Earthquake Destroys Italy's Cultural Monuments

For the first time in decades, church bells did not ring on Easter Sunday in L'Aquila, Italy. The last time this city was silenced in this way was during World War II, when the Abruzzo region was a battlefield between German and Allied fighters. This time it was because all the bell towers had collapsed in an April 6 earthquake that killed nearly 300 people and damaged every building in this town of 70,000. (Story continued below...)

As emergency workers continued to search for survivors, officials of Italy's Ministry of Culture began to sift through the rubble for fragments of frescoes, ancient statues and pieces of medieval, baroque and Romanesque architecture. It's become apparent in the past week that Italy's cultural heritage has suffered a great loss. Of the region's 105 churches, 99 were severely damaged. Those structures that seemed reparable in the immediate aftermath, like the cupola on the 18th-century Santa Maria del Suffragio in the city's main square, eventually collapsed during aftershocks. "The situation is very serious," Culture Minister Giuseppe Proietti, head of Italy's Culture Ministry told reporters in L'Aquila. "There is significant damage to the monuments."

Among the cultural casualties in Abruzzo was the 13th-century Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, which was commissioned by Pope Celestine V. The Romanesque façade was reduced to rubble and the roof collapsed, damaging the marble floor of the inner transept below. Only Celestine's remains were saved intact from a tomb beneath the church. Not far away, the 16th-century bell tower of the Church of San Bernardino lay in a pile of rubble.

And all that is left of the baroque cupola of the Church of Sant'Agostino are shards. Several floors of the Fortezza Spagnola museum collapsed, destroying frescoes, statues and artwork worth millions of euros. Scores of medieval buildings with original frescoes and intricate stone details are gone. Even the ancient fortification wall that had protected L'Aquila for centuries crumbled.

The tragedy in Abruzzo underscores how fragile the rest of the country's vast treasures are. Italy's civil protection authorities say that more than 64 percent of the country is vulnerable to seismic activity, and nearly half a million buildings are not earthquake-proof, including many museums, churches and cultural gems. The April 6 earthquake in Abruzzo was felt in Rome, where it damaged a wall in the Baths of Caracalla. The Colosseum and ancient Roman Forum were closed for several hours to assess damage. The Culture Ministry is working on a new list of Italy's most vulnerable treasures and a plan to verify and stabilize these structures by 2010 to "deter significant damage to Italy's patrimony."

The last list of vulnerable sites included thousands of Italy's most notable cultural treasures, like the Colosseum and the entire city of Venice. In September 1997, a 5.5 magnitude earthquake caused the collapse of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. It took nine years and $50 million to reconstruct the church's Cimabue and Giotto frescoes, of which only 80 percent of the fragments were recovered from the rubble. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi turned down offers for emergency assistance from Germany, France and the United States, but said that these countries could fund restoration of the churches destroyed in last week's disaster. "We are setting up a special fund to revive our architectural treasures," he said at a news conference in L'Aquila. "If the United States wants to make a tangible sign in solidarity to Italians, they can take on the responsibility of restoring one of the churches."

But even before any reconstruction can start, it will take at least $30 million to recover the fragments from the piles of rubble and to shore up the churches and historic buildings, according to early estimates by the Culture Ministry. And authorities say it is unlikely that all the churches of L'Aquila will be restored.

Instead, some of the newer churches will be razed completely. The older churches will get new domes, bell towers and façades. The ancient remnants will be housed in museums or stored away in warehouses in the hope that someday someone might one day put them back together. "Cultural heritage by its own nature cannot be reproduced," said Proietti at the devastating scene in L'Aquila. "The artwork is lost forever, and no matter what, it will never be as good as the original."

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