The hill town of Assisi was plunged into mourning yesterday as a series of earthquakes brought down part of the fresco-lined walls of the Basilica dedicated to St Francis. One of Italy's greatest artworks, Giotto's frescos of the life of the saint in the Upper Church of the Basilica, was severely damaged.
The tremors wreaked havoc all over the region's verdant hills and low mountains. Mountain villages on the border between Umbria and the Marches were left stranded and at least nine people were reported dead - most of them old people trapped under the debris of their homes.
Other art towns suffered structural damage, including serious cracks in churches in Foligno, Bevagna, Fabriano, Nocera Umbra and Urbino.
But the epicentre of the drama, if not of the earthquakes themselves, was Assisi, where the great Basilica began to shake just after 2.30am, along with the rest of central Italy, all the way down to Rome. Further, lighter tremors, were felt all night.
By yesterday morning a team of art restorers, technical experts and friars from the Franciscan missionary college at the back of the Basilica had gathered to inspect the damage.
At 11.43am, with around 20 people inside the Upper Church, the biggest quake of all - measuring around 6 on the Richter scale - struck quite unexpectedly and brought down the vaults bearing the Giotto frescos and a series of biblical scenes attributed to the Roman artist Pietro Cavallini.
About half the people in the church managed to escape from the debris. The rest were buried for several hours.
"If you ask me, the Giottos have gone," said Plinio Lepri, a photographer with the Associated Press, who escaped through a side door with a colleague as the Upper Church's walls came down.
"It was hard to assess the damage because of all the dust, but those vaults that collapsed were the ones where the Giottos were painted," he said.
However, some officials were less certain about the damage.
The rescue workers used small mechanical diggers to plough their way through the shattered masonry and move as much of it as possible on to the forecourt outside.
They wore masks to protect themselves from clouds of dust that could be seen for miles around.
The first two bodies to be found were friars from the missionary college. The other victims were technical experts brought in by the local authorities to look at the initial cracks discovered in the Giotto frescoes and in the transept paintings by Cimabue.
As each body was found, relatives waiting outside on the Basilica lawn were invited in to carry out a formal identification. Shouts of "it's him! it's him!" could be heard. The relatives slowly returned to the outside world weeping loudly.
Elsewhere in Assisi, some 70 per cent of the town's buildings were evacuated because of safety fears.
Rescue workers set up an emergency unit in the main square and began constructing a tent city in a sports ground on the edge of town.
Italy's Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, and his deputy, the Culture Minister Walter Veltroni, were heckled when they made a flying visit to the town yesterday afternoon to inspect the damage.
Some of the distraught relatives accused the ministers of negligence.
Earlier in the day, before the big quake struck, government officials had gone on radio and television to reassure the public that the worst was already over.
Assisi is perched halfway up Monte Subasio, overlooking a broad valley - the sort of tranquil, unassuming landscape that appealed to St Francis, but one that makes it vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes.
Although Umbria has been hit several times down the centuries - in some cases losing entire towns to the forces of nature - Assisi and its Basilica have remained largely intact since their foundation.
Work on the church was started in 1228, the year of Francis's canonisation, and constructed slowly over the next 300 years.
Giotto's fresco series, completed in 1295, is the most famous work of art, but there are plenty of other priceless works in both the Upper and the Lower Church attributed to Cimabue and Simone Martini, among others.
Although the Italian authorities were yesterday preoccupied with digging out survivors across the region from under the quake debris, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organisation (Unesco) quickly put in an offer to help salvage the damaged artworks.
The cultural agency is also collaborating to repair the other great Italian art loss this year, the chapel containing the Holy Shroud in Turin which caught fire in April, resulting in the destruction of its magnificent Baroque cupola.
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