ROME (AP) — Within hours of last week's devastating earthquake in central Italy, members of the national police squad of art experts were already exploring the mounds of rubble in several medieval hill towns.
They have photographed hundreds of centuries-old churches with missing roofs, torn-away frescoes or gaping holes where stained glass once filtered sunlight. The quake and several powerful aftershocks dealt the latest blow to Italy's long-deteriorating abundance of art and architecture.
Even without nature's fury, monumental fountains, churches and ancient Roman ruins were already vulnerable to car exhaust fumes, vandalism and other human-inflicted damage.
Italy's most urgent priorities are to ensure shelter for those needing a safe roof after Wednesday's temblor and to keep digging for any more victims' bodies. But the stricken region's cultural heritage of medieval paintings, sculptures, bell towers and other monuments is vitally entwined with inhabitants' daily lives and intrinsic to Italy's international reputation as a treasure trove of art.
No artworks with the cachet of a Leonardo, Michelangelo or Giotto are among those lost in the quake. But art historians stress that local art of whatever pedigree helps to explain the cultural and artistic contexts that inspired the great masters. And just as importantly, local pride over this artistic heritage in churches or piazzas binds these centuries-old towns to their past.
"The icons of these towns are dear to the hearts of the locals," said Cristiana Collu, who trained as a medieval art historian and was recently named director of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. "Life is precious, but it's also precious because of these memories" of the artistic past, Collu said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Quickly and methodically documenting the damage helps culture officials determine which basilicas or bell towers are beyond repair and must be razed for safety's sake, and which are candidates for Italy's internationally recognized trailblazers in art restoration.
Hardest hit was the medieval town of Amatrice, where collapsing houses claimed 229 of the nearly 300 lives taken in the quake.
At the town's St. Francis Basilica, a round window is now a hole. Heavy painting frames have crashed to the floor. The fate of the paintings cannot be determined until debris is cleared, which could take weeks or months.
Amatrice's medieval bell tower has resisted collapse, although its huge bell dropped a few meters (yards) from its hook. With the clock's hands stopped at 3:36 a.m. — the precise time of the quake — the tower instantly became a symbol of Amatrice's will to be reborn.
Italy has long experience in repairing the artistic destruction wrought by natural disasters.
When a 1997 quake sent Giotto's frescoes raining down in tiny fragments from the vaulted ceiling of the St. Francis Basilica in Assisi, restorers painstakingly pieced together much of the masterpiece. In 1966, a corps of global volunteers dubbed the "angels of the mud" rescued countless Florence artworks from Arno River floods.
The medieval hill towns that dot the countryside help to make Italy a magnet for tourists. Even the tiniest hamlet is home to priceless artwork — perhaps a 600-year-old crucifix in one, religious-themed frescoes in another.
Art historian Alia Englen spent the better part of three years studying every monument and church in Amatrice, aided by the retired director of the town's museum who perished in the quake. In an interview with La Stampa daily, Englen said Amatrice's 115 churches contained around 3,500 artistically significant pieces.
Museum director Collu said that not rebuilding the towns would be a "cancellation, a removal of the past."
Italy chronically underspends on caring for its immense array of artworks, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque palazzi and ancient Roman ruins and often turns to corporate sponsors to help fund restorations. But these sponsors, ranging from Italian fashion houses to Japanese textile companies, typically favor associations with the most internationally prestigious monuments, such as Rome's Colosseum or Trevi Fountain.
Following the quake, Italy's culture minister announced that all revenue from ticket sales at national museums and galleries Sunday would be earmarked for reconstruction projects. Visitors with experience of post-quake recovery elsewhere say Italy needs to mobilize global donations.
Jane Stafford, a New Zealander visiting a Rome art gallery, recalled how effective public appeals overseas helped the New Zealand city of Christchurch get back in order following its 2011 quake.
"The whole world helped," she said, suggesting that Italy should launch a social media-driven donation drive.
"The villages could maybe appeal to the world. I could be sitting at my computer in Auckland and sending money," Stafford said.
This story has been corrected to provide the accurate confirmed death toll in Amatrice.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio