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March 2017

Vol. 159 / No. 1368

The earthquake in Amatrice, Norcia and the Marche: a cultural emergency

Between 24th august and 30th October 2016 central Italy trembled: a sustained period of seismic activity, which at the time of writing has still not come to an end, struck the entire region around Monte Vettore standing on the borders of Umbria and the Marche. This is a remote part of Italy, far from the great cities and divided between four regional admininstrations: the Marche, Umbria, Lazio and Abruzzo. The tremors were the strongest recorded in this area for at least three hundred years. There has also been an exceptionally high death toll, with around three hundred people killed, almost all of them during that tragic August night when an earthquake hit the towns of Amatrice and Arquata del Tronto. The aftershocks, two on 26th October, and the strongest, on 30th October, miraculously did not claim any lives, because after an earthquake in 1997 in an area between Umbria and the Marche that ruined Cimabue’s frescos in S. Francesco, Assisi, building work had substantially improved the protection against seismic activity. Nevertheless, these tremors have destroyed entire landscapes, leaving behind an unparalleled scene of devastation.

If the most telling image from the quake in August was the historic centre of Amitrice razed to the ground, those of the October earthquakes are somewhat different: the Basilica of S. Benedetto in Norcia was completely destroyed, with just the façade left standing, propped up by a mound of rubble behind it; and only a few fragments remain of the miraculous little church of S. Salvatore in Campi di Norcia, its interior completely decorated with frescos dating from the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Many medieval churches of the Valnerina and the Appennines have been damaged, including S. Eutizio in Preci, the church of the Madonna Bianca in Ancarano and the parish church of S. Bartolomeo in Todiano, beneath the ruins of which is lying a Crucifix, a masterpiece by Benedetto da Maiano. The collegiate church of S. Ginesio, with its splendid Late Gothic façade, is at risk of collapse, as is the convent of S. Francesco in Matelica, with its extraordinary gallery of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century paintings, which together provide a virtually comprehensive account of the story of art in the Marche over those two centuries.

This area of Italy, the Valnerina, the Appennine Marches, the Teramo region of the Abruzzo and a segment of Lazio, has a distinguished cultural patrimony. There may be no large museums or nationally significant art galleries, but in most cases the works of art are still in the buildings for which they were conceived, whether churches, convents or tiny chapels in the mountains. This is the territory where St Benedict was born and, with him,  European monasticism; these are lands through which St Francis of Assisi travelled and which became the cradle of the Franciscan Order. 

The valleys of the Appennines are by no means impassable, and  the chain of the Sibylline Mountains, rising to around 2,500 metres, has never been a division, but rather a filter through which passed all the roads leading from the Adriatic to Rome. As such they were crucial for merchants trading in, among other commodities, works of art. In the fifteenth century first San Severino and then Camerino witnessed the flowering of extraordinarily advanced schools of painting; the first was in the vanguard of the Late Gothic style, while the second was under the spell of Piero della Francesca, Florentine rules of perspective, as well as Mantegna’s Paduan manner, naturally enough, given that painters from Camerino (like their mercantile counterparts) were long documented working in the Veneto. Their art can be seen in the region’s few museums, but more importantly in hundreds of churches in which could be studied not only fresco cycles, sculpture and altarpieces, but also the liturgical function of these works and their impact on those who worshipped before them: the territory is of the utmost importance for historical research.

Spoleto was the centre of a school that promoted the austere style of Assisi well beyond the mid-fourteenth century. This is reflected in those beautiful and sincere Passion scenes brought to the Marche by painters such as Pietro da Rimini, the author of the Cappellone of S. Nicola in Tolentino, while in the Gothic chapels of S. Agostino in Fabriano, the Master of S. Emiliano reflected the influence of both the Maestro Espressionista of S. Chiara in Assisi and Giuliano da Rimini. In the sixteenth century a highly individual Mannerist style developed in the Marche; its acid colours and fluid forms are most evident in the Basilica of the Santa Casa in Loreto. Macerata, capital of the province and the town most heavily hit by the earthquakes, has a sixteenth-century urban plan, probably based on Pellegrino Tibaldi’s designs, who was active in the Marche at the time that Carlo Borromeo passed through the territory.

All this is now endangered, part of it all but lost, because so many structures have been shattered. For example, the little castle of Caldarola stands heavily damaged and almost impossible to reach because the roads leading to it have been wrecked. Some two thousand churches and hundreds of museums and historic houses stand unusable and at risk, while an assessment of the damage to archaeological sites, libraries and archives is still being drawn up. The work to repair this damage will be both difficult and lengthy, and has sparked a debate as to whether cultural treasures should be removed from zones at seismic risk. 

The Ministero dei Beni Culturali in Rome appears to be struggling to understand the true extent of the dangers confronting the region. Some of the churches destroyed on 26th October had already been damaged in the quake of 24th August, but in the interim nothing had been done to secure them. The Ministry’s current proposal is to remove all works of cultural importance that can be salvaged from the seismic zone to two large stores, one in Spoleto for the region of Umbria and another in Ancona for the Marche. This plan is being strongly opposed by local mayors, who would prefer to construct suitable stores closer to the places for which the works of art were conceived, thereby defending the identity of the region and using its cultural heritage and rich history to entice tourists to return as quickly as possible. With this follows the hope of a new beginning and the rekindling of social and economic life as quickly as possible.