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(J. Paul Getty Trust)

As Italy spent Friday in a national day of mourning with an open-air funeral mass for most of its 289 earthquake victims, the country has begun scouring for an invaluable part of its past: its art.

Natural disasters, since the ashes of Vesuvius blanketed Pompeii in A.D. 79, have wiped out towns, and their masterpieces. Those who try to salvage and restore damaged art often pick through rubble by hand, using flashlights to scour shaky buildings, experts say.

Several artworks in L’Aquila, capital of the affected region, have already been salvaged, including a carved sarcophagus of Pope Celestine V buried under a crumpled wall in a 13th-century church, Santa Maria di Collemaggio. “Around the world, in addition to condolences for the many people who have died, there is…concern for the state of our artistic heritage,” said Culture Minister Sandro Bondi.

Starting Tuesday, the Ministry of Culture will dispatch 14 teams to assess the art damage. The prime minister has pledged €30 million (about $40 million) for art relief and appealed for donations.

Unclear is the fate of thousands of works like Renaissance sculptor Andrea Della Robbia’s altarpiece depiction of Christ’s resurrection, which is still somewhere inside Church of San Bernardino di Siena with its crumpled bell tower. Bertrand du Vignaud, president of the European branch of the World Monuments Fund, says he fears for exposed religious icons like the Renaissance fresco by Saturnino Gatti that he spotted in a church during a visit last year.


Kelly Crow and Stacy Meichtry
Wall Street Journal