Between the 18th and 21st of December 2016, I travelled to Central Italy to see the area that was hit by earthquakes in August and October of the same year. My journey started in L’Aquila and followed north to Muccia and the mountains that surround it. I decided to tell my experience with a written and photographic diary, in order to document the landscape and the effort that has been done to reconstruct the area. The earthquakes affected an area of about two hundred kilometres of extension and during these days I have I’ve passed through four different regions: Abruzzo, Lazio, Umbria, Marche.
Today is the first day of my journey: a slowly but intense trip leading me from Naples into central Italy.
My first stop is L’Aquila, where in 2009 another earthquake left the city centre completely devastated. There aren’t many people out on the street, perhaps because is Sunday. Instead, many cranes pierce the central square with their long legs, as pins on a map.
Among the narrow dusty streets, only the echo of my footsteps interrupts the silence.
As I walk by, I find a few shops opened and invading the main street with a somewhat random music, recalling Ulysses and the Sirens' song. It is cold, but not enough to justify the shiver that ran through my spine. A small dog crosses my way, carrying its leash in his mouth - the sole master of his own pathway, I think to myself.
I stop to photograph a sentence on a shop window: “I love you L’Aquila” and under, a reply : “I love you too”. In this instance, someone appears on the left side. It is a thin, dark haired gentleman, wearing glasses, and blue clothing. He looks confused and seems to be looking for something that he can’t find anymore. We briefly greet each other before going back to our own way.
Moving into the the area affected by the 2016 earthquakes, the next stop is Posta, in the province of Rieti and an hour drive away from L‘Aquila. Here, an abandoned quarry immediately stands out, which is being used to deposit the debris collected from Amatrice. Army trucks ply and several men are at work, like bees buzzing around the hive. Another click on the camera.
On the wrong road for Amatrice, I find myself in Torrita. Suddenly, the impact of the August earthquake strikes me. The image of the debris scattered on the street is strong and violet. The stone arch of a door is the only thing left standing in from what it was an old building. The wooden bus stop hangs wholly on one of its sides. A caravan trailer marks the boundary between a field and some collapsed buildings. The mountains in the background and the pink of the sunset are an unsettling image before all this mess. Soon after, it is completely dark and the temperature is as low as -3 C. The road’s asphalt became pale from the frost.
The car’s thermometer reads -11C. The bottles of water I’ve left in the boot during the night are now full blocks of ice.
Today I am heading to Amatrice, which lies along the edge of the Gran Sasso Park. Along the way, I am submerged in the astonishing mountain landscape, punctuated by hilltop villages. There are many animals grazing on the fields and even on the steepest slopes. I stop to watch some black horses grazing beside a cemetery - they seem to be mourning. The grass looks frozen, but that doesn’t seem to stop them. Around me, the majestic peaks of the Apennines mark the border between the regions of Lazio and Abruzzo.
In Amatrice, the first thing I see is the army’s laid foundations for the construction of new housing units. Beyond that, however, there is only destruction. A town completely brought to the ground. In an alley, through a gash, I see the dishes of a restaurant still neatly stacked. Recently, the Renaissance bar opened - it’s the first to open its doors after the earthquake in August. There are many open services such as banks, the post office, or the tobacconist, all operating from prefabricated modules.
I get back on the road, passing through another small village - only a couple of houses are still standing and rubble accumulated on one side. The village’s water fountain is still there, almost in the center of the square. Three golden fish swim inside and the ice has trapped one in the corner.
Few steps away, over an old door that was laying in ground, I find some shoes neatly positioned in a row.
I am not easily shaken by violent images but going through these villages, completely razed to the ground, is breathtaking. The silence is overwhelming and there is dust and boulders everywhere. It look like period post-war images. Walking through them is a distressing experience.
Sometimes, during my journey, I see small clusters of tents or caravans. The tents are just a few, and often the caravans are located right in front of the now uninhabitable homes.
Somewhere there is a cracked marble slab on the ground. It is one of those commemorative plates that are seen on some buildings’ facades. The only words I can read are: Border, Sacrifice, All, Love, Immortal. Behind me, on the top of a hill, is Arquata del Tronto. It looks like a sand castle by the beach after being swept away by the waves.
I stop in a local restaurant for lunch. The owner is telling another customer about the earthquakes in the 17th and 18th centuries. Apparently, in 1639, a violent jolt struck Amatrice and Accumoli and in 1703 an earthquake destroyed L'Aquila. Following these catastrophes in Italy, Lisbon was hit by a massive earthquake, in 1755. The woman is suggesting we should be keeping an eye in Portugal for the coming years.
I’ve palled to visit other villages today in the area, but realise now that they are all marked as red zone for being completely inaccessible.
