I adore the Umbria guide published by Cadogan Guides. Adore. I have never met prolific travel writers Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, but when I do I will either take them to dinner or marry them. They did live in Umbria for a few years, and their knowledge of and affection for this region permeates every page of their instructive, engaging, and light-hearted writing. This is the guide you want.
Instructive and entertaining.
According to geologists, the earthquakes that jolted Umbria and the Marche twice on 26 September 1997, killing 11 and wounding many more, and the aftershocks that continued throughout 1998, when over 10,000 minor and not so minor tremors were registered, were merely part of a million-year-old trend as the Apennines yawn and stretch and adjust to fit their crust. The 100,000 people in Umbria and the Marche whose homes were rendered uninhabitable by the tremors obviously didn’t find much comfort in their scientific long-range perspective, but in the immediate aftermath of the disaster things could have been worse. The government, both on a local and national level, responded quickly, so that by Christmas 1997 everyone was housed as close to their villages as possible, in rental accommodation, in prefab housing or, as a last resort, in shipping containers (fitted with doors, windows, room dividers, electricity and plumbing). People got on with their lives relatively quickly, nor was it long before the famous skylines of the hill towns were dominated by cranes and scaffolding. After all, there’s a certain familiarity with earthquakes in the area; a serious one rocked the eastern Valnerina and parts of the Valle Umbra in 1979.
This one, however, grabbed the world’s attention because it gravely damaged one of Italy’s most precious and best loved treasures, the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, just as the town was gearing up for the Holy Year 2000 celebrations. For most of the world, the earthquakes became the ‘Assisi earthquakes’. Billions of lire poured in from the state, charities and other sources to restore the art, and a regional office of the Commissione dei Beni Culturali opened in Foligno to direct the flow. Priority was given to a ‘Jubilee list’ of art and monuments on the official pilgrimage route, but even so, nearly a third of the entire budget in 1998 went to the big basilica; in Assisi everyone vowed it would reopen by Christmas 1999 and it did – an impressive feat, especially in Italy where projects on that scale usually take decades to complete. Just as impressive is the fact that San Francesco became the first major monument any where equipped with the latest anti-seismic technology woven into the more vulnerable sections of the walls and roofline: bundles of wires of ‘shape-memory alloys’ made of titanium and nickel. Invented in the aeronautics industry in 1951, the alloys are now used in shock absorbers – in this case, a very big shock absorber, which should give the basilica fifty percent more ‘give’, even improving on the flexibility it originally had.
Yet even in mid 2000, some people in Assisi were still living in a ‘container village’ on the outskirts of town. Less famous towns sometimes had two or three container villages. The worst hit places (Colfiorito, for instance, which was one of the epicentres in September 1997) were all but abandoned except for the occasional stalwarts who refused to leave, living amid the rubble and ruined houses, where fallen walls revealed bright wallpaper or other poignant vignettes of the residents’ former lives. Some of the smaller villages may never be rebuilt. But elsewhere there has been no lack of polemics over the way the government has handled the rehousing. Plenty of money was available for restoration, but a huge amount of it (in some cases, as much as half of a town’s allotted sum) has gone into other pockets – not those of corrupt politicians and organized crime, as happened in Naples after its big earthquake in 1983 – but to pay for the countless permits, licences, and opinions by various state experts required even before the real work could begin. In the opinion of many residents, the bureaucrats were battening on Umbria's misfortune.
Another controversy was the decision to take temporary measures. Since the rebuilding of houses in some cases would take several more years to complete, there were plans, such as in Foligno, to move people out of the containers and put them into wooden chalet-style buildings. Many felt these were a ridiculous waste of time and money, when the resources could be poured into the final result. There's also the fear that people will get used to living in prefab housing and their villages may never be the same; or the question of just who will live in the wooden chalets once people are rehoused, with dark hints that they will be taken over by the numerous but not universally popular Albanians and Kosovans now living in the area. It also brings to the surface some often bitter soul-searching on the question of just whom Umbria really belongs to: the descendants of people who have lived there for generations, many just working their way out of real poverty, or the owners of second homes, who want the region to remain quaint and old and beautiful, and complain about the newish unattractive suburbs and small factories where the year-round Umbrians work for a living, those who have managed to stay and not leave for Rome or Florence or even France and Germany to find decent jobs.
So was art given precedence over people in Umbria? In many cases the answer is yes, although the result isn’t quite as cold and heartless as it may sound. For a year or so after the earthquakes, tourists shied away from the region, partly because they were afraid of more tremors, but mostly because the key sights were closed. Tourism is a major source of income in Umbria and 1998 was an economic disaster for the area. So, by repairing and reopening the major attractions (and bringing visitors back in a big way), many argue that the overall result benefited everybody. The many Umbrians who work in the tourist industry were able to resume their jobs relatively quickly and, with this, a welcome degree of normality and vitality returned to the beleaguered region.
However, the situation is still critical in Nocera Umbra and the surrounding area, where the earthquakes struck first and most severely. At the time of writing, some public buildings, such as the Commune, bank and schools, are still housed in prefab buildings. The historical centre is closed to all but ten families, for whom new flats have been built. The delay in Nocera's restoration cannot only be attributed to bureaucratic mismanagement, but also to its location and set-up: a village perched on a hill with narrow streets, through which machinery cannot easily pass, affected by long cold winters which grind building operations to a halt.
At the end of 2005 many things have changed, with the reopening of popular central monuments and churches. Umbria is no longer under the glare of the media spotlight, people have returned to their everyday way of life and the region looks green again. Some locals feel that too much fuss was made about earthquakes which certainly brought fear and tragedy, but were not as bad as others that shook Italy in the 20th century.
All kinds of restoration projects on buildings not directly damaged by the earthquakes have been undertaken, on buildings and art that otherwise would have been left to crumble slowly. In these cases, local authorities benefited from the influx of expert restorers and of money, and from a heightened focus of attention on 'Art' in Umbria. Once work has been completed, visitors will find things in a much better state than they would have been had the earthquakes never happened. Assisi is a particular example. The damage was extensive, but the restoration has been so spectacular that those buildings will be in better condition than they have been for hundreds of years once the scaffolding comes down. Even the priceless frescoes inside the Basilica di San Francesco may shine again. Some twenty restorers were employed full-time working their way through trays of rubble, trying to piece together the world's most intricate jigsaw puzzle. Apparently they could, at a glance, distinguish fragments of colours enough to know which artist the minute pieces belonged to. On that note, at least in the long-range view of things, the disaster may have been a blessing in disguise.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls