Back on solid ground - Issue 167 - Magazine | Monocle

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Standing tall on Piazza Duomo

At 03.32 on 6 April 2009, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the Abruzzo region of central Italy. Its epicentre was close to L’Aquila, an unassuming, picturesque medieval city with a population of some 73,000. More than 300 people lost their lives and the majority of the residents were left homeless. Once the dust had settled, the town made the decision to bank on culture, art and architecture to revive it. And it is proving to be a worthwhile experiment, thanks in part to a global roster of international benefactors and the attention of some of the world’s most powerful leaders.

Palazzo Ardinghelli

“Luckily, we came out relatively unscathed,” Natalia Nurzia tells monocle of the condition in which she found her family-run café, Fratelli Nurzia, the morning after the earthquake. “Eight months later we were the very first café in the city centre to be up and running again,” she says proudly. Today, as it was before the earthquake, Fratelli Nurzia is renowned for its chocolate-filled torrone (nougat) but even after 14 years, the Piazza Duomo on which it sits is a hodgepodge of scaffolding, cordons and construction fences. 

The city has been through a lot. The buildings that didn’t totally collapse were severely damaged and the subsequent, years-long closure of large parts of the historic centre for extensive and complicated reconstruction work could easily have ravaged the heart of the city for good. The earthquake battered L’Aquila but it was the restoration that nearly destroyed it. “Seven years after the earthquake, we had to close again,” says Nurzia, describing the stop-start technical interventions needed on many of the 100,000 buildings that were damaged in the city. “That time we were closed for four years.” Nowadays, however, even a little humour is possible. “The only thing more dangerous than an earthquake is an engineer,” she says, joking, before turning to greet a customer.

Much of daily life in L’Aquila is dominated by locals but the fortunes of the city were changed for ever by a man from Milan. L’Aquila came to prominence thanks to the late media mogul and three-time Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who switched the location of the 2009 G8 summit (when Russia was still welcome) from a completed, purpose-built conference centre in Sardinia’s La Maddalena to the earthquake-hit city.

Museum courtyard
Cathedral restoration
Basilica of San Bernardino
Restored Basilica

“Berlusconi’s big idea was to draw up a catalogue of restoration projects,” says Massimo Alesii, a communications specialist who moved back to his native L’Aquila from Rome after the earthquake. Still dubbed “Berlusconi’s wedding list” by many aquilani today, a slate of 44 destroyed or heavily damaged buildings was made for G8 member states and their delegations to consider restoring or helping to support. “It was clever marketing,” says Alesii, a former director of the Fondazione Adriano Olivetti and a man who knows how to secure cultural funds. The image of Barack Obama, jacket slung over his shoulder, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and others strolling past the cracked and crumbled edifices, couldn’t have been better publicity. But it was the Russian Federation’s Dmitry Medvedev who chose the biggest donation on Berlusconi’s list. In an act of diplomatic goodwill, Russia gave an estimated €7.2m for the reconstruction of the Palazzo Ardinghelli, which dates back to 1732, 29 years after another earthquake had levelled buildings in L’Aquila. With lavish rooms, frescoed ceilings and impressive staircases, it was one of the city’s finest Baroque gems.

Originally, the palazzo was earmarked for use by the city council, says Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, but in 2015 plans changed. “Here we had a jewel in the centre of L’Aquila, ready to be used,” he says. “It was decided that, instead of council offices, it had to be given to the public.” Pietromarchi is director of the Maxxi national museum in Rome and now of its L’Aquila offshoot, which opened in the palazzo. Despite opening in 2021 during the pandemic, the cultural centre started a bright new chapter in the story of the beleaguered city.

Maxxi L’Aquila, which focuses on the art and architecture of the 21st century, is now the city’s flagship institution. “Contemporary art is like a laboratory, especially for young people,” says Pietromarchi as he shows monocle around the airy galleries filled with restored frescoes and polished terrazzo floors. “Different disciplines intersect to create a centre for cultural production.” When we visit, there is a joint show of work by Marisa Merz, a central figure in the Italian Arte Povera movement, and Shilpa Gupta, a contemporary Indian artist. In the piazza outside, architecture students from L’Aquila’s university are constructing a wooden pavilion set to be the centre of the museum’s summer programme. This, Pietromarchi stresses, is not about a national museum plonking a smaller offshoot somewhere off the beaten track. The relationship between Maxxi Rome and Maxxi L’Aquila is “totally reciprocal”, he says. “The buildings themselves are wonderfully different and in L’Aquila we learn how to engage with the setting in a completely new way.”

Fontana Luminosa and the Apennine mountains
Artisanal scaffold
Renzo Piano-designed
San Silvestro belltower
Visiting Maxxi
Forte Spagnolo houses the skeleton of a mammoth

Of course, there is more to the culture of a city than a new art museum and, according to Bruno Carioti, president of the Abruzzo Symphonic Institute, L’Aquila’s music scene is worth making noise about too. Starting in the 1950s, says Carioti, the city, which is the administrative capital of the Abruzzo region, has built up a considerable amount of human capital, heavily engaged in music on an everyday, professional basis. He believes that music has had a restorative effect on the city since the earthquake. “When you have lost everything, music takes you to a different emotional place,” he says, “In those moments it completely transports you and soothes the soul. I would say that music has been crucial to rebuilding the culture of L’Aquila.” The city also hosts the B Baratelli Concert Society, The Aquilani Soloists and the Alfredo Casella Conservatory – not bad for a small city, says Carioti, who calls L’Aquila the Salzburg of Italy.

Some of the reconstruction in L’Aquila has been remarkable but it is an ongoing process. When monocle visits, the city is bathed in bright mountain sunshine and gaps in hoardings reveal pristinely restored façades. Glowing, fresh-cut architectural details shine and a pair of bronze statues of impish male nudes graces the square outside Fratelli Nurzia. The work has been slow and expensive: some €24bn has been spent on the city since 2009 and recovery is far from complete. There is also constant risk. Earthquakes hit this part of Italy about every 300 years and residents confirm that some level of destruction and reconstruction are part of L’Aquila’s soul.

Painstaking and life-changing though the earthquake and subsequent restoration might have been, residents can, after 14 long years, finally see the outline of a new and improved city. Like Rome, L’Aquila was not built in a day. Unlike Rome, it was destroyed in a night. “The earthquake has revealed the treasures we have,” says Alesii. “The pride and love we have for our city emerged from the cracks.”

Rebuilding L’Aquila

Like Italy as a whole, L’Aquila’s relationship with Silvio Berlusconi is complicated. The case of the Palazzo Ardinghelli and the museum that came to occupy it is a clear example of the fruits of a peculiarly opportunistic and Berlusconian approach to geopolitics and fundraising. 

Massimo Alesii, a journalist and public-relations specialist based in L’Aquila, is ambivalent about Berlusconi’s call to hold a G8 summit in the earthquake-hit area back in 2009. “L’Aquila was a convenient backdrop,” says Alesii. “It was great ‘optics’.” But much of the city was inaccessible, with even residents barred from entering. “I chose to decline an invite to get involved [with G8],” adds Alesii, who decided instead to work on individual restoration and social-rehabilitation projects. “I wanted to make sense of the reconstruction of my city, the social and human side of it, not just the bricks and mortar.” 

While L’Aquila’s recovery couldn’t have happened so emphatically without Berlusconi’s bullish intervention, many in the city are keen to tell us that it still would have bounced back without him.

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