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Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering (2019) 17:5763–5790



Damage to churches in the 2016 central Italy earthquakes

Andrea Penna1,2   · Chiara Calderini3 · Luigi Sorrentino4 · Caterina F. Carocci5 ·

Elvis Cescatti6 · Romina Sisti7 · Antonio Borri7 · Claudio Modena6 · Andrea Prota8

Received: 8 June 2018 / Accepted: 8 March 2019 / Published online: 16 March 2019
© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Churches struck by the earthquake sequence of 2016–2017 in Central Italy confirmed
their seismic vulnerability, significantly higher than the one of other unreinforced masonry
structures. This resulted in a much wider area affected by significant damages to churches,
which were characterised by a rich variability of materials, typologies, dimensions and
styles. In the area where significant damages were observed for ordinary buildings, most
of the churches exhibited total or partial collapses. The time sequence of the main shocks
helped in preventing casualties in churches although the collapse of a bell-gable in Accu-
moli caused victims in a neighbour house during the first event of August 24th, 2016. Dam-
age surveys to churches were carried out on more than 4000 buildings, in a land area of
about 30 000 km2 from September 2016 to May 2017. The data collected during the post-
earthquake surveys represent a valuable source of information for better understanding the
vulnerability of these structures as well as the effectiveness of past retrofitting interven-
tions. Some examples are reported to show both damage progression due to the cumulated
effect of repeated shaking and state-of-the-art strategies for short-term countermeasures.

Keywords  Churches · Masonry · Heritage structures · Seismic vulnerability · Post-

earthquake survey · Provisional interventions

* Andrea Penna
Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy
European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering, Pavia, Italy
Department of Civil, Chemical and Environmental Engineering, University of Genoa, Genoa, Italy
Department of Structural and Geotechnical Engineering, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome,
Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture, University of Catania, Syracuse, Italy
Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, University of Padua, Padua,
Department of Engineering, University of Perugia, Perugia, Italy
Department of Structures for Engineering and Architecture, University of Naples Federico II,
Naples, Italy

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1 Introduction

The area mostly affected by the Central Italy sequence of 2016–2017 crosses a terri-
tory largely coincident with that of two Italian National Parks: the “Gran Sasso and
Laga Mountains” and the “Sibillini Mountains”, which in turn relate to the administra-
tive territories of the Abruzzi, Lazio, Umbria and Marches Regions. The area where
the damage was more severe is the vast inner mountain area, which is characterised
from the orographic viewpoint by the presence of reliefs (up to 2500  m a.s.l.), high-
lands (such as Castelluccio di Norcia and Amatrice) and numerous waterways, includ-
ing the main rivers of Tronto (Abruzzi, Lazio and Marches) and Nera (Marches and
Umbria). The municipalities in which this territory is subdivided include centres of
small to medium size (e.g. 7000 inhabitants in Camerino, 5000 in Norcia, 2500 in
Amatrice, 1100 in Arquata del Tronto and in Visso) and numerous small-scale set-
tlements, including abandoned villages. Larger centres such as Ascoli Piceno (50,000
inhabitants) or Tolentino (20,000) were also partially affected.
The seismic vulnerability of churches, significantly higher than the one of ordinary
masonry buildings (Sorrentino et al. 2018), is confirmed also by the damage reported
during this earthquake sequence, which affected churches belonging to about thirty
different dioceses distributed in a much wider area, corresponding to the territory of
eleven provinces in the four regions with a total land area of about 30 000 km2. This
outcome is also consistent with what already observed after the recent events in the
Apennine region (e.g. Angeletti et al. 1997; D’Ayala 1999; Lagomarsino and Podestà
2004a, b, c; Podestà et  al. 2010; Lagomarsino 2012; da Porto et  al. 2012) as well as
in other past earthquakes in Italy (Fig.  1) and with the severe damage reported to
churches after minor earthquakes in other European regions (e.g. Doglioni et al. 1994;
Guerreiro et al. 2000; Giuriani and Marini 2008a; Romão et al. 2013).
This is closely related with the architectural design of churches, based on large
halls without internal floors and walls. The lack of internal diaphragms makes their
walls slenderer than those of ordinary buildings. Furthermore, the presence of arches
and vaults induces static out-of-plane thrusts. This results in a higher vulnerability of
masonry structures to the out-of-plane mechanisms induced by seismic forces.
The widespread damage to churches together with the occurrence of a number of
damaging events in the sequence over a period of few months, largely coinciding with
a highly snowy winter season, required an extensive and complex organization for the
execution of the post-earthquake surveys. It involved the Ministry of Cultural Heritage
(MiBACT) and the Department of Civil Protection (DPC), with the support of many
universities and research centres (e.g. EUCENTRE) coordinated by the Italian Univer-
sity Laboratories Network of Earthquake Engineering (ReLUIS).
This work presents a report of the survey activities, as well as preliminary observa-
tions on the damage observed. In Sect.  2, the large-scale survey carried out on more
than 4000 churches is presented; in Sect. 3, the damage suffered by the churches in the
area is analysed referring to their main architectural, historical and geographical fea-
tures; in Sect. 4 the vulnerability of churches compared to ordinary masonry buildings
is discussed; in Sect. 5 the role of past strengthening interventions is analysed, while in
Sect. 6 relevant strategies for short-term countermeasures are reported.

