the man say. Morrow took the accent to be American—an error, as he was soon to learn. Grace and Argue Barton were from Cathcart, Ontario—a place with which Morrow was not, he would later have to admit to them, familiar.

He was curious, though. The gentleman gave the appearance of understated affluence. And the woman … well, Julian Morrow was inclined, always, to be curious about a beautiful woman.

As the weather cleared, it was becoming apparent that it was the haze of industry that was drifting across the distant peaks, not parting clouds. The sun caught the skein of marble dust.

BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
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