In Brief

Deadly Earthquake Damages Historic Churches and Other Cultural Heritage in Central Italy

Sant'Agostino_church_in_Amatrice,_Italy_in_May_2011_(14815570486)
Sant’Agostino church in Amatrice, Italy, in May 2011 (photo by Pietro Valocchi/Wikimedia Commons)

The town clock in the 13th-century bell tower in Amatrice, Italy, is frozen at 3:36 am, the time that Wednesday’s earthquake struck, exacting a death toll that now stands at 241. In a country filled with historic churches, frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures, the earthquake has also damaged many architectural and artistic treasures. Officials are still assessing the extent of the destruction.

Of the nearly 70 towns and hamlets affected by the quake, the hilltop village of Amatrice was hit the hardest. “Three quarters of the town is not there anymore,” Sergio Piorizzi, mayor of Amatrice, told Reuters. Voted one of the most beautiful towns in Italy last year, Amatrice is famous for its cento chiese, 100 churches filled with frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures. The magnificent bell tower, the tallest structure in town, is allegedly one of only a few buildings that remain standing.

Amatrice’s 15th-century Sant’Agostino church, with a Gothic portal and frescoes including “Madonna Enthroned with Child,” is now missing half of its rose-windowed facade, the Guardian reports. The garden of a Renaissance palace has become a temporary morgue, filled with corpses shrouded in bloodstained sheets. Several other churches and sanctuaries in the town were damaged or destroyed, including the Church of Santa Maria Porta Ferrata and the late-15th-century Sanctuary of Icona Passatora. Also from the 15th century, the Sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie, located on the alleged site of ancient Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro‘s villa, suffered earthquake damage for a second time — its gabled sandstone façade was restored after one in 1705. Officials are still assessing how the paintings and frescoes inside these landmark churches have been affected.

“It has been a true drama; there is a lot that has been lost,” said the Dutch classicist David Rijser, an expert on the culture of Abruzzo.

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The sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie in Amatrice (photo by frandipa88/Wikimedia Commons)
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“The Annunciation,” a 1491 fresco in the damaged Sant’Agostino church (photo by mariella44/Wikimedia Commons)

In the town of Norcia, the earthquake caused serious structural harm to the 12th-century monastery and Basilica of St. Benedict, thought to have been built on the foundations of St. Benedict’s house. The monks inside the monastery are all safe, according to Catholic News ServiceExperts fear possible damage to the 14th-century frescoes in the church of St. Augustine and to the town’s Roman walls, which also date to the 14th century and have survived numerous earthquakes.

Decoration on the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia (photo by Livioandronico2013/Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)
Decoration on the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia (photo by Livioandronico2013/Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s quake, one image of a damaged church in Pieve de Cento, Italy, was widely circulated on social media, but the image actually dates from 2012. It was first tweeted by the Spanish-language edition of the Russian news site RT. Several news outlets have since debunked it.

Fortunately, the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, which houses famous frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue, escaped this latest natural disaster unscathed. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the basilica suffered major damage during the earthquake of 1997, when an aftershock caused the collapse of a vault and killed four people inside.

“The aim now is to save as many lives as possible. There are voices under the rubble, we have to save the people there,” Mayor Piorizzi said. While saving lives is the priority, the Italian Culture Ministry said it would hold a meeting on Thursday to assess the extent of the cultural damage. “Today is a day for tears, tomorrow we can talk of reconstruction,” Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told reporters.

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