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(a) Messina - Reggio Calabria 1908 (b) Avezzano 1915 (c) Belice 1968

(d) Friuli 1976 (e) Irpinia 1980 (f) Umbria and Marches 1997

(g) L’Aquila 2009 (h) Emilia 2012 (i) Central Italy 2016
Fig. 1  Examples of damage to churches in past Italian earthquakes (photos a–e retrieved from the internet)

2 Damage survey

Starting from September 13th, 2016 to May 12th, 2017, numerous teams from several Ital-
ian universities, under the joint coordination of DPC, MiBACT and ReLUIS, carried out an
intense damage assessment campaign on churches.
The assessment activities were performed during three phases, with only few days of
interruption after the seismic events of October 2016 (Mw 6.5) and January 2017 (Mw 5.5):

• First phase—ReLUIS–MiBACT–DPC I: from September 13th to October 29th, 2016;

• Second phase—ReLUIS-MiBACT–DPC II: from November 14th, 2016 to January
18th, 2017;
• Third phase—ReLUIS–MiBACT–DPC III: from January 23rd to May 12th, 2017.

Throughout the emergency period, a total of 807 researchers has been involved, ensur-
ing the operation of 264 teams for the on-site activities. In terms of human resources, a
total number of equivalent 4035 man-days with structural engineering background has
worked in the regions of Abruzzi, Lazio, Marches and Umbria. Figure  2 shows the epi-
centres of the earthquakes that hit Central Italy highlighting, for each period, the inspected
areas. During the first period of inspections, around 1003 usability survey have been car-
ried out on churches, located in 165 municipalities. In the second period, 502 churches in
101 municipalities were inspected. Finally, in the last phase of the activities, 2820 churches

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Fig. 2  Localisation of the epicentres of Central Italy 2016–2017 Earthquakes and inspected areas: ReLUIS–

in 493 municipalities were analysed. In total, 4325 churches were assessed at the end of the
There are several reasons for this intense assessment activity. First of all, churches are
people gathering places in Italy. Their public and societal function makes them particularly
exposed to seismic risk. In this respect, the tragedy of Bajardo (Western Liguria earth-
quake) in 1887 should be remembered. At that time, the earthquake hit the village on Ash
Wednesday, when almost all the inhabitants were in the main church for the homily: 220
people died due to the collapse of the roof and of the nave vault (Taramelli and Mercalli
Furthermore, churches are often cultural assets, for both their architectural and histori-
cal value and the assets they contain (such as paintings, frescos, stuccoes, statues, archives,
etc.). The collapses occurred in main nave of the Basilica of Assisi in 1997 are remem-
bered not only for the four victims and the partial loss of an extraordinary building, but
also for the irretrievable loss of Giotto’s frescos (Debs 2013). Finally, being historical and
cultural assets, churches have a relevant role in the touristic activities of the country, with
strong impacts on its economy (Mazzocchi and Montini 2001).
Unfortunately, the high societal, cultural and economic value of churches is in contrast
with their high seismic vulnerability. This is closely related with their architectural design,
based on large halls without internal floors and walls. The lack of internal diaphragms
makes their walls slenderer than those of ordinary buildings. Furthermore, the presence of
arches and vaults induces static out-of-plane thrusts. This results in a higher vulnerability
of masonry structures to the out-of-plane mechanisms induced by seismic forces. Such vul-
nerability has been demonstrated by many studies in the past (e.g. Giuffrè 1991; Doglioni
et al. 1994; Angeletti et al. 1997; Guerreiro et al. 2000; Lagomarsino and Podestà 2004a,
b, c; Binda et al. 2006, 2007; Valluzzi et al. 2007; Podestà et al. 2010; Lagomarsino 2012;
da Porto et al. 2012). The analysis and the assessment of those mechanisms, in plane and
out-of plane were also developed and then implemented in some software tools (e.g. Ber-
nardini et al. 2009, Modena et al. 2010b).
The assessment of seismic damage to churches in the emergency phase has mainly soci-
etal and cultural reasons. On the one hand, being identity places, churches are the centre
of the community. Their reopening after an earthquake is one of the first signs of reha-
bilitation of a community. On the other hand, containing many cultural assets and being
cultural assets themselves, churches should be protected from further losses deriving from
their damaged state. One may consider further damage produced by further shocks, but

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also losses produced by damage and/or collapse of the roof (exposing artistic assets to the
weather), or by the lack of effective anti-theft protection systems, or by the lack of protec-
tive measures against pests and animals.
In this context, the damage survey of churches has indeed the following aims: (1) pro-
tecting cultural assets from further damage, by short-term countermeasures, or the safe
storage of movable assets; (2) allowing for the safe use of the buildings; (3) planning repa-
ration and restoration interventions on the basis of available economic resources.
The survey is carried out in Italy by a codified survey form “A-DC Scheda chiese”,
whose structure is officially approved by the DPC and the MiBACT (PCM-DPC-MiBAC
2006). The form is compiled by teams made of officers and technicians of the MiBACT
and structural engineers representing the DPC. It has three sections: the first one aims at
identifying/describing the building and cataloguing the cultural assets contained in it; the
second aims at assessing structural damage; the third collects recommendations on the usa-
bility of the building and on the emergency safety measures to be implemented.
From the structural point of view, the second section is the more interesting one. It is
structured in accordance with 28 possible damage mechanisms of 13 common architec-
tonic elements (named macroelements, Fig.  3). If a considered macroelement is present
in the church, a score is assigned to each related mechanism, depending on the entity of
damage (from 0 to 5). Assigning points allows the identification of the main damage suf-
fered and the evaluation of an overall average damage index (from 0 to 1) for the building.
Despite inevitably conventional, this approach aims at providing a rational analysis of the
damage and defines a rational path towards the declaration of usability/unusability of the
This damage assessment approach is well-established in Italy (Giuffrè 1991). Despite
several revisions of the survey form, in the last years (before the 2016 earthquakes) it has
been employed for the damage assessment of more than 5000 churches. The origins of this
approach date back to 1976 Friuli earthquakes, when a team of researchers coordinated by
the National Council of Research (CNR) made an extensive damage survey on churches.
This survey suggested that recurrent damage modes were observable on main architectonic
elements. Unfortunately, the report of this work was published by CNR only about 20 years
later (Doglioni et al. 1994). For this reason, only in the mid-1990s, the ideas emerged from
that first extensive survey were better analysed. In particular, after the damage survey of
approximately 30 churches in Lunigiana and Garfagnana earthquake (October 10th, 1995).
Angeletti et  al. (1997) implemented such ideas in a survey form. A further revision of
the form was proposed in 1997 (Lagomarsino and Podestà 2004a, b), following the 1997
Umbria-Marches Earthquakes. In that occasion, the form was used to assess the damage
to more than 3000 churches: it was its first extensive application. The methodology was
also used to survey the damage to the churches involved in the 1998 Azores earthquake
(Guerreiro et al. 2000) and in the 2000 Piedmont Earthquake (Lagomarsino and Podestà
2004a). Following these first applications, a further revision of the form used in Umbria
and Marches was officially adopted by the MiBAC and the DPC as an official tool for the
damage assessment of churches in possible future earthquakes (DPC 2001). After further
revisions, the form was then used after the Molise (Lagomarsino and Podestà 2004c), Pied-
mont (2003), Lombardy (2004), L’Aquila (Podestà et al. 2010; Lagomarsino 2012; da Porto
et  al. 2012) and Emilia earthquakes (Taffarel et  al. 2016). The current version was pub-
lished in 2006 together with a survey form specific for palaces (PCM-DPC-MiBAC 2006).
Each earthquake, including this recent sequence, gave the chance to share ideas and
experiences and discuss the Italian damage assessment methodology. In some cases, the
recorded data allowed deriving damage probability matrices and vulnerability curves for

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Fig. 3  Damage mechanisms and macroelements considered in the survey form used for churches (adapted
from PCM-DPC-MiBAC 2006)

the churches (e.g. Lagomarsino and Podestà 2004b; De Matteis et al. 2016). Considering
the huge number of churches assessed, the Central Italy 2016 Earthquakes will certainly
mark an important contribution to the discussion. In particular, the following issues were
raised from many researchers after this last campaign:

• Although the survey form tries to define a common path to assess the damage and
check the usability of the building, the subjectivity involved in the assessment may lead
to different results depending on the compiling team.
• The overall average damage index, being calculated on the basis of scores assigned
to each mechanism independently, without consideration of possible different weights
for the different mechanisms, may not reflect the actual safety of the church (e.g. one
church with a little damage on many elements may have the same overall damage index
of another church with severe damage on few elements), whereas in some cases peak

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damage could be better related to the usability outcome as it is the case for ordinary
buildings (Rosti et al. 2018). On the other hand, alternative processing of damage data
to the different macrolements together with additional information on geometry, pres-
ence of artistic assets, etc. allowed in the past to derive cost models for repair and retro-
fitting of damaged churches (e.g. Curti et al. 2008).
• Notwithstanding the complexity of heritage buildings, only few macroelements and
damage mechanisms are considered in the survey form; this may lead to an arbitrary
compilation of the form or underestimation of damage.
• The form does not take into account non-seismic damage; the results of the survey, in
particular in sites far from the epicentre, may be influenced by other types of damage
sources, such as landslides, subsidence, tunnelling, etc….
• Despite alternative forms were proposed and used in the past (e.g. Lagomarsino and
Podestà 2004a, b, c), the current survey form does not systematically allow to collect
vulnerability information on the different mechanisms activated in the macroelements
(these may include type of masonry, presence of effective tie-rods, buttresses, etc.).
This type of information on structural details would be generally easy to collect and
extremely useful for subsequent statistical processing, aiming at correlating vulnerabil-
ity indexes and predictable failure mechanisms.

At the present time, the data collected in this assessment campaign are still under pro-
cessing. Unfortunately, the form is in paper format, and the data storing in electronic for-
mat is very time-consuming. During the survey campaign, only the most relevant data were
collected day-by-day: name and position of the church, overall damage index and usability
outcome. Thus, only very general observations could be made. Figure  4 summarises the
data of the inspections and their usability outcome. It can be noted that the surveys car-
ried out in the first and third inspection period resulted in a higher percentage of unusabil-
ity outcomes than those of the second period, with almost 50% of the churches declared
unsafe. Marches and the surveyed areas of Lazio were the most affected regions.

3 Geographic, historic and architectural features

Even in the most affected area, differences in geographical conditions and historical devel-
opment strongly influenced the construction of buildings including heritage structures and
churches, starting from the availability of different construction materials to the adoption
of architectural styles in the various ages. Moreover, these structures lasted for several cen-
turies, being in many cases repaired and/or reconstructed after the relatively frequent earth-
quakes occurring in the region. Several churches damaged by the 2016–2017 earthquakes
where already damaged by relatively recent earthquakes, i.e. 1997 Umbria-Marche and
2009 L’Aquila. In some cases, these churches did already undergo repair and/or retrofitting
interventions, whose performance was hence tested, whereas others were not repaired and
presented cumulative damage. In churches of Umbria and the Marches, repaired after the
1997 seismic sequence old cracks showed up again in many cases, whereas interventions
were not yet executed on many churches in Abruzzi damaged by the 2009 L’Aquila earth-
quake. The latter churches presented clear evidence of damage cumulation.
Therefore, in the area, extremely different churches—by size, configuration, age of first
construction, amount of historical stratifications, importance of the contained cultural her-
itage (either movable or immovable) can be found. The preponderance of small settlements

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(a) (b)
100 Overall checks outcomes
Usable (A)
90 Partially usable (PA)
Usable with countermeasures (AP)
80 Partially usable + Usable with countermeasures (PA+AP)
Unusable (I)
70 Temporary unusable (TI)
Unusable for external risk (IE)







(c) (d)
Fig. 4  Usability outcomes for each on-site inspection period, divided by region: ReLUIS–MiBACT–DPC I
(a); ReLUIS–MiBACT–DPC II (b); ReLUIS–MiBACT–DPC III (c); summary of the usability outcomes in
the entire sequence, for all the four affected regions (d)

involves a high occurrence of small size churches, sometimes being isolated on hills and
mountains (Fig.  5). Large and important churches are fewer and generally located in the
larger urban centres. From the viewpoint of the maintenance conditions before the earth-
quake, the worst situation was observed in isolated churches.
Spanning from the 10–12th to the 19th century, damaged churches show very different
layout and spatial configurations as well as architectural languages (see for instance the
different examples reported in Figs. 5, 6). They do not include—except for limited cases—
universally known monuments but, as a whole, they constitute a collection of assets of
intrinsic historical and cultural value, being closely linked to the Italian landscape, and
constituting the historical identity heritage of sites far away from the globalised touris-
tic tours. Furthermore, the presence—in the majority of these churches—of constructive
and artistic stratifications (e.g. frescoes, canvases, statues, furnishings, etc.) makes this
collection significant for the local history of art and architecture. Additionally, some of
these buildings housed active parishes where people congregated on a regular basis for
religious functions, which were disrupted by the seismic sequence with important societal
These peculiarities give a preliminary idea of the complexity of dealing with the dam-
age suffered by churches. They have to be added to constructive features, which again are

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Fig. 5  Norcia, Madonna di Cascia church, example of the small churches spread in the countryside. Dam-
age condition after the first event, (a, b) (photos of October 6th, 2016), and after the main shock of October
30th, 2016, (c, d)

Fig. 6  Ascoli Piceno, San Francesco church in Piazza del Popolo: minor but spread damages affected the
church, mostly in the stone’s façade finishing

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partly linked to the position of each building in the territory (the availability of natural
stone changes from valley to ridge and slope areas) and their importance (buildings in
marginal areas generally undergo minor transformations). Moreover, as far as construc-
tion techniques are concerned, churches built or largely transformed after the severe earth-
quakes of the 17th and 18th centuries show some awareness of the seismic problem, in the
wall system layout, in the presence of steel ties, in the special organisation of vaults and
roof (Pugliano and Ceradini 1987; Sorrentino et al. 2008).
In older churches (Fig. 7), the presence of these solutions demonstrates how steel tie-
rods were used in the past to repair and strengthen existing damaged buildings (Carocci
and Tocci 2015).
Several churches collapsed even in sites where ordinary buildings reported moderate
damage (e.g. in Norcia or Campi). In some cases, the collapses were caused by external
factors. This is the case of San Benedetto in Norcia and of the Sant’Eutizio abbey in Preci,
seriously damaged by the collapse of the nearby bell tower. In other cases, the upper part
of the lateral walls of the churches crumbled producing the subsequent collapse of the roof
structures (even if supported by light timber beams). Two examples are San Agostino and
San Francesco in Norcia. In many churches the overturning of the facade was produced by
the lack of efficient connections between the load-bearing walls. A remark arises consider-
ing the partial overlap of the area affected by this earthquake sequence with those struck
by the earthquakes occurred in 1979, 1997 and 2009. In fact, a quick examination of dam-
age showed that most of the affected churches had been repaired for damage caused by

Fig. 7  Norcia, historical centre. Damage condition of San Filippo Neri church, as surveyed on October 7th,
2016 (the church fully collapsed after the events of October 26th and 30th): façade (a, b) and side wall (c).
The vaulted ceiling built with camorcanna, a timber frame lined with plaster and reed, and the tie rods date
back to the eighteenth century (d)

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previous earthquakes, while in some churches strengthening interventions were not imple-
mented after a recent seismic event.
The effectiveness of such post-earthquake interventions, in many cases realized with
public funding and managed by the MiBACT (Guccione 1997; Piccarreta 2007), should
be carefully evaluated in the interpretation of the observed seismic response (Lagomarsino
2009) (Fig. 8).
The impressive seismic sequence striking Central Italy since August 24th 2016 to Janu-
ary 18th 2017, obviously adds further complexity in the damage interpretation. Variables
affecting the interpretation of damage to churches are actually so numerous (and often
correlated) that, in the present state of knowledge, it is impossible to propose anything
but reading some of the cases that can be considered significant for the aspects mentioned
above, i.e. layout, construction techniques, stratification, recent interventions.

4 Vulnerability of churches compared to ordinary masonry buildings

Among the settlements that experienced a cumulated European macroseismic scale inten-
sity IEMS > VIII (Tertulliani and Azzaro 2016), those presenting the most valuable concen-
tration of churches are Amatrice and Norcia. The observation of the building performances
would allow for different comparisons, i.e. between buildings in Amatrice and in Norcia,
between the response of structures to the August 24th and October 30th events and between

Fig. 8  Amatrice, Sant’Angelo settlement. Damage condition of the Sant’Arcangelo church as surveyed

on September 12th, 2016  (a, b). The recent intervention of roof replacement included a steel connection
between the wall top and the timber structure, which was not effective (c). Note in the partially collapsed
façade wall the radiciamento, a timber tie embedded in the masonry during the construction (d)

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Table 1  Housner intensity, IH (Housner 1952), and modified Housner intensity, mIH (Mouyiannou et  al.
2014), in Amatrice and Norcia, for the main earthquakes of the central Italy sequence
Station name Location 24th August 2016—Mw 6.0 30th October 2016—Mw 6.5
IH (0.1–2.5 s) [cm] mIH (0.1–0.5 s) [cm] IH (0.1–2.5 s) [cm] mIH (0.1–0.5 s) [cm]

AMT_E Amatrice 74.9 28.6 90.8 20.3

AMT_N Amatrice 113.1 14.6 73.0 16.4
NRC_E Norcia 106.8 13.6 203.2 23.5
NRC_N Norcia 80.0 11.6 151.5 16.6

Fig. 9  Amatrice, view after the August 24th events: a Via Roma with the clock tower; b Corso Umberto I
with the façade of the church of San Giuseppe

ordinary buildings and churches. To have an idea of the ground motion severity, two inten-
sity measures are presented in Table 1, for the two main events and for the two previously
mentioned historic centres. The first synthetic parameter is Houser intensity (Housner
1952), defined as the area below the elastic pseudo-velocity spectrum between the peri-
ods of 0.1 and 2.5  s. This parameter is usually well correlated with damage to medium-
and long-period structures, such as bell-towers (Casolo 2001) and churches (Marotta et al.
2018). To better investigate short period structures, such as ordinary unreinforced masonry
buildings, the modified Housner Intensity, computed for periods up to 0.5 s as proposed by
Mouyiannou et al. (2014), has been considered as well. The value of Housner Intensity for
the August 24th event is similar in Amatrice and Norcia, whereas modified Housner Inten-
sity is higher in Amatrice. The event of October 30th induced a modified Housner Intensity
similar to the end of August event and comparable in the two settlements, but an almost
double Housner Intensity in Norcia, both compared to Amatrice and to the first event in the
sequence. These last Housner Intensity values are among the largest ever recorded in Italy.
Several comments are possible comparing these shaking scenarios with observed per-
formances. Ordinary buildings in Amatrice suffered tremendous damage on August 24th
(Fig.  9), as highlighted by the macroseismic intensity IEMS = X (Azzaro et  al. 2016). Such
dramatic outcome cannot be justified by the difference in modified Housner Intensity, con-
sidering that Norcia suffered a cumulated IEMS = VIII–IX. Therefore, a marked vulnerability
of ordinary buildings was present in Amatrice, as a consequence of very poor mortar quality
and a limited earthquake activity in the last two centuries (Sorrentino et al. 2018). In com-
parison to unreinforced masonry residential buildings, the churches of Amatrice suffered

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less dramatic damage, probably thanks to a higher construction quality (Marotta et al. 2017),
as well as larger demands in the short period range in the epicentral region (Mollaioli et al.
The church of Sant’Agostino suffered the collapse of the tympanum of the façade
(Fig.  10a), partial delamination of the internal leaf of the right wall, severe shear cracks
in the longitudinal walls, in the triumphal arch and in the bell gable. The former church of
Sant’Emidio (protector against the earthquakes) and currently civic museum suffered the
partial collapse of the right lateral wall and the supported horizontal structures (Fig. 10b),
as well as the partial delamination of the external leaf of the left lateral wall. San Franc-
esco’s performance (Fig.  10c) was similar to that of Sant’Agostino, whereas damage to
the church of San Giovanni was more severe (Fig.  10d). For the same event, damage to
churches and ordinary buildings in Norcia has been very limited, as shown by the reported
value of macroseismic intensity IEMS = V–VI.
On the contrary, the October 30th earthquake produced tremendous effects on the
churches of Norcia, also due to extremely high Housner Intensity values and long pulses
in ground motion (Sorrentino et al. 2014). Whereas ordinary buildings suffered severe
damage but rarely collapsed (Sisti et al. 2018), extensive collapses have been observed
in churches, confirming a higher vulnerability as reported also for the Umbria-Marches

Fig. 10  Churches of Amatrice, after the August 24th events: a Sant’Agostino, b former Sant’Emidio, c San
Francesco (courtesy of M. Stucchi), d San Giovanni

