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Saving Italy's earthquake art

By Margaret Stenhouse.

Italy is working to salvage its cultural heritage after recent devastating earthquakes.

The doors of the vast hanger adjoining the Italian state forestry corps barracks at Cittaducale in northern Lazio swing open to reveal rows of steel tube shelving, reaching from floor to ceiling. They contain, to date, 2,855 paintings, statues, antiquities, altar pieces, embroidered copes, chalices, bells, relics, ex-votos and other objects recovered from the churches and museums of Lazio that were devastated in the recent  earthquakes.

“We estimate that there are another 600 works of art still buried under rubble, in Lazio alone,” said prefect Fabio Carapezza Guttuso, head of the emergency task force operating in the earthquake zone. “In the four regions that have suffered damage, a total of 16,111 art works have been recovered so far, as well as thousands of antique books and archive material.” 

Churches and shrines

The contents of 92 Lazio churches and shrines are gathered in Cittaducale, inanimate patients passively awaiting treatment.

“We classify them according to the extent of damage they have suffered. The set-up is a bit like a hospital. The difference is that the ’patients’ that arrive first need the least attention, because their salvage has been easy and they haven't suffered much harm. The badly damaged frescoes and sculptures that were buried under stones and rubble arrive last and need the most care,” he went on.

A Madonna and Child await restoration at Cittaducale in northern Lazio.


However, rather than a hospital, the storehouse seems more like a church with its high ceiling and long naves lined with shelves, where rows upon rows of plaster and wooden saints and Madonnas gaze out from their sheets of protective wrappings with sorrowful, painted eyes.

Each item is scrupulously labelled with its description and place of provenance.  “Every single piece is catalogued,” says Guttuso. “Years ago, in an emergency like this you would have many eager volunteers coming to help recover works of art, but no-one bothered to note where they had come from, so it was often impossible to place them afterwards. Now we aim to return them to the sites where they belong.

“A lot of the works are by local artists,” he continued. “Their value is not so much material or artistic, but in what they mean to their local community.”

Sense of identity

The restorers from the Italian ministry of culture involved in the operation all understand the profound sense of identity and belonging that these objects evoke in the inhabitants of villages and hamlets wiped out by the series of earth tremors that tore areas of central Italy apart between 24 August 2016 and the following January.

Cristina Collatini, in charge of the stockage operation, recounted how villagers, who had lost everything, begged rescue workers “not to take their treasures away to a museum, but to promise to return them once they had been repaired.”

Cristina Collatini is in charge of storage operations at Cittaducale.

Italy's recovery squad took the plea seriously. Ensuring that none of the articles saved actually left the territory was one of the reasons that influenced the choice of storage deposits, all located in close proximity to the earthquake zone. The Cittaducale unit, in fact, is only one of the five collection points in the regions involved, with the others at Spoleto (for Umbria), Celano (for Abruzzo) and two at Ancona and Ascoli Piceno (Marche).

The extent of the devastation, coupled with the difficulties inherent in the mountainous terrain of north-east Lazio, populated with numerous scattered little communities, posed enormous problems. In addition to towns like Amatrice and Norcia, many villages and hamlets were almost totally wiped out. Considered to be the worst earthquake since Messina in 1908, which claimed some 250,000 victims, life loss this time was mercifully small. Of the total 299 victims, 237 were from Amatrice alone and this comparatively high number was due to ill luck. The resident population was swelled with visitors for the annual festa.

Blue Helmets for Culture

Priority was given, of course, to saving lives. But as soon as possible Italy's special Caschi Blu per la Cultura (Blue Helmets for Culture) corps was on the scene, salvaging as much as possible of the area's cultural heritage from the ruins. Many of the feats they achieved verged on the miraculous. Last November, television viewers watched with bated breath as firemen winched the colossal Incoronation of the Virgin by Jacopo Siculo from the ruins of the church of St Francis in Norcia. The altar piece had remained attached to the one wall left standing when the building crumbled. The entire operation took two days of preparation.

The altar piece was removed from the ruins of the church in Norcia.

“In an emergency, if a tower or a wall is hindering rescue operations, it gets knocked down. But this time we were able to coordinate with the army and the fire brigade to avoid unnecessary destruction,” commented Carapezza Guttuso. 

The Blue Helmets task force, which also operates under the aegis of UNESCO, is made up of a select group of carabinieri and experts from the Italian culture ministry including restorers, art historians, architects and archaeologists. Established in February 2016, the unit cut its teeth among the ravaged monuments of Palmyra in Syria, little realising how soon its special skills would be needed at home.

The area to the right of the entrance at the Cittaducale depot is occupied by a collection of church bells of all sizes, many of them still attached to their headstock.

“Even if a bell tower is still standing after an earthquake, it wouldn't be able to support the weight of bells in its weakened condition. So we take them down till the towers can be rebuilt or reinforced,” explained Collatini. “But we know that the ringing of bells has always been an important part of the life of the community, so this Easter we set up little bell towers made of steel tubes as temporary substitutes.”

The opposite side of the depot is dominated by a large photographic reproduction of the Passatore icon altar piece from the sanctuary of St Mary of Grace, a 15th-century shrine on the ancient shepherds' transhumance route near Amatrice. Restorer Federica Di Napoli Rampolla points out the areas where the frescoes have been damaged. Nearby, Silvia Borghini is sorting out a box of rubble collected at the foot of the altar, setting the painted fragments aside. Later, they will be reset in their former position, recomposing the original fresco as nearly as possible to how it was before. Borghini was one of the 80 restorers who pieced together the jigsaw pieces of the vault in the basilica of St Francis of Assisi, which collapsed in the 1997 earthquake.

The Cittaducale depot contains a horde of bells rescued from church towers.

“Sometimes you have to work with the back of the fragments, rather than the front,” explained Federica Di Napoli Rampolla. “Often it's easier to fit the pieces together that way, because chips of colour often flake off. School children are very good at that. They have a quicker eye for shapes. Unfortunately, we can't use them here.”

Photographic archives help restorers' task. Some 20 years ago, Italy's heritage defence police, a special branch of the carabinieri, began documenting and cataloguing the country's immense artistic patrimony in order to clamp down on art smuggling and illegal sales. This work continues, with the result that now over five million works of art from all parts of the country are listed and described in detail. 

Italy is the acknowledged world leader in the restoration field. Restorers follow the principles laid down by 20th-century art historian Cesare Brandi in his landmark treatise Teoria di Restauro, translated and studied all over the world. Brandi introduced the concept of using the combined skills of many experts, such as archaeologists, chemists, physicists, architects and manuscript and book pathologists.

Expertise is not lacking; the problem will be funding. Approximate time required for rebuilding is set (optimistically) at ten years and the estimated costs are astronomical. 

The cash-strapped Italian government is at present bearing the brunt of construction work but a new EU proposal could mean that Brussels will meet 95 per cent of reconstruction costs – instead of the present 50 per cent – for natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods in some regions. But other sources of funding will also be needed to cover many restoration costs. 

Restorers hope that the Art Bonus concession, introduced by Italian minister of culture Dario Francheschini, which gives private sponsors a 65 per cent tax rebate, will incentivise donors interested in preserving a unique historic landscape and giving communities back their spiritual and artistic soul.

This article was published in the July 2017 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.
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