Norcia's Basilica of San Benedetto among historic sites destroyed by latest Italian earthquake

Fourth tremor in three months brings central Italy 'to its knees'

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A violent 6.6-magnitude earthquake struck central Italy between the Umbria and Marche regions, near the towns of Norcia, Preci and Castelsantangelo sul Nera, on the morning of 30 October. The earthquake, the most powerful to hit the country since 1980, has brought devastation to areas that were already damaged by the 6.2-magnitude earthquake of 24 August, which killed almost 300 people. No further deaths have been reported in the recent wave of seismic activity. The latest disaster follows a pair of tremors (5.4- and 5.9-magnitude) in quick succession on 26 October.

As the culture ministry prohibits officials from entering vulnerable buildings in case of aftershocks, the fire brigade is again at the front line of efforts to protect and secure churches and heritage sites. (In 1997, four people died while inspecting the damaged Basilica of St Francis in Assisi in the aftershocks following two major earthquakes.) In Norcia, specialist staff trained in mountain climbing used a crane with a 40m-long arm to detach the pinnacles and cross from the Basilica of San Benedetto, which was almost completely destroyed. The 14th-century basilica was built over the ancient Roman birthplace of the twin saints, Benedict and Scholastica. Its international community of Benedictine monks welcomed around 50,000 pilgrims a year.

“It was an urgent but non-invasive intervention, co-ordinated with the culture ministry,” the engineer Domenico De Vita, who leads the town’s special unit, tells our sister publication Il Giornale dell'Arte. “Some of the architectural elements were in a dangerous position and could have fallen on the piazza, making it a risk to the population.” The cathedral of Santa Maria Argentea in Norcia also collapsed after withstanding the August quake.

In Amatrice, which bore the brunt of the August earthquake, the already cracked civic tower and church of Sant’Agostino have fallen. Paintings and sculptures from the church were evacuated in September and are now among the more than 1,200 displaced works of art stored in a former garage of the environmental police in Cittaducale in Lazio. In Spoleto, the Gothic church of San Domenico and the Baroque church of San Filippo Neri have suffered minor damage, while part of the bell tower of the church of Porta Cartara in Ascoli Piceno has collapsed. The impact was also felt in Rome, where chunks of plaster fell from the nave of the church of San Lorenzo and cracks appeared in the basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls.

The past week has dealt a blow not only to local residents but to the Italian culture ministry’s ongoing campaign to maintain the monuments affected by the August earthquake. “We are on our knees. The earthquake [of 30 October] was longer than the others and has frustrated everything we were preserving,” says Marica Mercalli, the culture superintendent for Umbria. Some commentators have criticised the government’s response to the summer disaster as inadequate. Mercalli says: “I think the polemics are unfair. For two months we haven’t stopped, the forces of order and fire fighters are exceptional.”

UPDATE: This article was updated on 31 October to include more information about the basilica.