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Rebuilding stone by stone: the rebirth of Norcia

The reconstruction of the Basilica of St. Benedict, besides giving back to the citizens of Norcia an important symbolic value, it means winning back their own identity.

by Alessandra Pierro
11 April 2022
8 min read
by Alessandra Pierro
11 April 2022
8 min read

On 30 October 2016, a violent earthquake hit Umbria and in particular the town of Norcia, seriously compromising its artistic heritage, including St Benedict's Basilica.
The Basilica is the heart of the town's social and economic life and the centre from which the history of western monasticism originated, of which Benedict became the father with his Rule. His motto “ora et labora” conveys the intrinsic value of the benedictine rule, a reminder of the necessity to integrate the spiritual sphere with concrete action, and the reconstruction works in Norcia are rooted in this tradition.

Synergies for reconstruction

A memorandum of understanding signed in 2018 marks the beginning of a synergistic design for a high-quality, people-centered reconstruction. In line with these principles, in January 2021 Eni entered into an agreement with the Italian Ministry of Culture, the Commissioner for reconstruction after the 2016 earthquake and the Archdiocese of Spoleto-Norcia and joined the operation as a technical sponsor in the process of reconstruction and with the additional mandate of taking care of the communication in a constant and continuous way towards the territory, a task that will be realized with a complex communication plan entitled "The Norcia Live Stones". Building on the tradition of serving communities, the company has already supported other projects in favour of the national art heritage, such as the one involving the Basilica of Collemaggio in L’Aquila. Today Eni is still using its expertise to provide support throughout the duration of the project. 

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Ancient stones come back to life: Emanuela D’Abbraccio and the restoration of the Basilica

Miraculously enough, the key to the reconstruction lies in the rubble itself. Since 2021, Eni has provided its support to the Italian Ministry of Culture, in coordination with the Scientific Directorate of the Office for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of the Region of Umbria, in the reorganization, setting up and logistics of the St. Scholastica site and in the work of selecting and cataloguing the stone materials inside it.
This is where Emanuela D'Abbraccio, a restorer from Norcia with a long personal and professional history with the Basilica, is at work. She guides us on emotional journey around the treasures that have been found during this first year of reconstruction. 

As a citizen of Norcia, how did you feel when you were chosen to work on the reconstruction of the Basilica?

It was an intense emotion for me.  Before the 2016 earthquake, I was working inside the Basilica to restore the altars that had been built after the 1703 earthquake, one of the most devastating our town had ever experienced.  Who could have imagined that within a few months it would all collapse?  It is a situation in which there is a total loss of points of reference and of identity. For all of us, the Basilica is a key element of our society.
In the spring of 2021, I joined a team hired by Eni to carry out the selection and cataloguing of stone materials. You can imagine how happy I felt...


The first phase of the work, which is currently underway, consists of selecting and cataloguing the stones. From where to start?

Only the façade of the Basilica has remained standing. The bell tower collapsed on the roof, which broke through the floor of the presbytery and ended up inside the crypt.
After securing the church, we started recovering the stones. As a result of the collapse, many stones shatter and therefore you often have to look for the various pieces on different pallets to reassemble them. You must select the stones according to their type, from plinths and capitals, not to mention the various materials that were used for reconstruction over the centuries following the earthquakes that hit the town repeatedly. Among them, decorative stone elements from the Romanesque and Gothic periods, unknown treasures from the old Basilica, unexpectedly emerged. 
At present, we have catalogued as many as 4,838 stones, and we know what they are and where they are.

What work is involved in the next steps?   

Once the cataloguing is completed, the recovered stones will be reassembled and we will put them back in their original position. We will then send to the Basilica the ones that are necessary depending on the ongoing of works, starting from the crypt (where we already have three columns and four capitals), we will continue in the same way for the other sections until we reach the bell tower. I supply the specific stone material that is requested: I am practically a sort of warehouse keeper for the Basilica (laughs).

Overall, would you call this “creative” or “re-creative” restoration?

My task is to re-create, and of course this involves a certain amount of creativity, especially because in the context of projects like this one many uncertainties can arise as the works progress.  There is always a plan behind every restoration, but if something does not fit, it has to be changed. So, even if you have a clear target, you may have to change your plans and take a different route.

This reconstruction work is really encouraging us a lot. Our community finally sees that something is changing, we feel we are moving forward, and this helps us be more resilient.

Emanuela D’Abbraccio, Restorer of Basilica of St. Benedict

What does this reconstruction project mean to you personally and emotionally?

Recovering these stones makes me think that life can take a lot from us but it may also let us find it again. It is something similar to resurrection, a concept deeply connected to this church.
Few months before the earthquake, I had been commissioned to restore a 16th-century painting of the resurrection of Lazarus. Since I had to complete the restoration of the altar, I thought I could put it in the excavations temporarily, and it was very fortunate that I did that, because the painting would have gone lost if I hadn't.
This image seems to suggest that all is not as lost as it seems. Today I am working to return the Basilica to our community, and this is the most important thing for me. It is my rebirth.

Does the way you choose to work on the marks left by time reflect more a view of the present or the past?

The commission headed by Prof. Antonio Paolucci, the Heritage Office, the Ministry and the Church decided that the Basilica should be rebuilt where it was and as it was, and that safety should be the first priority. Once we are back in the church, we should all feel safe. I think this choice is beneficial for the present.

Restoration can also be understood as repairing the relationships that bind people to a place.  How can you take care of the symbolic aspect while also safeguarding a monument’s historical and aesthetic value?

You have to consider that now we are in an emergency situation and it is difficult for us to meet around the church as we used to do; churches are very important for us, especially for the elderly. That is why the stability of the building is fundamentally important, although this may sometimes be at odds with some principles of restoration. There are acceptable compromises.

What is the value of exposing a flaw in a restoration?

In this type of work, shortcomings of varying degrees always arise. Some can be so large as to be disturbing; the eye perceives something different from what was originally there and this also has an emotional impact. The gaps or additions must therefore always be clearly visible, as marks left by time and by the destruction that has taken place and that must be accepted, but restoration work tries to link as much as possible what is no longer there to what is new and mitigate the perceptive shock linked to loss.

The image of the façade of the Basilica standing in spite of the earthquake is one of great strength. Is it the same strength with which the city has reacted?

This reconstruction work is really encouraging us a lot. Our community finally sees that something is changing, we feel we are moving forward, and this helps us be more resilient.

The author: Alessandra Pierro

A degree in Philosophy, she is a freelance copyeditor and content curator.