When I first visited L’Aquila in 2004, I wandered through the city looking at churches. Though many of them had medieval origins, almost all were now decorated in Baroque style, heavy on the cherubs and gilded trims. Some thoughtful person or committee (and I thank you, whoever you are) had undertaken a signage project in L’Aquila, and almost every church had a sign—sometimes even in English—outlining the history of the church.
The reason for the almost universal Baroque décor became clear as we read, for the third, then fourth, and fifth time, that “after the terrible earthquake of 1703, the church was rebuilt…” during the following ten or twenty years.
Naturally enough, those churches were rebuilt in the style current in 1703, and not their original style. Aggravating as it was to my medieval mind, nearly every church in town had been remade Baroque.
The city of L’Aquila was founded by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, and completed in 1254 by his son. I knew many of those churches had medieval origins, and my main reason for visiting was to see the monastery church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. (You can see its beautiful pink and white façade in the banner photo above.)
Fortunately, Collemaggio was not destroyed in 1703, and its Romanesque layered arches and portals welcomed me as I explored it. I paid my respects to Pope Celestine V, one of the subjects of my research for several years, whose body lies in a glass case there. He is also known as Saint Peter Celestine, or Peter of Morrone, and he founded the church in the 1270s and was crowned pope there in 1294. I did notice that part of the interior of Collemaggio had a Baroque style, and wondered if that was a result of earthquake damage.
The 1703 “terremoto” is reputed to have killed 5,000 to 10,000 people and destroyed nearly every building in L’Aquila. In a terrible case of déjà vu, in April of 2009 the mountains under L’Aquila shook the city to rubble again. More than 300 people died, around 1,500 were injured, and 65,000 became homeless due to the destruction.
Once again, most of Santa Maria di Collemaggio survived. If you search on Google Earth for “Santa Maria di Collemaggio” you’ll see a village of blue emergency tents erected on the wide lawn in front of the church’s pink and white façade. The dome collapsed, but the rest of the church and monastery stood the test. The remarkably clear satellite photos used by Google Earth for L’Aquila were taken just a few weeks after the earthquake, so you can see other collapsed roofs as you scan around the city. The most telling series of photos I have seen (warning: some graphic content) of the 2009 earthquake damage is at this website: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/04/the_laquila_earthquake.html The photo above comes from this collection.
In a December 2010 article in The Free Press (Rockland, Maine) columnist Chuck Marecic describes the downtown area of L’Aquila: “On a recent walk through the city, I saw temporary wooden braces reinforcing the windows, doors, and walls of nearly every building. The town’s Duomo (cathedral) looks fine from the outside, but the inside has collapsed. Chain- link fences separate much of the city from its inhabitants. Here and there reconstruction projects are evident. However, for the most part the city stands mute and abandoned except for the teams of firefighters who continue to inspect the “red zone” to ensure public safety and the scores of visitors who have come to bear witness to the devastation.”
I cried when I read about L’Aquila, and I’m not sure I’d want to join the ‘disaster tourism’ there, though it may provide some financial stimulus to the community. The city’s past fascinates me, but the future is very cloudy.