San Severino Marche, Italy, sees the return of artworks damaged in the 2016 earthquakes.

In the fall of 2016, between August and October, three large earthquakes and many smaller ones wrecked central Italy. Over 300 people were killed, and homes, churches, and museums were extensively damaged. In the Archdiocese of Camerino and San Severino Marche, in the Le Marche region of Italy, 1970 works of art were damaged, many of them seriously. In nearby Umbria, where many churches and basilicas were outright destroyed, thousands more.

Italy was, against all odds, prepared for precisely this kind of destruction After a 1997 quake in Umbria damaged the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, home to a wealth of late medieval frescoes, the government of the region decided to prepare for the inevitability that it would happen again. By 2006, an “earthquake-proof art hospital” had been built outside the town of Spoleto. The building is made to receive and restore damaged art, and to protect art in case of disaster, with flexible architecture and sectors sealed against dust or smoke.

The chunks of quake-destroyed fragments were taken there, sorted and tagged, and reassembled like giant jigsaw puzzles, with the help of photos from before the damage if they existed.

“It is very important to see the overall picture and that includes regular maintenance,” said art historian Giovanni Luca Delogu, 55, the Spoleto facility’s director.

“You can’t just intervene when there are tragedies like earthquakes. Some pieces already were in bad condition. Art needs constant care,” he said, walking amid hundreds of chunks of the shattered Church of San Salvatore in Campi, parts of which dated back to the 12th century.

Back in San Severino Marche, the restored artworks have been brought home to a new museum, the Museum of Recovered Art. At the opening, the guests of honor were the firemen who risked their lives and health to rescue the damaged works, attending in the gear they wore during those long hard weeks.

Photo: claudio zaccherini / Shutterstock