A sobering day trip today to L’Aquila, the city in Abruzzi that was devastated by an earthquake in 2009. The 6.3 quake killed over 300 residents and damaged thousands of buildings, devastating the largely medieval center. Today, the center is still almost entirely empty, its buildings scaffolded and reconstruction crawling along, beset by rampant corruption and the influence of organized crime.
We were fortunate to see first hand the renovation efforts on the Forte Spagnolo, a 16th century structure that suffered significant damage. Those efforts are heartfelt but clearly not making much headway–the damaged parts have been stabilized and much of the rubble cleared away, but nothing substantial has been done other than a few tension rods that now hold up a precariously-tilting cortile. Like much of the rest of the city, the forte stands under the shadow of a large tower crane that stood suspiciously idle.
It’s hard to see a good outcome here. Much of the city has returned to normal, but the center, the heart of the place, is still largely walled off and patrolled by military police. There’s evidence of some renovation work in commercial structures, but for the most part the city’s traditional tourist center is still a ruin, as are its churches. The stifling influence of corruption is evident in the dozens of rented tower cranes and scaffolds, and in the explanation for the extraordinary death toll, which is widely blamed on shoddy construction, especially in a university dormitory where many of the fatalities occurred. (For comparison, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake occurred in a far more populous region, was magnitude 6.9–or about eight times stronger than L’Aquila, and it killed only 63).
It was a rare opportunity to see buildings from various eras laid open, with their construction clearly visible–a bit like an anatomy lab. The forte renovation was particularly telling, as the sixteenth century masonry survived far better than the nineteenth century addition, which was clearly built of hollow tile terra cotta. You can see the rubble stonework and the thick plastering that went into the walls of the upper, residential area of the fort there.
We ended the day with a visit to a small, largely abandoned hill town nearby called Santo Stefano di Sessanio. With a population of just over 100, the town has been sort of happily cannibalized by the tourism industry–there’s a hotel dispersed throughout the village that rents out refurbished medieval houses for a hefty price. The town is a local center for the Slow Food movement, and lunch consisted of three full courses of local pasta and salumi. The abandonment of these gorgeous but remote villages is a growing concern in the region, and the takeover by tourism is understandably controversial. Like L’Aquila, there’s no perfect answer here–from a preservation standpoint it’s good to see some sort of profitable use they can serve, since that at least ensures continual maintenance and upkeep. But the town is also no longer a working town. The medieval fabric remains, and it’s probably more pristine than it ever was to begin with, but the life of the place has been entirely replaced, and that’s an equally sobering prospect.
As with so many other things in this country, a day of beautiful things and complex explanations…