Fear stalks the feast day of St Francis as tremors continue

Nine days after being struck by earthquakes, central Italy is still counting the cost, reports Andrew Gumbel in Assisi

They Were praying to St Francis with particular fervour in Assisi yesterday. This year's feast day of the patron saint of animals, nature, Assisi and the Italian nation was celebrated in a mood of consternation and fear as the seismic tremors that have shaken central Italy for more than a week continued to wreak destruction on the picturesque hill-towns of the region.

Even the saint himself was homeless for the annual ceremony. The traditional offering of oil for the votive lamp that burns by his tomb was forced to move out of the Basilica of St Francis in the centre of Assisi, where four people were killed and priceless art treasures by Giotto and Cimabue damaged when the first earthquakes struck nine days ago. It was held instead on the forecourt of the late Baroque church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, tucked safely away in the valley below the town.

Around 1,000 worshippers - Franciscan friars, pilgrims, homeless families and the occasional curious tourist - attended, contemplating the symbolism of a makeshift altar beneath an emergency tent.

"Francis himself is sharing the fate of the homeless. Francis says: 'Courage! The Lord is with You!'," said Archbishop Dionigi Tettamanzi of Genoa, who presided over the extraordinary mass in transitu. It was his region, Liguria, that had the honour this year to bring the holy oil for the lamp- lighting ceremony.

As he spoke, the region was overcoming its latest shock - a violent tremor measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale that struck on Friday morning, shaking houses and medieval monuments and causing further structural damage to the Assisi basilica, this time to the tympanum above the main door of the Upper Church.

The continuing tremors - averaging as many as 100 a day, big and small - are spreading a kind of psychosis across the Umbrian region and instilling grave fears of worse damage to come. "Our morale is down to zero," said Sergio Fusetti, chief restorer at the Assisi basilica whose team is busy sifting through the rubble in search of broken shards of fresco. "Who knows when we'll be able to start work on the church. We're throwing up our hands and feeling absolutely helpless."

The entrance to the basilica has been barricaded off with wooden fencing to prevent accidents and theft of the recovered fresco pieces. Makeshift white tents and a long shed covered in corrugated iron are protecting the rubble being stored on the lawn outside. But nothing has been done to prop up the structure, because the continuing earthquakes make it impossible to assess the damage properly.

Assisi, in common with other towns, has been closed off to traffic, and several roads have been closed to pedestrians too because of dangerously unstable buildings. The fire brigade is constantly being called out to help people empty their houses of valuables following the sudden appearance of a crack or a pile of masonry dust.

The pretty medieval hill-town of Nocera Umbra, just a few miles from the epicentre of the tremors, has been evacuated entirely. A whole side of its beautiful bell-tower, visible for miles around, has crumbled and will probably have to be demolished.

Dotted across the surrounding hills are clusters of blue tents, standard issue from the interior ministry, where families with destroyed or dangerously precarious homes have been forced to gather. In Armenzano, in the hills between Assisi and Nocera, the population prepared a communal lunch table beneath the village trees and made a makeshift barbecue with firewood, shards of bark and several chops of local pork.

Emergency workers looked on approvingly, taking video footage of the proceedings in a welcome break from the grind of clearing rubble and cordoning off groups of houses.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power