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Fig. 11  Damage to churches in Norcia, after the October 30th events. a Former church of San Francesco,
b Chiesa del Crocifisso, c San Benedetto, d Santa Maria Argentea. Released from the Corps of Firefighters

earthquake (D’Ayala 1999). Several churches displayed a collapse of one lateral wall,
involving the failure of supported horizontal structures. This is the case of the for-
mer church of San Francesco (Fig.  11a), of the Chiesa del Crocifisso (Fig.  11b), of
Sant’Agostino and of San Benedetto (Fig. 11c), although in this latter case the collapse
of the bell tower played an important role in the activation of the progressive collapse.
Similar collapses occurred in Amatrice in the church of San Francesco, on October 30th
2016, and in that of Sant’Agostino, on January 18th, 2017.
It seems that the lack of a sufficient density of walls in the transversal direction is a
major drawback of this typology that, from a structural point of view, is just a large hall.
Such vulnerability was probably understood in the past, when baroque post-earthquake
reconstructions involved the addition of masonry altars as buttresses (A. Viscogliosi
personal communication). Similarly, when rebuilding a church partially collapsed after
the 1980 Irpinia earthquake, external buttresses were added to a previously plain wall
(Giuffrè 1989). However, such an intervention could hardly be proposed to responsible
authorities in a preventive case. It is worth mentioning that the Irpinian church suffered
the overturning of one pillar between the naves, similarly to what happened to two pil-
lars in Santa Maria Argentea (Fig. 11d).

5 Performance of churches with past interventions

In Amatrice and Norcia some strengthening solutions were observed. A typical interven-
tion to improve the transversal response of churches consisted in the use of stiff roofs.
Indeed, between the 1976 Friuli earthquake and the 1997 Umbria-Marches seismic

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sequence, several churches have had their timber roof replaced by a reinforced concrete
structure. This is also the case of Santa Rita in Norcia, which indeed did not suffer the
lateral failure of its longitudinal walls. However, the gable of its façade collapsed, as
frequently observed after recent earthquakes, probably due to increased masses (Lago-
marsino and Podestà 2004c). A possible alternative is the use of a continuum plywood
layer connected to the existing timber roof and to perimeter walls (Giuriani and Marini
2008b; Senaldi et  al. 2014), provided that the masonry close to the roof does not dis-
integrate during shaking, as observed in several buildings, such as the churches of
Sant’Arcangelo (Fig. 4) and San Giuseppe in Amatrice, or that of Sant’Antonio in Visso.
Again, interventions against masonry crumbling, such as injections (Valluzzi et  al.
2004), steel tie-rods (Giaretton et al. 2017) reinforced repointing with steel or innova-
tive materials (Valluzzi et al. 2005) are feasible for cultural heritage whereas issues may
arise for fibre-reinforced mesh coating (Borri et  al. 2014) due to the influence on the
exterior finishing.
The following of this section describes the collapse mechanisms of two churches, Santa
Maria di Piazza and Sant’Andrea located in Campi Alto, near Norcia, and discusses the
possible causes. These churches were selected because, between 2000 and 2004, a research
team from the Politecnico of Milan, University of Padua and the Italian Ministry of Cul-
tural Properties carried out an extensive investigation on the historic centre of Campi (Mar-
chetti 2002; Cardani 2003; Binda et al. 2004). This study allowed to know the construction
typologies, the typical building geometry, construction details and materials used, as well
as the maintenance level and vulnerability aspects. No interventions aiming at reducing the
seismic vulnerability of these churches were adopted after the study was performed.
The two case studies are examples of buildings in which no or limited interventions
were implemented, even when structural deficiencies were highlighted by a seismic assess-
ment. The experiences of these collapses, involving the complete loss of many historic
buildings of inestimable cultural value, should increase the awareness for the needs of this
type of buildings of preservation and intervention, to prevent new disasters and transmit
this heritage to posterity.

5.1 Santa Maria di Piazza church

The church of Santa Maria di Piazza, originally built in 1351, was repeatedly damaged by
earthquakes and restored during the centuries. The church was located at the ground floor
of a building, which was part of an aggregate construction located in via Graziosa. The
presence of a bell-gable and a portal, decorated with ornamentation, made it possible to
distinguish it from adjacent dwellings. The church was composed of a single rectangular
wide hall, parted in three naves of approximately equal height, separated by arcades and
covered with barrel stone vaults (Fig. 12a). The interior of the church had many original
frescoes from the fifteenth century, with vivid colours and detailed drawings (Fig. 12b).
The building complex, which included the church, was carefully examined in the afore-
mentioned studies. The building plans reported in Cardani (2003) were integrated with
what observed during the survey carried out in September 2016, to assess the damage
resulting from the earthquake occurred on August 24th, 2016.
Two structural units, i.e. portions of a building aggregate assumed to have an unitary
static and seismic behaviour, can be identified (Fig.  13). The right structural unit had
two storeys, but only the second storey (above the church) was strengthened by grout

