Italian town's art heritage devastated by quake

Reuters, Tuesday 22 May 2012

Residents of the small Italian town may have all survived, but the strong earthquake that shook San Felice sul Panaro to its foundations early on Sunday reduced its artistic and architectural riches to rubble and dust

A view is seen of Delle Rocche castle, damaged after an earthquake in Finale Emilia May 20, 2012. Photo: Reuters)

San Felice's three main churches were in ruins and the town's trademark Castle, La Rocca, was standing but wounded, perhaps fatally, by the 6.0 magnitude quake.

"It's indescribable. There's a lot of pain. La Rocca was our pride and joy," resident Manuela Monelli said as she cast a mournful eye over what was left of the castle.

"And to think that we had been told that this was not a seismic area," she said.

The damage done to Italy's artistic heritage was the greatest since a 1997 earthquake hit the central Umbria region and parts of the ceiling of the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi collapsed.

Started in 1332 by the Este family and enlarged in the following century, La Rocca housed a museum and was the town's main tourist draw.

Only one of the castle's four towers was left standing and a wide V-shaped crack in its brickwork suggested it too might fall, particularly as aftershocks continued, two of them as strong as magnitude 5.1.

"If it doesn't come down by itself they'll have to pull it down," Monelli said.

"It is the symbol of our town," said mayor Alberto Silvestri. "We have practically lost all our artistic heritage. Churches and towers collapsed. The theatre is still standing but has cracks."

One church in San Felice, known as the Church of the Archpriest, practically imploded and is now only half its previous height.

"We are thankful there were no casualties," said Simone Silvestri, a city council member, looking at the church surrounded by a sea of rubble.

Among the art works in the church, and presumably destroyed or severely damaged, was a triptych painted on wood by 16th century artist Bernardino Loschi depicting the Madonna, St Geminiano and St Felice.

Paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries used to adorn the sacristy.

In the nearby town of Finale Emilia, a section of San Carlo church collapsed. It contained a painting by 17th century artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, who was known as Il Guercino.

Despite the damage to religious art in churches in Sunday's quake, there was a sigh of relief throughout the area that it did not strike hours later, when the places of worship would have been full.

"Our school children were to receive their first communion here this morning," said a priest in the nearby city of Mirandola, where the roof of the cathedral collapsed.

"If it had happened then, it would have been a disaster."

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