L'AQUILA, Italy – Built as a mountain stronghold during the Middle Ages, this cultural gem in central Italy has withstood sieges and battles — but its architectural treasures suffered severe damage in Monday's quake.
The city's historic center boasts buildings that represent some of the great stages of Western architecture — Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque: and much of it was turned to rubble by the pre-dawn jolt.
Harm to ancient monuments was recorded as far away as Rome, where the famed thermal baths built by the Emperor Caracalla suffered slight damage.
Though not a major tourist destination like Florence or Venice, the scenic city of some 70,000, nestled in a valley and ringed by snowcapped Apennine mountains, has ancient fortifications, castles, churches, and tombs of saints.
"The damage is more serious than we can imagine," said Giuseppe Proietti, a top Culture Ministry official in Rome. "The historic center of L'Aquila has been devastated."
The quake — Italy's deadliest in nearly three decades — struck as residents slept, knocking down buildings and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
Experts in L'Aquila were struggling to assess the cultural losses even as the city's cultural offices, housed in a 16th century Spanish castle, were shut down by collapses, Proietti said.
The damaged fortifications, once perfectly preserved, are also home to a museum of archaeology and art from prehistory to modern times.
L'Aquila, whose name means "The Eagle" in Italian, was built around 1240 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and was under French, Spanish and papal domination through the centuries. The high-flying bird was Frederick's emblem and reflects the city's 714-meter (2,300 feet) altitude.
The city is the capital of the Abruzzo region, a mountainous area home to national parks and hilltop hamlets. In 1943, overthrown dictator Benito Mussolini was briefly held at an isolated hotel on the nearby Gran Sasso massif before being freed in a raid by his German allies.
The Culture Ministry was compiling a list of damaged landmarks in L'Aquila, which mainly included collapsed bell towers and cupolas in the city's churches.
Part of the red-and-white stone basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio crumbled. The church houses the tomb of its founder, Pope Celestine V — a 13th-century hermit and saint who was the only pontiff ever to resign.
The bell tower of the 16th-century San Bernardino church and the cupola of the Baroque Sant'Agostino church crumbled, the ministry said. Stones tumbled from the city's cathedral, which was rebuilt after a 1703 earthquake.
Proietti said in a telephone interview that initial reports from the countryside showed many villages around L'Aquila had been heavily damaged, including churches "of great historical interest."
Monday's quake was felt in Rome, 70 miles (110 kilometers) to the southwest. Proietti said that aside from the baths of Caracalla no other monuments in the capital suffered.
Proietti said the cultural damage could ultimately be "very similar" to that from the earthquake that struck the nearby Umbria region in 1997, killing 10 people and devastating medieval buildings and churches, including Assisi's famed basilica.