Dynamite threat to Michelangelo's parish church

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Environmentalists have begun a campaign to save a church worked on by Michelangelo from ruin after the use of explosives on the underlying Tuscan hillside raised fears that the 1000-year-old building could collapse.

A large crack has already ripped through the marble pavement, ancient tombs, altar and baptismal font of the Romanesque Pieve della Cappella in Fabiana, near Lucca. The church nestles midway up the Altissimo hill, at the foot of which Michelangelo Buonarroti arrived in 1517 in search of the area's distinctive marble that he intended to use for the façade of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence.

Scientists in Tuscany believe that the widespread practice of blasting the area's sought-after marble from the caves honeycombing the earth underneath the chapel could spell disaster for the ancient building.

"The danger of collapse is real," Enrico Mazzucchi, the local mayor, told Corriere della Sera newspaper yesterday. "We started a restoration plan for the area and challenged the quarry that continues to operate under the Altissimo. As far as we are concerned, their concession expired on 31 December."

The firm, Cava Viti, however, contests this claim. A local administrative court is to decide on the long legal battle in March.

Fr Ermes Luppi, the church's parish priest, has applied for help to Tuscany's cultural heritage department, which earmarked €130,000 (£90,000) for the restoration of a loggia in the church, attributed to Michelangelo and damaged during the Second World War, and a rose window added by the artist to embellish the Romanesque structure. But until the row over the impact of underground marble extraction is resolved, the money cannot be spent for fear that the restored church will collapse.

"It's a cruel joke," Fr Luppi said, "everything is frozen until the settling stops. Otherwise there is the risk of restoring a church only for it to fall down, also wasting the money. Years of work have created a huge hole that threatens to devour everything - our church and the village. We have done everything we can to save what can be saved but there is no action, only promises."

Each summer, the hamlet attracts sculptors from Britain, Australia, the United States and Japan to attend summer schools, inspired by the local marble and the spirit of Michelangelo.

Some of the columns from the loggia have been stolen, but others are stored nearby at a warehouse "ready to be restored to give birth to a new masterpiece," the Corriere reported, "that is, if the explosives and neglect allow".

Mr Mazzucchi insists local authorities will win the struggle with the quarry operators. "This is one of the most beautiful areas of Versilia [which surrounds Lucca] and the chapel must be safeguarded. The council will fight this all the way," he said.