The medieval gem reduced to ruins

The city struggling to come to terms with the massive destruction of its ancient fabric was founded in 1254 by order of Corrado IV, the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. The importance to the city of the emperor's patronage is clear: L'Aquila means "The Eagle", a reference to the emperor's coat of arms.

The emperor had accepted the petitions of local people who wanted a city to protect them from the depredation of local barons, and was formed by bringing together "99 villages", or so the legend claims. As such it was the first and only planned city of medieval Italy. In the eighteenth century, the town's resistance to French occupation led to the town being sacked – but it rose to prominence again a hundred years later, as Italy's unification made it the regional capital. Just 60 miles north-east of Rome, it nestles between four peaks in the Apennine range, in the Aterno-Pescara valley.

Until yesterday much of the ancient core of this city of some 70,000 people remained intact, despite the earthquakes that have repeatedly left their mark over the centuries. But how much will survive the latest one remains to be seen. Several of the city's most important historic buildings were hit by yesterday's quake, including part of the nave of the city's most popular landmark, the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, a 10-minute walk from the Piazza del Duomo at the city centre. The church hosted the coronation of Pope Celestine V in 1294 and with its distinctive pink and white façade combining Romanesque and Gothic features attracts thousands of pilgrims every year.

Three other historic churches in the city were damaged, including the belltower of the church of San Bernadino, which dates back to the Renaissance. And the town's cathedral, severely damaged in yesterday's catastrophe, was rebuilt after a earthquake in 1703. But this is only the most obvious damage. Yesterday Mayor Massimo Cialente spoke of a "tragedy" that had befallen the city: it was "devastated," he said, "even the recently-built houses have not been spared, it will take time to inspect all the buildings. Practically the whole city is inaccessible."

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