Shake up needed for Italy's heritage
THE basilica of Saint Benedict in the mediaeval town of Norcia swayed but held up last week when a 6.2 magnitude earthquake rocked mountainous central Italy.
Just 24km away in Amatrice, which used to bill itself as the town of 100 churches, the historic centre was flattened and not a single holy place escaped undamaged.
The fact that a town in the main quake zone was largely unscathed while others have been crushed might have a lot to do with the vagaries of seismic shocks, which can bring disproportionate damage depending on land formation.
But it might also be because picture-postcard Norcia has consistently invested in anti-seismic protection for its ancient buildings.
Its less famous neighbours have not.
Norcia represents the exception, not the rule in Italy, where the majority of buildings were constructed more than a century ago, well before anti-seismic norms were introduced.
The question is whether the heavily indebted country has the will and money to safeguard all its cultural treasures.
Italy is home to more Unesco world heritage sites than any other nation.
But it is also an active seismic zone, logging 36 earthquakes with a magnitude of five and above since 1900.
Almost every one has brought death and destruction.
Such tragedies trigger rounds of recriminations about why successive governments have not done more to defend Italian lives and heritage.
"We should get to the churches, monuments and palazzi before the quakes do but we always end up chasing them," says Paolo Clemente from Italy's multidisciplinary research centre ENEA.
"If everything is left as it is, our cultural heritage is destined to die..."
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, like other leaders before him, has promised a renewed push to bolster the flimsy earthquake defences.
He met the celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano on Sunday to help devise a national prevention plan.
But, like many Italians, Mr Renzi has a fatalistic streak.
"It's illusory to think you can control everything," he said last Thursday.
"We're talking about towns dating back to the Middle Ages."
Many experts disagree, saying Italy's towns and cities can be protected so long as you have a very deep pocket.
"It is possible to reconcile (artistic) beauty with security when you have money," said Caterina Bon Valsassina, Italy's director general of cultural heritage, arts and landscape.
Some 40 billion euros (S$61 billion) would be needed to secure Italy's public buildings, according to the National Engineers' Association.
The bill would go up to 360 billion euros to upgrade all the building stock, the country's employers association Confindustria estimates.
Italy has the largest debt mountain in the European Union as a proportion of its output after Greece.
Its economy has barely grown in the last 17 years.
This means there is very little money for major new budget items, such as nationwide earthquake-proofing.
But even if it did, there is no guarantee it would be spent wisely, with corruption, bureaucracy, shoddy workmanship and organised crime all lurking in the shadows.
Amatrice's main school was reopened in 2012 after the authorities spent 700,000 euros on a refurbishment, including anti-seismic protection.
It now lies in ruins.
"If these buildings had been constructed like they are in Japan, then they would not have collapsed," prosecutor Giuseppe Saieva, who is leading an inquiry, told la Repubblica newspaper.
The reconstruction effort in L'Aquila, a 13th century city walloped by an earthquake in 2009, is still many years from completion.
Seven building contractors were arrested in 2014 on allegations they were working with the Mafia.
Other delays have been caused by red tape that would surely snarl any significant campaign to retrofit buildings with anti-seismic protection.
Ironically, not all the money that is currently offered by the government to encourage individuals to safeguard their property is used, partly because of bureaucracy.
Experts say that in Italy's old towns and villages, where houses are often crammed together around small squares and narrow lanes, everyone has to retrofit their homes to make it worthwhile.
An earthquake-proof house can survive a bad tremor only for an unproofed house to collapse into it and destroy it.
With limited resources, working out priorities is tough.
Many of Italy's 51 Unesco heritage sites are found in earthquake zones.
It also has 6,000 sites of historical or artistic interest.
But the experience of Norcia shows protection is possible, with the small town upgrading its defences in response to a 1979 earthquake that killed five and left 2,000 homeless.
Although the Monastery of St Benedict was damaged on Wednesday, it did not collapse. Nor did any other building within Norcia's ancient walls.
Said Norcia mayor Nicola Alemanno: "Prevention is an investment for the long-run."