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.

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