L'Aquila comes back to life after quake

L'Aquila Rinasce

 L'AQUILA -- Nine years have gone by since the violent earthquake that razed much of the capital of the Abruzzo region to the ground. After the initial flurry of activity on the part of the Italian government and the world press, a tomb-like silence seemed to fall on the city, doomed, it appeared, to languish among the ruins of its once proud and monumental historic centre. Recovery was held up by endless obstacles, debates, bureaucratic difficulties and the sheer staggering complexity of the work that needed to be done. The local authorities, however, were decided on one thing - that the historic centre of L'Aquila should be returned to its old form, exactly as it was before the disaster.

 During the initial years after the quake, clearing away rubble, reinforcing sagging walls, salvaging art treasures and cataloguing the extent of the damage went quietly and slowly by - too slowly for the impatient and protesting citizens anxious to return to their damaged homes. However, during the past three years the rebuilding programme has taken on new impetus and the first concrete results of an ambitious reconstruction and preservation drive are beginning to emerge.

 "L'Aquila is a great historic city with a large number of buildings that are architectural masterpieces dating from various eras. These cannot be lost. They represent our heritage," explains architect Lucio Zarrara, a specialist in the recovery of historic buildings who has been closely involved in the recovery process.

 The decision to rebuild L'Aquila as it was before the disaster was never seriously questioned, despite the enormous difficulties involved and the first important example of this policy has been the restoration of the Abruzzo Regional Government Chambers, known as "the Hemicycle", due to its sweeping half-moon neo-classical pillared porch. The building, completely renovated and equipped with a revolutionary anti-seismic system, was inaugurated on the 22nd June, two and a half years since the restoration work began in November 2015, and is seen as the symbol of the city's phoenix-like rise from the ashes.

 The Hemicycle building was originally a medieval church and monastery that had been put to various uses over the past two centuries. It was the venue of the Regional Expo in 1888, when the grandiose portico was added, and later a school during the Fascist era. It became the seat of the regional government in 1984. The whole building had been very badly damaged during  the 2009 earthquake, in which 309 people were killed and the heart of the city was practically wiped out.

 "It was decided right from the beginning to protect the Hemicycle permanently for the future," Abruzzo Regional Governor Giuseppe Di Pancrazio explained. "A radical new approach was needed that involved not simply reinforcing the structure but rather reducing all movement by isolating the building from the ground."

 Inside, a window in the wall of the stairway leading down into the ground floor and library allows a peek into the foundations where the building now "floats" on sixty-one elastomeric devices flanked by forty-seven sliding multidirectional supports able to withstand even severe earth tremors.

 "Although this technique has been experimented in other countries like the USA and New Zealand, this is the first time it has been installed in a historic building."

 Its effectiveness was soon tried out. In 2016 when the 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit central Italy, flattening historic towns in Abruzzo, Lazio, Umbria and Marche, the Hemicycle was not affected.

 "The workmen who were on the site at the time were not even aware of what had happened," assured Zazzara.

 The €8.8 billion state-of-the-art project included redesigning the interior layout. The entrance hall, which was the nave of the former church, has been opened up to create a wide open space. The facing wall is taken up with a huge stained glass window in glowing rainbow colours, symbolizing Day and Night, by contemporary Abruzzo artist Franco Summa. The adjacent cloister, which had been a closed conference hall, has become a luminous winter garden leading into the new public library, while a new conference hall has been carved out under the portico area. The entire area is also an art gallery containing works by artists like Ceroli, Palizzi and Cascella.

 The adjacent monumental building, known as the ex GIL (built originally to house the Fascist Youth movement) has also been equipped with a similar seismic isolation system. This is now the seat of the Presidency and offices of the prestigious Gran Sasso Science Institute (GSSI).

 The Institute was founded in 2012 as a research off-shoot of the National Laboratory of Nuclear Physics situated in the heart of the nearby Gran Sasso mountain. However, by 2016 it had established itself as an independent School of Advanced Studies and L'Aquila's second university, attracting doctorate students from all over the world.

 The Institute is a key player in the L'Aquila renaissance. Mayor Pierluigi Biondi, elected just over a year ago, hopes that the students and the families who accompany them, will inject life into the - as yet - deserted city centre, stimulating the creation of new businesses and services.

 The Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, one of the symbols of L'Aquila, is a short walk down the road. The Basilica collapsed in the earthquake, leaving only the façade miraculously intact. Rebuilt within three years with financing from ENI, the Italian state energy giant, the church opened again last December to mark the 723rd anniversary of the abdication of Celestine V, Dante's Pope of the "Great Refusal", whose tomb is in the right aisle.

 ENI, with a contribution from the USA Embassy in Italy and the CARISPAC Foundation bank of L'Aquila, also financed the new layout of the Parco del Sole (Park of the Sun) that slopes down from the right side of the Basilica. The park, a favourite relaxation spot for the Aquilani, has a sweeping view over the surrounding valleys and hills. The new amphitheatre, designed by American land art sculptress Beverly Pepper, will provide a venue for outdoor shows and events. Pepper linked her Amphisculpture to the nearby Basilica by using the same pink stone of the Collemaggio façade. She also donated her two Narni Columns to be set up at the entrance to the park. The 6m-high columns, in corten steel, are part of her "Columns and Sentinels" collection, which includes the celebrated monolithic "Manhattan Sentinels" designed for the Federal Plaza in New York.

 Despite the progress made in the past few years, L'Aquila is still largely a building site with thousands of people re-housed outside the city waiting to return to their homes. The Hemicycle is the first public building to be re-consigned after the disaster. The city skyline bristles with cranes, the visible pointers of the hundred different construction works in progress, which include 340 buildings in the historic centre, many of which are of historic or architectural interest.

 The city authorities are aware that recovery has been slow, due to the difficulties involved. Italy as a country is unique in its wealth of antiquities, architectural and artistic treasures. At the same time, the geological configuration of its territory makes it particularly vulnerable to recurrent natural disasters.

 "Despite the constant state of emergency in which we are obliged to live, it has still not been possible to construct an administrative process that would allow rapid, guaranteed procedures with regard to prevention, planning and works," Zazzara laments.

 After exasperating bureaucratic delays, however, things do seem to be moving. The complex work on the Hemicycle was completed within three years.

 "Fortunately, we have been able to count on the fact that all the institutions involved in the reconstruction, like the regional and town councils, the Heritage Ministry, the Fire Department and the Civil Defence corps, pulled together and collaborated fully to get the job done."

 In Piazza Duomo, the main town square, the fountains trickle feebly. A solitary tourist leans over the basin to dip his hands in the water. Sheeting draped over the façade of the building at the far end of the piazza boldly proclaims: "L'Aquila Rinasce" (L'Aquila comes back to Life) - an announcement that no longer rings like a simple slogan, but a message of hope and expectation.



Piazza del Duomo featuring cranes
The Hemicycle Interior