In Italy, That All-Too-Familiar Scourge

God purified Amatrice with a tremendous and rigorous punishment for its lascivious behaviour and enormous sins.”

quakeSo the little Apennines borgo all fell down. But that was on October 7, 1639, when God had not yet explained tectonic plates to the Italians, and the mountain slopes were the safest places from warring neighbours and the mal aria in the swampy valley below.

Four hundred years ago there was an excuse for building houses, churches and public buildings that could not withstand the regular shocks that convulsed the Apennine chain. They were thrown up with what we would call ‘rubble’ walls – rocks gathered from the fields and mountainside and stuck together with a simple lime mortar. Expensive tinted plaster was applied only to important buildings, but this façade hid the same internal weakness.

When a terremoto strikes, the shock wave runs through the walls, but there is nothing to hold them together. First, they buckle, then bow  outwards. The roof beams – traditionally stout oak logs – rest on the walls but are not tied to them, so the whole roof, with its considerable weight of terra-cotta tiles, falls in. Many of the churches were built the same way, but with thicker walls to support the belltower. Because of its lighter construction, and the weight of its bells, the campanile was the most vulnerable part, and usually the first to fall.

A friend has just sent me this photo from the picturesque Umbrian town of Castelluccio which shows what happened to such a house this week, while in the background, others properly reinforced were intact:

Today there is no excuse for much of the damage that’s being suffered in villages and towns like Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata, Pescara del Tronto. For years, local councils have been negligent in applying the laws requiring strengthening of old  structures. The result has been needless loss of life – 159 at last count in this latest disaster. Most would have died in their sleep.

I knew what their chances were. On September 26, 1997, we were woken at 2.33am when someone picked up the bed, shook it violently, then plonked it down again. That was the first we knew of the earthquake that convulsed part of Umbria, again in the Apennine spine. It was the foreshock, at 5.7 on the Richter scale.

Our house, on the outskirts of Paciano was only 25 kilometres (as the shock wave travels) from Colfiorito the epicentre in the hills, but we were safe. When we restored the 200-year old farmhouse, we knew its metre-thick walls were at risk. So our builders had stripped off the entire roof and laid a reinforced concrete beam (cordolo) around the top of the walls.

The real test came later that morning. I was at my desk writing a report when the main shock struck at 11.40am, 6.1 Richter.

My chair rose under me as a surge came through from the back of the house. To my left, the wall, with its decorations of New Guinea masks and artefacts, seemingly turned to jelly.  I tried to call out to my wife, but found myself transfixed by the sight of the wall rippling past, until it reached the hall doorway, when it  stopped and composed itself back into solidity.

But the wave that had lifted the chair was still running. Over the top of the desk I saw the solid Impruneta tiles heave, move, then settle as the wavelet rippled across the floor away from me, into the next room, under the bed, and out through the front wall. The mirror on the wall above the dressing table shook a little, then everything was still.

There was no damage, not a crack. But not so far from us, at Assisi, the 700-year-old belltower of the Cathedral of St Francis came down. Then part of the frescoed ceiling in the upper basilica fell in, just as a team was inspecting the church for damage. Twenty-six men ran out as the first chips broke away, the ceiling fell on the last four, including two Franciscan monks.


Only eleven people died in that earthquake, but the disruption was enormous. 43,000 people were displaced from homes destroyed or too dangerous to occupy. The government trucked in 3,800 caravans and 3,200 tents for temporary shelter, and put up more than 1,000 people in railway wagons. But the first task was to feed the people – 3,000 kgs of pasta a day.

Later, thousands of containers were assembled in three camps, each a complete home for four or five people.

At Assisi, all the pieces of the ceiling from the upper basilica were carefully collected and laid out on tables on the lawns outside the basilica. A computer progamme was developed to identify the place of each piece in the frescoe;  the ceiling was restored and the church re-opened in November, 1999.

The cost has been estimated at US$50 million. When we left Italy in 2000, some of the victims of the earthquake were still living in the containers.

It is going to be a long wait too for the thousand-odd  citizens of Amatrice. The civic clock tower still stands, its clock stopped at 3.36. The 1428 Gothic doorway of the church of Sant’Agostino seems intact, but the beautiful rose window above it is no more. On the other side of the main street, almost everything has gone.

Hundreds of after-shocks, from minor tremors of up to 5 on the Richter scale are still raking the Apennines. Whatever happens, Amatrice will never be the same picturesque hillside town, settled since Etruscan times, sacked by the Spanish, and famous for its pasta sauce Amatriciana.

Its epitaph is already being written on websites:

Uno dei Borghi più Belli d’Italia. Quello che abbiamo perso.





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