If only it had been this easy for Michelangelo. In 15th-century Florence, marble was the medium of divine inspiration. But obtaining marble required a trek to the quarry and a backbreaking return trip lugging an extra thousand pounds or so.

In the 21st century, the finest Italian marble is only a click away, thanks to the Italian Trade Commission's website, marblefromitaly.com.

"Italy has become the world stone marketplace, developing its role as a processing center, offering the largest variety of materials not only from Italy but also from Brazil, Spain, India, Portugal, Greece, Turkey and Scandinavia," says Bianca Dellepiane, manager of the commission's Los Angeles bureau.

Over the years, Italy has been far and away the largest supplier of natural stone to the United States. In 1998, Italian marble imports totaled $89.94 million, and granite imports totaled $80.42 million, according to Dellepiane. (It's important to note that stones classified as "Italian" by the U.S. Department of Commerce include any stone that is processed or traded through Italy, but not necessarily quarried there.)

Italian stone serves a variety of purposes ranging from private to civic, but delivers a message of grandeur and elegance to retail settings in particular.

Marble says "upscale" unlike any other material. High-end retailers rely on marble storefronts to convey the opulence of their product. Shopping centers use marble in flooring and architecture to suggest quality, taste and substance to shoppers.

In establishing the website, the Italian Trade Commission's Marble Center hopes to promote the benefits of natural stone to developers, architects, interior designers and specifiers. "The website was designed to be inviting and informative, giving the audience constant re-invention to adjust to its changing needs," Dellepiane says. "It's widely registered and well-keyworded in the search engines, making it easy to find and use. And the information is current and reliable."

The site's virtual pages feature a wealth of information. The Marble Plates page depicts more than 70 plates of different marble quarried in Italy. Each plate is accompanied by a list of its four main American Society for Tests and Materials (ASTM) standards, created to assist specifiers in their marble selection.

The Company Profiles page features a growing online directory of more than 1,500 Italian stone and machinery suppliers, including details about their products and their U.S. distributors. "The list is particularly useful to the U.S. building industry because of the reliability of the information provided," Dellepiane says.

The website's quarterly, digital newsletter features news about the Italian stone industry; a calendar of trade shows and other events; links to the main U.S. and Italian stone and construction organizations; and a series of tips and commentary on stone design.

"There are many technical issues facing the selection of the right materials for public places," Dellepiane says. "Architects and designers can log onto this page and find the resources to handle them."