History Sculpted in Stone
The story of Forte dei Marmi began with a road, the so-called Via di Marina, that in the 15th century linked the inland mountains to a loading quay located between the fortified tower at Cinquale and the Montrone Fortress and its flourishing seaport. It was along this road that the Apuan Alps’ precious marbles – some of which were chosen personally by Michelangelo Buonarroti and by Giambologna — were moved to the sea.
Trade in marble increased and in the early 16th century a new road to the coast was built. Before reaching the sea, it crossed the mainly uninhabited Versilia plain, at the time heavily wooded but also dotted with unhealthy marshy areas and subject to frequent pirate attacks. Construction of the new road – today’s Via Provinciale – was ordered by Pope Leo X Medici; the plans were drawn up by Michelangelo’s collaborator Donato Benti, quarrymaster and sculptor in his own right. From the time of its inauguration in 1518, the road was used, besides for transporting marble, for moving iron ore shipped from the island of Elba to be processed at Versilia’s smelters. The storehouse near the sea is still standing, in Via Duca D’Aosta.
In the 18th century, with the extinction of the senior branch of the Medici family, the Habsburg-Lorraines stepped up as Tuscany’s grand dukes. The new rulers immediately embarked on important works for improving the natural features of the territory, draining and reclaiming the marshlands and planting the coastal pinewoods. Between 1785 and 1788, Pietro Leopoldo I built his Fortino, or “little fort” – symbol par excellence of Forte dei Marmi – as a military outpost and hub for trade. The building responded perfectly to the needs of the time as a compact but multifunctional structure optimally serving the military, customs, and health authorities.
The first homes began to spring up in the early 1800s. Forte dei Marmi was at the time just a small village answering to Pietrasanta, but it was home to the nerve center of the seagoing trade in marble on which much of the territory’s economy was based. The intense commercial traffic, which as time went by included many different genres of materials and foodstuffs, prompted restoration of the Via di Marina road. Goods were transported as far as the beach on wagons drawn by oxen and then transferred to the merchant ships by barge – or directly, after the ships had been beached by teams of oxen. Trade and related activities progressively increased and attracted numerous new inhabitants to the town, whose population in 1822 numbered about three hundred. The occupations of most of the inhabitants were linked in one way or another to the sea.
The first version of an icon of Forte, the Pontile or pier, was built between 1876 and 1877 to designs by engineer Giovanni Costantini for the express purpose of expediting work at the port. It was equipped with a crane, known as “La Mancina,” which greatly facilitated both docking the ships and loading/offloading their cargoes. In the meantime, the town had continued to grow as grants of land around the Fortino and farther afield were perfected. The church of Sant’Ermete was raised during this period to serve the faithful in the now-bustling village. And the first train transporting freight and passengers, drawn by a steam-powered locomotive, arrived in 1907.
Trade in marble determined the birth and early development of Forte dei Marmi, which began to be appreciated as a tourist locality only much later on. By the mid- 19th century, the Tyrrhenian coast was renowned for that gem which was Viareggio, even at the time a fashionable seaside resort. Those in search of peace and quiet instead chose Forte dei Marmi, dividing their time between sea bathing and heliotherapy sessions. Well-to-do families and single tourists began erecting villas in the pinewood in what is today’s Roma Imperiale district.
In just a short time, thanks to the intrinsic draw of its crystal-clear waters, the quality of life it could offer, its gardens and its uncontaminated green areas, and the extraordinary proximity of the Apuan Alps, Forte dei Marmi also became a renowned destination for Mediterranean beach tourism. Italian and foreign notables began to arrive: famous personalities, politicians, leading industrialists, European nobility. Artists and intellectuals – of the caliber of Arturo Dazzi, Carlo Carrà, Felice Carena, Ardengo Soffici, Giovanni Gentile, Enrico Pea, Lorenzo Viani – gathered “under the fourth plane tree” on the Fortino’s square to discuss and exchange views on movements in art and culture. Carlo Carrà, who spent a great deal of his time in Forte, painted numerous views and landscapes in a series of works that bear eloquent witness to his love for the town.
The year 1914 was decisive in many senses. That year, Forte dei Marmi won separation from Pietrasanta and became an autonomous comune – but testifying to the historic and cultural ties between the two municipalities, Pietrasanta’s coat of arms is still clearly visible on the fountain installed by Pietrasanta in Forte’s central Piazza Garibaldi in 1900.