ROME, Italy — They were both bearded renegades who made history, although most chronicles or art or atrocity are never likely to put Michelangelo Buonarotti, Renaissance genius, on the same page as Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda mastermind and planner of the 9/11 attacks. There is a surprising connection between them now, to be sure, but it’s nothing personal, as the saying goes, it’s just business.
A €45 million euro ($60 million) deal signed on July 30 in Tuscany, Italy, gives the construction group controlled by Osama’s Saudi Arabian family the largest single stake in an Italian firm that quarries Michelangelo’s favorite white Carrara marble—the very stone he used to create the iconic sculptures of the nude David, sling in hand; of Mary mourning the crucified Jesus in The Pietá; and of Moses glowering from the tomb of Pope Julius II.
These defining works of Christian art show off the creamy white sheen of the prized Tuscan marble, which has long caught the eye of the Bin Laden family firm, a construction giant where Osama’s half-brother Bakr is chairman, because the marble’s rich luster works so well in the mosques and mansions of the Muslim world.
Bakr and Osama were among 53 children sired by Mohammed Bin Laden, the rags-to-riches founder of the Saudi Binladin Group (as it’s spelled these days) and patriarch of the family which disowned Osama in 1994, seven years before the attack on the Twin Towers, because of his fanatical militancy and his threats against the House of Saud. Osama was killed by U.S. Special Operations Forces in 2011.
Carrara marble has been quarried as far back as Roman times and was used by emperors for massive monuments like the Rome Pantheon. Prized ever since, it was used to build the Duomo in Sienna, Italy; London’s Marble Arch; the Peace Monument on the U.S. Capitol grounds and, this may strike some people as particularly ironic, on the interior of the Freedom Tower built on the site of the shattered World Trade Center.
Architects working in the Arab Gulf states have valued Carrara marble’s cool elegance ever since those oil-endowed countries started getting rich enough to afford it. The Binladin Group was a top customer last year, buying €40 million worth, or about 20 percent of total Carrara output, according to Antonio Menchini, a lawyer who has represented the Saudi group.
The Binladins know a deal when they see one. Carrara marble is coveted now by the new crop of Chinese and Indian tycoons decking out their mansions. Rapper Kanye West made it a must-have on the bling scene when he reportedly ordered a table made from it for his wedding to Kim Kardashian, complete with guests’ names inscribed in gold.
Demand has driven prices up 30 percent in the last five years to as high as €3,000 a ton. Hence the decision by the Saudis to buy, through a group subsidiary, a 50 percent stake in Marmi Carrara, the Tuscan firm which in turn owns 50 percent of four groups which have rights to quarry around a third of the local marble, totaling about 400,000 tons a year.
“There have been no obstacles,” said Menchini. “The group is linked to the Binladin family, but has nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden,” he said.
“They are one of the biggest construction groups in the world and can give Marmi Carrara the push it needs,” Luigi Piacentini, the head of the group that sold its 50 percent stake in Marmi Carrara, told The Daily Beast. “Expansion favors everyone,” added the 79-year-old Tuscan, who started off as a bookkeeper in a marble firm in 1955.
It was Piacentini who revealed that Marmi Carrara had supplied marble for interiors at the Freedom Tower in Manhattan, meaning the Bin Laden family is now the largest single shareholder in a firm that helped complete the skyscraper erected at Ground Zero.
The Piacentinis were one of four local families who sold their half of Marmi Carrara to the Binladins, but other families have retained their share, and still others run the quarrying firms that Marmi Carrara part controls: a web of businesses that is a perfect snapshot of Italy’s proud traditional pattern of small, family-run companies. One unusual aspect of the deal is that these relatively small businesses are now hooked up with one of the biggest, richest, most international family companies in the world.
Mohammed Bin Laden, a Yemeni who immigrated to Saudi Arabia before the First World War, secured work on mosques at Mecca through his good contacts with the Saudi royal family and built his empire on his connections in the heartland of Islam.
But Piacentini, for his part, said he had no qualms about a Muslim firm taking a slice of the Italian quarries which have provided the building blocks for so much Christian history and culture.
“It’s business,” he said. “Religion has nothing to do with it. None of the Italian vendors asked the Arabs to go to Mass with them on Sunday and none of the Arabs asked us to recite the Qur’an.”