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A Visit to the Mercury Mines of Monte Amiata 01/12/2010

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c. 1910

Half-reluctant I felt on a day so radiant to leave the surface of the earth for its dark interior, yet it had been planned for us to explore the mercury mine, so to the mine we meant to go. On coming downstairs at ten o’clock, I found Bianca Maria had already made friends with the engineer who was to escort us, and since there chanced to be no one else present to perform the necessary ceremonial, she, at my prompting, introduced us briefly, as who should say, ‘Alice, Mutton; Mutton, Alice’! The rest of the party soon gathered, and we set off for the sheds, to which Giovanni had already been despatched with waterproofs and cloaks.

Now, that Bianca Maria should dream of herself descending the shaft had never occurred to me. I had foolishly assumed her realisation of the fact that the part of a person of her size was to wish us good speed as we embarked on our downward journey, and to welcome us back when, like Persephone, we returned from the lower world. It was therefore an unpleasant awakening when she selected from the pile of wraps the largest of waterproof capes, and desired me to button it for her, ‘Because Giovanni he tell me that in the miniera it rain always.’ ‘But, my sweet one, it is impossible; you are too little, you would be afraid!’ I protested, much perturbed, and hardly knowing what arguments were best to employ. ‘You will stay here and wait for us; you will enjoy that ever so much more,’ I added in tones which should have carried conviction to a very Didimus. Bianca Maria’s face became mutinous. ‘To stay here I want not. I go, I, too. You go, and why not also I?’ Vainly I explained that I was quite three times Bianca Maria’s age, so that my doings were no standard by which to measure those of a person of seven, and that decidedly an underground excursion was not, to use the Tuscan saying, bread for Bianca Maria’s teeth. In vain I reasoned. If I was resolute, Bianca Maria was more so. ‘I go, I go, I go!’ she cried vehemently; then, stooping to entreaty, ‘Why you make me this displeasure? Why you not want that I amuse myself also, I?’ and with the tip of one finger she removed a great tear which was coursing down her cheek.

It is one of Bianca Maria’s peculiarities that she never cries aloud like other children, but weeps in silence, large dreadful tears rolling slowly down one by one. It is a sight to melt even a heart of stone, and it evidently melted the engineer’s, for he interposed hastily, thereby winning Bianca Maria’s undying gratitude. It was really quite safe; I need have no fear whatever; the little girl should be his special care if she were allowed to go; and when to his assurances were added Bianca Maria’s entreaties, her caresses, what could I do but relent? Instantly Bianca Maria’s face cleared as the sky in April; she was the blithest of the blithe: she overwhelmed me with blandishments as I buttoned her waterproof, and declared that the engineer was a man simpaticissimo, of a gentilezza rarely to be met with. Indeed, she stuck to his side like a shadow – fearful, I believe, lest, even at the last, I should change my mind.

At length we were embarked, all enfolded like monks in hooded waterproofs, and carrying lanterns in our hands. As the small iron platform of the lift would hold but four at a time, the engineer, a workman, Bianca Maria, and I made up one party; the machinery was set in motion, and down we sank from the light of day, leaving behind us the splendour, warmth, and colour of the upper world for the silence, chill, and darkness of the mine. Bianca Maria was undoubtedly scared in the first moments of an experience so tremendous, and clung closely to my hand, but the light of the lamps, the calm steady movement, and the familiar faces reassured her, and she was delighted to trace a parallel between herself and Alice falling down the rabbit-hole; though the shaft, she pointed out, was defective in that there were no marmalade jars ranged against the walls. For three minutes, which seemed never ending, we descended, the lamps throwing a pale yellow glow upon the wet walls, through which, in places, black and awful-looking tunnels led away to the various galleries of the mine. But we were bound for the lowest level, so paused for none of these; and the journey seemed very long before we finally stepped out at the bottom, and, while the lift went up to fetch the next detachment of the party, sat down to wait their arrival.

It was a strange sensation. Somewhere far above our heads the sun was shining and the birds singing, but down in the mine there was darkness and silence, profound and absolute, save for the trickle of a little stream of water and the dim yellow light of the lamps. The place where we sat, too, was a little ghostly, haunted as it was by a tragic memory; for near it, in the recess where the lift came down, a miner, heedless or ignorant of its descent, had once stepped forward to pick up a dropped penknife, and in an instant the whole weight was upon him, crushing him to death. It was horrible to think of in a place so gloomy; for, unless to stifle in a fog, what could be more terrible than to die in the dark, far from the fresh air, and the sunlight, or the friendly eyes of the stars?

The mercury mines of Monte Amiata are among the largest and most important in the world…

The procession of waterproofed and cloaked figures walking in single file along the narrow winding passages must have been a funny one, as we tramped on, swinging our oil-lamps, and with our feet sometimes on dry earth, sometimes in deep mud. At times the passages were so low that we had to stoop, and here and there in a recess or at a sudden turning was heard the tapping of a pick, and there, in the midst of the solitude, was a miner at work, alone in the depths of the earth, his lamp hung above his head. In places, produced by the damp and dark, grew quantities of pure white mold, long and soft like cotton-wool; while in the rocky walls the cinnabar deposits, which, extracted and smelted, form the mercury, showed in veins and patches of red. Along the galleries were laid rails on which ran little trucks carrying the ore to the shaft, whence it was raised to the surface; and the process, which we saw later, was no less interesting than the mines themselves. The ore extracted from the mine is broken into small pieces and spread in the sun to dry. After this it is sent to the roasting furnaces, where the mercury, under pressure of heat, is extracted, and, after various processes beyond the clear comprehension of the unscientific, remains as pure quicksilver or mercury, the latter name having, according to a Sienese writer of the fifteenth century, been given to it by the alchemists, who named the seven principal metals by the names of the seven planets known to them.

Bianca Maria, on our return to the light of day, was delighted with the great bowls of quicksilver which the engineer showed us, and which, after one of the men had, with a sponge, removed the surface-dirt, shone like magical mirrors ; but we were amazed that, though in appearance like silver water, and liquid as water, the resistance was such that we could hardly, with all our force, thrust in our hands. Workmen were busy pouring the mercury into iron bombs, most of which were destined for London, and which, though small, were of enormous weight. The majority of the miners were fine, stronglooking men, who did not seem to suffer from their underground life, the mine being wellaired and the work-hours not excessive ; but it must be a strange life to spend almost all one’s years in darkness – the darkness of the secret places of the earth, or the darkness of sleep until the final darkness of the grave. Night and day, summer and winter, the work is carried on by fresh relays of workmen; for in the mines darkness and light, the rise and set of the sun, the waxing or waning of the moon, are all alike.

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