Early in 1998, my wife and I traveled to Italy to study in Rome. During our stay, we took a day trip to Assisi. Many of you will remember the devastating earthquake in Italy, September 1997. The epicenter of that quake was Assisi. The upper church of the double Basilica of St. Francis sustained the worst damage. Fresco-lined walls depicting Giotto’s Life of Saint Francis had crumbled and fallen to the floor below. While the lower church had been spared such extensive damage, the entire Basilica was structurally unstable. Little progress on repairs and clearing the rubble had been made in the 5 months since the earthquake. Many homes were destroyed. Citizens of Assisi were still living in boxes during this, the coldest Italian winter in 50 years. We have returned to Assisi numerous times since that visit. We have admired the restoration work of Giotto’s masterpieces. But I will never forget the sadness of Assisi, broken and helpless in the face of nature’s power. The Basilica took 9 years and $50 million to restore.
I was brought back to that day when the latest earthquake, a 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck northern Italy on May 20th. The epicenter ran through the towns of Modena and Ferrara. The top section of the tower on Ferrara’s Castello Estense, a large block with 4 corner towers, collapsed. The tower was built by Nicolo II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, in 1385. Ercole V d’Este added to the construction and built apartments and banquet halls within for visiting nobility. These dukes, members of the powerful d’Este family, ruled Ferrara until it became part of the Papal States. Ercole’s illustrious daughter, Isabella, married into the Gonzaga family, thus aligning Ferrara with Mantua.
Over 64% of Italy is subject to seismic threat. On April 6, 2009, L’Aquila was hit, reducing the 16th-century bell tower of the Church of San Bernardino to a pile of rubble. Of the 105 churches in the region, 99 were damaged. The clock tower of Castello delle Rocche split down the middle, leaving only the hours VII – XI standing. Later that day, a second quake took it completely down. Numerous earthquakes have centered in Bologna. In 1998, the National Institute of Geophysics began a study to assess the seismic activity of Bologna. It was determined through the meticulous city records of eyewitnesses that Bologna had experienced 105 earthquakes since the 13th century. In 1505, a citizen reported severe damage to the spires atop the Asinelli Tower. A symbol of the civic pride of Bologna, the masonry tower was built near the end of the 12th century. The damage resulted in a 1.7º inclination on the vertical axis. Pisa isn’t the only Italian city to claim a leaning tower!
The Campanile of San Marco, Venice, was completed in July 1513. On Monday, July 14, 1902, it totally collapsed. The rebuilt Campanile was dedicated on April 25, 1912, 1,000 years after the original construction.
Our own symbol of civic pride, the Washington Monument, suffered damage in the earthquake of August 23, 2011. The epicenter of the 5.8 quake was the town of Mineral, Virginia. Mineral is a sleepy little town nestled between Richmond and Charlottesville, 85 miles southwest of D.C. Been there too; my sister-in-law lives in Mineral! Mineral is also down the road from the South Anna Nuclear Power Plant, a thought that gives one pause! The worst damage to the Washington Monument was sustained in the pyramidium at the top of the obelisk. Cracks in both mortar and stone resulted in extensive leaks courtesy of Hurricane Irene which hit a few days after the quake. Even the National Cathedral was not spared. The central tower and spires sustained extensive damage.
Earthquake-proof engineering has recently been the focus of architectural planning, particularly in Asia. The Yokohama Landmark Tower, 70 stories high, is a flexible structure designed to absorb the force of an earthquake. The design is basically that of a Japanese temple, a 5-level pagoda. Thankfully, the Tower hasn’t yet been tested by an earthquake.
Throughout history, towers have been constructed to reach toward the heavens, to fortify a defensive structure, and to call people to worship. All of the great European cathedrals came complete with towers, often in the form of a campanile with bells. English baroque architecture differentiated between a “Wren tower,” attached to the church wall and rising from the ground up, and a “Gibbs tower,” rising from atop the gable. German town trumpeters played chorales from the top of the tower to signal the hours.
We view towers as symbols of strength. We do not anticipate their demise short of warfare. But nature is a force not to be reckoned with, and in recent years we have experienced the power of nature with deadly force. Of course, poor architectural planning can implode a tower. But the medieval masons knew what they were doing. They just didn’t plan on an earthquake!
Symbolic towers have fallen as well. In these days, we are faced with a broken economy, financial hardship, crisis in education, and other disasters of earthquake proportion. Academic institutions live from day to day without financial security. The arts have not been spared, and many of those “towers” of creativity have cracked and fallen. Everyone says that in an economic crunch, “the arts are always the first to go.” We find ourselves wondering if Chicken Little was right after all, and the sky is indeed falling. Support for the arts must come from citizens themselves. We can no longer depend on our government to provide the necessary funds to carry on artistic endeavors. Just as the medieval masons built towers of great strength, we must build towers of artistic inspiration and creativity that can withstand the difficulties of our modern world. Together, we must hold up the sky and pray that we can endure the calamities. Support the arts…you will be better for it.