Today I am going further North to Norcia district, where violent shakes hit in October this year. Luckily, there were no deaths this time.
Unlike before, I’m meeting many people and with some I have the opportunity to talk about the post-earthquake status. While I photograph a herd grazing on a hill near Cittareale, Fabio, the shepherd asked me to send him the photo, so he could put it on his truck. His herd has about 120 cows, now climbing the hills in search of the last blades of grass. Soon will come the snow. In this region, it snows up to three meters and its animals will have nowhere to shelter. Their barn has collapsed. The reinforced concrete roof remained whole, but the supporting structure succumbed. Fabio has been promised a temporary stable, but util now, he got nothing. He is concerned that without the stable he will have to sell their livestock.
Fabio works with a Romanian and an Indian men. The house where they live has been damaged by the earthquakes. The Romanian is repatriated, the Indian men is gone to seek work elsewhere. Fabio’s home is also damaged, it hasn’t collapsed but is no longer fit for use. Soon they will have to demolish it and so he bought a caravan trailer. He has an eight years old child and a tent would be too cold for the family.
In Norcia we are on a plateau and the landscape around is still the same: mountains and perched villages, the bell tower and more mountains. What was the historic centre is now inaccessible and the city walls collapsed in several points. Just in front of the St. Anthony Monastery, right after the walls, there is a large open space where the army is positioning some housing units.
Further north there is Campi, another town perched on the mountains, and also with crushed to the ground. Downstream they are building two huge structures to be used as stables. The road that would continue towards Abeto is closed, but someone has removed the barriers. I am already in a diverted route for those wanting to drive north from Norcia, and there aren’t any alternatives left.
I decide I will continue by foot. Once again, my steps are the only thing I hear. This is before I meet Luca, further ahead in my path. Luca is a forest ranger that I find taking a break from truffle hunting. We chat for a while and he lends me his concept of a "DIY" earthquake. People can’t wait for the Government’s help - it may take a while and the winter is imminent. There are those who buy a caravan rather than a wooden house or any other affordable solution a bit less cold than a tent. Those who have nothing to loose are gone and are now hosted in some hotel near the coast. But those who have a job, those who rely on the land as farmers or food producers, they can’t leave. They can’t just drop everything and start over somewhere else. It would further devastate a place that already struggles to be populated. Abeto, for example, counts with a population of about twenty people. During the two weeks around mid-August, 90% of the houses (second homes) are repopulated. But then, for the rest of the year, it goes back to be a desert-like town. I find the village in a rather preserved state. There are several important architectural elements that resisted and, apart from a building that should have been demolished in '79 and is now threatening the road, it doesn’t seem there were many damages. Luca confesses that he is scared though: those who don’t live here might abandon the place for good.
Yesterday was my last day in Central Italy before venturing across the Sibillini Mountains.
I had a coffee in Pieve Torina and the only cafe opened was built with recycled wood panels (OSB). It was right off the square where once there was the old bar, now destroyed. It was a clear sign of the desire to start again or, at least, a will to not give up. When I asked the lady who served me the coffee what was going on, she just glanced me and in her eyes I saw, at the same time, resignation and courage to move forward. Two words in contradiction, just as the beauty and devastation I’ve witnessed in the past days.
Still on my way back to Naples, I found a restaurant where the workers were mounting two housing modules for the tavern owners. They decided to keep it open. They’ve also built an outdoor kitchen. When I came in for a chat, there was no desire to share any future plans: only anger and resentment. Many feel abandoned and are going forward only on their own resources.
Back on the road and further ahead, the impressive ruins of a church made me stop again. Only the bell tower was still standing, but terribly damaged. What surprised me was the insulation panels of the roof - light blue plates scattered everywhere. It seemed a recent renovation had taken place, but if that’s the case, why there wasn't anything of the building? I got into the grocery store, opposite to the church. The shelves were all out of place. Mr. Antonio was waiting for the building’s structure to be checked but in the meantime, the grocery need to be kept opened. The grocer was tired of hearing about the church - it seemed to him it was the only thing that was valued in that place. The lives of the people of Borgo S. Antonio seemed to be less relevant that the things left under the ruins.
Continuing my journey south, I passed by many other small villages that are now deserted. The buildings, once looking solid and elegant piled now like snatched cardboard boxes. I passed Ussita and then went to Frontignano, a now abandoned ski resort on the slopes of Monte Bove. I stayed for about an hour. Only cow’s bells broke into an absurd silence. What in at another time might have been a pleasant and relaxing experience, unfolded now as the pinnacle of my anguish. The silence of the mountains was not peaceful, but a portrait of recent destruction.