Quake damaged host of medieval masterpieces

Restoring L'Aquila could cost hundreds of millions of euros, says the expert inspecting its shattered historic buildings
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The Independent Online

Kitted out in a navy blue suit and yellow hard hat, Maurizio Galletti struck an incongruous figure. As he walked around the flattened medieval city of L'Aquila, his focus was not on the victims still buried under the rubble but on the cultural treasures which were battered by this week's earthquake.

Mr Galletti is the assessore alla cultura , the culture tsar for the Abruzzo region, and yesterday he made a first tour of inspection of the damage to the numerous churches, and period public buildings . The Italian government has promised €30m (£27m) in emergency funds for the city and its stricken residents, but Mr Galletti believes hundreds of millions of euros will be needed to repair the damage to this city's architectural heritage alone.

"Take that building," he said, indicating the 19th century post office in the central piazza, Piazza del Duomo. It was still standing but the facade was missing large sections of yellow plaster. "I expect restoring that building alone would cost at least €5m."

Mr Galletti was accompanied on his tour by experts from his own department and from the Ministry of Culture in Rome. But with the a 5.6 magnitude aftershock toppling parts of the main basilica and the station on Tuesday night and aftershocks continuing into the day yesterday, the inspection team was proceeding with caution.

"It's impossible to make a real assessment of the damage," Mr Galletti said, "because so far we have only been able to inspect the buildings from outside."

Some of the important buildings are clearly beyond repair, the most striking being the regional seat of government, built in the late 19th century, which has been reduced from two storeys to one. Its sign Palazzo del Governo teeters on Corinthian columns at the front and has become a symbol of the disaster for many, not least for what it says of the failure down the ages of Italian authorities to invest adequately in public buildings of all sorts, even those that are most important. "Look at the quality of the stone," Mr Galletti remarked scornfully, pointing to the granola-like rubble heaped on the damaged pediment. "There are so many factors that can cause one building to remain standing while another collapses: poor building materials, good or bad workmanship, and also the quality of any restoration undertaken over the centuries."

But there are some reasons for hope. Another 19th century building on the piazza should, according to Mr Galletti, be structurally sound even though slabs of cement have fallen from its sides. "That's because when they restored it recently they employed re-inforced concrete columns that discharge the shock of the earthquake into the ground," he explained.

One conundrum in the central piazza is the Baroque church of Santa Maria del Suffraggio all'Aquila, built after an earthquake nearly wiped the town off the map in 1703. The dome of the church was shattered by Monday's tremor, its roof destroyed and parts of the walls torn off, exposing the interior. Aftershocks have made the damage worse and another strong tremor could demolish it completely.

Yet the same church's monumental Baroque facade, complete with life-size statues of saints in niches, appears to be completely undamaged. "What has helped the facade to survive," Mr Galletti said, "is that it is curved in three dimensions, it's not perpendicular and flat, so the quake's energy is discharged across its surface more easily. But we can't yet tell how firmly it remains attached to the nave."

Although a native of Abruzzo who has spent his working life in this city, Mr Galletti surveyed the damage yesterday with a detached, analytic eye and took the long view. "We have to ask why it is that so many buildings from ancient Rome survive to the present day while many built in recent decades do not survive an earthquake like this one," he said. "

L'Aquila does not possess world famous architectural masterpieces to rank alongside those of Florence or Rome, but its years of trading prosperity between the 14th and 16th centuries gave it a rich and distinctive centre, much of which is now on its knees.

Among the most important buildings damaged are the Basilica di San Bernardo di Siena, which lost its belltower; the recently repaired Church of Blessed Souls, whose cupola caved in; and the baroque church of St Augustine whose dome also crumpled.

The city's most celebrated church did not escape unscathed, with part of its nave collapsing. The late-13th century Santa Maria di Collemaggio, with its exquisite pink and white facade, played host to the coronation of Pope Celestine V in 1294 and attracts thousands of pilgrims every year.

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has turned down offers of immediate humanitarian assistance for the victims of the quake, which has killed at least 272 people and left about 28,000 homeless. But he said he had discussed a plan with several world leaders for their governments to pay for the restoration of an individual church or cultural treasure.

"The site could then be renamed after the nation that helped restore it, for example 'The American Church'," Mr Berlusconi said. The Italian media yesterday reported that the US President, Barack Obama, had told Mr Berlusconi it was "an excellent idea".

"I believe we will talk about it when I go to Washington," Mr Berlusconi was quoted as saying.

Whoever pays the bills, L'Aquila will rise from its ashes, as it has so often before. Mr Galletti hopes that this time, the restoration work "will be undertaken not merely to restore the appearance of the buildings, but to ensure they are capable of surviving another earthquake in better shape".

Berlusconi's advice: Pretend you're camping

Visiting the quake-stricken zone for the third day in a row, Silvio Berlusconi offered some characteristically breezy (some might say clumsy) advice to the survivors huddled in tents, saying they should pretend they were camping.

"[The survivors] have everything they need, they have medical care, hot food," he told a German reporter. "Of course the current lodgings are a bit temporary but they should see it like a weekend of camping."

The Prime Minister had previously told the newly homeless citizens of L'Aquila to head to the seaside, saying hotels on the coast were being readied to accommodate them.

Shrugging off criticism of his remarks, Mr Berlusconi said that he did not want "an atmosphere of pessimism, negativity, disease and death" to prevail.

"I think children could use a little bit of optimism and playfulness," he said. "I don't think it's out of place."

But some of the quake's survivors failed to enter into the spirit of the Prime Minister's invitation. Lino, 84, was hauling all his earthly possessions in broken bags from his damaged flat to a car before setting off to stay with relatives. "This earthquake was worse than the air raids in the war," he said. "Go to the seaside? We're really not in the mood for that."