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Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio

European Heritage Awards / Europa Nostra Awards 2020 - Conservation

Reclaiming Collemaggio: Restoration As An Act of Social Rebirth

Alessandra Vittorini Director, Fondazione Scuola dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali

Fondazione Scuola dei beni e delle attività culturali

Sede legale via del Collegio Romano 27 00186 Roma Italy

In 2009 on April 6th, an earthquake shocked a vast area (almost a quarter of the Abruzzo region) inhabited by more than 140.000 people, including L’Aquila, the regional capital and 56 municipalities with several small historical centres and hamlets (270 or most). It killed three hundred and nine victims, one thousand five hundred injured and seventy thousand refugees.

That territory was dramatically damaged, including its precious historic image and cultural heritage such as the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, which is part of the most important sites of the built heritage of L’Aquila.

The post-earthquake reconstruction of L’Aquila represents an extraordinary effort of management, protection and restoration of cultural heritage, fully supported by public funds. The definition of the governance and the legal framework of the reconstruction, the challenging tasks of restoring cultural heritage and the planning and technical-economic evaluations of interventions, are some of the main topics managed in the integrated approach assigned to the Superintendence for Archaeological, Artistic and Architectural Heritage and Landscape for L'Aquila and its Seismic Crater, the first such Superintendence in Italy with combined powers in monumental, historical, artistic, archaeological and landscape fields. This has given an extraordinary overview of a complex process, due to the importance of the cultural heritage, the severity of the damage, and the solutions found. It has also been a very strong opportunity for study, research and scientific discussion on the post-earthquake recovery of cultural heritage

The Basilica plays an important role in the definition of the self-identity of the community of L’Aquila. Construction began in 1275, a few years after the foundation of the city: then, its walls were raised, while L’Aquila was raised after the destruction led by Manfredi di Svevia. Such indissoluble link between the city and its Basilica was enshrined by Piero Angelerio, a hermit who, in 1294, was crowned Pope in Collemaggio with the name Celestine V. After one month, he established the Perdonanza (Forgiveness), the first Christian jubilee in history, six years before Boniface VIII’s Jubilee. The extraordinary value of this popular manifestation of devotion, which was renewed more than seven centuries later with the opening of the Porta Santa of Collemaggio, was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2019.

The restoration project of Collemaggio necessitated not only the application of the most advanced methodologies of conservation of the built heritage, but also the consideration of the paramount symbolical and universal value of the monument.

The Superintendence for Archaeological, Artistic and Architectural Heritage and Landscape for L'Aquila and its Seismic Crater carried out the project with a team of representatives from three Italian universities (Sapienza University of Rome, the Politecnico of Milan and the University of L'Aquila), and supervised the complex two-year works.

Façade of Basilica of Collemaggio / By A. Vittorini

The restoration work was the result of a successful institutional collaboration by the Ministry of Culture, the Diocese of L’Aquila and the Municipality of L’Aquila (the owner of the Basilica), which in 2013 signed the ‘Ripartire da Collemaggio’ protocol with the energy company ENI S.p.A. acting as sponsor that fully financed the planning and implementation of the restoration intervention, providing also technical-managerial support. The Superintendence for Archaeological, Artistic and Architectural Heritage and Landscape for L'Aquila and its Seismic Crater, thanks to the expertise of its technicians (architects and art historians), led the complex phases of study, planning and management of the restoration works while engaged in the activity of supervising the restoration works on the damaged heritage of the city and the surrounding territory, and direct intervention on the public monuments entrusted to the Ministry of Culture. From 2012 (when the reconstruction began in the city centre) to 2020, more than 320 aggregate project plans have been checked and approved, producing a flow of public funds worth1300 million euros.

In 2014-2015, after finalising the bureaucratic procedures, the organization of the partnerships and the financing, the pre-feasibility study was carried out, including detailed historical and diagnostic researches. By the end of this phase, the definitive and then the executive project were developed, both on a solid scientific assessment.

The works started in January 2016. The collapsed clustered pillars were reconstructed, and the stone cladding restored, reusing the recovered blocks. The nave's octagonal pillars were restored by dismantling and reassembling the irreparable ones, by replacing the badly damaged stones and inserting threaded metal bars. The arches, walls and the collapsed roof were each rebuilt. The floor, crushed under the fallen debris, was carefully recomposed. The Baroque organ, which had suffered extensive damage in the collapse, was also recovered and reinstated in the Basilica. The frescoes, dating from the 13th-15th centuries, have been consolidated and restored, as well as the baroque marble altars and the stucco work of the side-chapels. One of the most amazing surprises was discovering original baroque colours and gildings in the Celestine Chapel. On the 20th of December 2017 the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio was returned to the community of L’Aquila.

2009 Collapsed Basilica of Collemaggio Superintendence

Collemaggio has become a workshop of experimentation, a place of gathering, commemoration and celebration for the entire community, and a model of operational practices of conservation in critical contexts all over the world.

The Collemaggio project is an example of good practice in the case of a post-earthquake restoration. In spite of the huge challenges that had to be addressed, the project was designed in order for the Basilica to keep performing its social function even when its possibility to be "inhabited" had to be temporarily suspended: restoration, in the case of Collemaggio, was intended as opportunity for knowledge and cooperation, an act of social reconstruction. The meticulous study underpinning the project was intended as a process that found in the form, history and materials of the building itself the justification for the technical choices adopted, and in its symbolic meaning the reason for the adopted procedures. This approach made it possible to return Collemaggio to its own community in just two years. The true quality of this project is that this result has been achieved by ensuring that the community was never left out of its Basilica, or without the possibility of recognizing in it what it has always meant for L'Aquila: a testimony of beauty, resilience, and rebirth.

The restoration received the European Heritage Awards/Europa Nostra Awards 2020 edition, moreover achieving the Grand Prix in the category Conservation. The Jury observed that “this intervention truly represents the rebirth of a city, the strong sense of spirituality and the participation of the community in this project must be considered as an integral piece of the whole. The entire project […] has been carried out with an exemplary scientific basis relating to the seismic vulnerability of the building. The comprehensive approach taken to address the consequences of a natural disaster […] is exemplary. It is also notable that the programme includes the maintenance and monitoring of the building. The project is a model of best practice in the conservation of critically damaged sites all over the world”.

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