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Italy quake exacts toll on cultural heritage

A view of Santa Maria Paganica church furtherly damaged city centre after tonight earthquake on April 7, 2009 in the Abruzzo capital L'Aquila. At least one person died in a strong aftershock felt for several seconds late Tuesday in Rome and in central Italy, a day after an earthquake that left more than 200 dead. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Rome (AFP) April 7, 2009
The earthquake that struck Abruzzo, a mountain region abounding with medieval and Renaissance architecture, has exacted a heavy toll on Italy's heritage, the culture ministry's top archaeologist said Tuesday.

"Of course it is a great tragedy," Giuseppe Proietto told AFP. "In some cases the damage was very bad," he said, citing fallen belltowers, collapsed church domes and crumbling arches.

L'Aquila, founded in the 13th century and located about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Rome, was an important urban centre in its heyday.

"The greatest losses" occurred at the Basilica di Collemaggio, the symbol of the quake's epicentre L'Aquila, Proietto said, "not only for its historical importance but for its aesthetic beauty as well."

The medieval basilica, destroyed and rebuilt after an earthquake in 1703, suffered heavy damage to its transept and apse in Monday's quake, losing some precious frescoes.

The church, which has an unusual facade of alternating pink and white tiles in a geometrical design, is the burial place of 13th century "hermit pope" Celestine V, who was crowned there in 1294.

Pilgrims travel to the site each year to honour the pope, a hermit from the Abruzzo mountains who was elected to break a two-year deadlock among squabbling cardinals.

The earthquake also destroyed the Porta Napoli, a gate built in 1548 to honour Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and L'Aquila's oldest, and the belltower of the San Bernardino basilica, the city's largest Renaissance church.

The dome of L'Aquila's Baroque Sant'Agostino church -- which was also destroyed and restored following the 1703 earthquake -- caved in as well.

The Spanish Fortress, an imposing hilltop Renaissance castle that contains Abruzzo's national museum and offers stunning views of the Apennine mountains, also suffered a partial collapse.

Proietti said earlier that inspectors could not enter the fortress, built during the period of Spanish domination, because of fears of further collapses.

Teams will use a crane to remove works exhibited in the museum for safekeeping, he told Italy's domestic ANSA news agency.

So extensive has been the damage to churches that Easter masses have been cancelled across the L'Aquila diocese, Archbishop Giuseppe Molinari announced Tuesday.

"All the churches are damaged, which makes them dangerous for holding services," Molinari told ANSA. "We are also cancelling the Good Friday procession" usually held in L'Aquila's old town.

Instead, Easter prayers are to be held in tent villages sheltering earthquake survivors.

Proietto, who is coordinating efforts to assess the damage and plan restoration, noted that all rebuilding will be done so as to clearly demarcate original structures from replicas.

"Since the 1970s, the Italian school of restoration has taken a dim view of exact replicas," said Proietto, the culture ministry's secretary general.

The effort may get a boost with some financial support from the United States after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has gently but firmly turned down humanitarian aid, said he would accept reconstruction assistance.

He said he discussed the idea with US President Barack Obama in a phone conversation on Tuesday.

Elsewhere in the quake zone, the stone village of San Stefano di Sessanio, dating to medieval times, lost its landmark Medici Tower, recalling its history as a stronghold of the powerful Florentine family, which owned the surrounding countryside for 200 years.

In Pratola Peligna, the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Freedom, has been ordered closed just weeks before an annual pilgrimage to the site on the first weekend of May.

The earthquake's destructive path reached as far as Rome, causing damage to the sprawling third-century Baths of Caracalla.

The red-brick ruins, which cover some 11 hectares (27 acres) at the foot of Rome's Aventine Hill, are the frequent site of opera productions and open-air concerts in the summer.

During Emperor Caracalla's era, the facilities could accommodate more than 1,600 people and included gymnasiums, libraries and gardens.

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Rescue workers in Italy running on adrenaline
L'Aquila, Italy (AFP) April 7, 2009
Rescue workers of all stripes who have descended on the central Italian city of L'Aquila have every right to be exhausted nearly 48 hours since the killer earthquake here.

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