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Fig. 12  The interior of the Santa Maria di Piazza church (a) and a scene of the frescoes on the nave vault
that featured episodes from the lives of St. Joachim and St. Anne, St. Mary’s parents, and St. Mary’s life
(b). The frescoes were painted by the Sparapane atelier, in the fifteenth century

injections after the 1979 earthquake. The roof structure was composed by three timber
trusses, resting on the longitudinal walls, supporting a timber secondary structure and
the cover. In this portion of the aggregate, four tie rods were visible at the first-floor
level. The façade of the right structural unit was not aligned with that of the left struc-
tural unit. The latter had three storeys, with reinforced-concrete floor and roof structures
resting on transversal walls. No tie rods were present in this portion.
The major source of vulnerability was probably the small size right-central pillar,
whose masonry had natural stone units made of breccia, a weak rock composed of min-
eral fragments, cemented together by a fine-grained matrix. This pillar was studied in

Fig. 13  Plans, elevation and cross sections of the portion of aggregate construction occupied at ground floor
by the Santa Maria di Piazza church. The orange area identifies the portion of church belonging to the left
structural unit; the red one identifies the portion belonging to the right structural unit; the slender central
pillar is highlighted in green in the ground floor plan

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Cardani (2003), highlighting the presence of vertical cracks and expulsion of material.
Ultrasonic pulse velocity testing confirmed the presence of deep cracks. The report also
noted that “the lack of maintenance, the damages caused by earthquakes and the addi-
tional load related to recent interventions put this building in a critical situation”.
The earthquake of August 24th 2016 did not seriously damage the church. During
the survey carried out in September, a damage of the bell gable (Fig. 14a) and a crack
between the left barrel vault and the façade (Fig. 14b) were observed, whereas the pre-
viously-discussed state of the pillar was not affected (Fig. 14c).
A video shot following the October 26th earthquakes shows external upheavals. In
particular, a vertical crack can be seen at the right corner of the church showing the
activation of the façade overturning mechanism, which was blocked by the tie rods
installed in the retrofit interventions (Fig. 15a). The October 30th earthquake caused the
collapse of the two structural units that included the church and the adjacent bell gable
(Fig. 15b).
Additional, and possibly contributory, causes were identified as well. The compres-
sive stress in the pillar, caused by the out-of-plane bending under static loads alone, was
estimated to be around 20 MPa, a value very close to the strength the breccia material
alone. The overturning of the left part of the façade could have caused the overall col-
lapse as the thrust by the arch-pillar system, dividing the left nave from the central one,
was contrasted by neither horizontal structures, spanning parallel to the façade, nor tie
rods. The adjacent bell gable may have collapsed as first, with the secondary roof struc-
ture of the right structural unit losing its support.

5.2 Sant’Andrea church

The church of Sant’Andrea was located next to the entrance of the Campi Alto castle. Built
in the fourteenth century, the church originally presented a single nave and it was then
extended with a second right one during Renaissance, in order to accommodate a grow-
ing community. In the sixteenth century, a triangular porch facing the façade, made of five

Fig. 14  Damages observed in the Santa Maria di Piazza church, in Campi Alto, after the August 24th earth-
quake: a cracked bell-gable; b crack between the vault of the left nave and the façade; c conditions of the
slender right-central pillar

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Fig. 15  a Vertical crack at the right corner of the church after the October 26th events. Snapshot taken from
a video available at www.perug​iatod​ay.it. b The collapse of the church caused by the October 30th earth-

arches, was added; it was completely restored in 2009 (www.osser​vator​ioric​ostru​zione​

.regio​ne.umbri​a.it) (Fig. 16a). The two naves were covered by cross vaults (Fig. 16b) and
were separated from the apse by a wooden decorated wall realised in 1596.
In the apsidal area, a 15 m tall bell tower was located. The interior of the church fea-
tured many decorative elements: six altars, a baptismal font, an antique oval stone stoup,
a pulpit of the sixteenth century carved in wood and a choir with a 1787 organ. In the
1960–1970s the roof of the church was rebuilt resorting to clay flooring blocks and pre-
cast post-tensioned reinforced-concrete beams, perpendicular to the nave and connected to
reinforced-concrete tie beams, resting on the central arcade and the lateral walls. These tie
beams were interrupted at the façade, which was not otherwise connected to the roof struc-
ture. At the attic level, there were transversal steel tie rods that reduced the roof thrust on
the side walls and a timber tie meant to counteract the central arcade thrust on the façade.
Conversely, at level of the springing line, there was no tie and the vaults thrust was directly
loading the façade.

Fig. 16  a South-West elevation of the Sant’Andrea church, in Campi Alto: the porch with five arches and
the adjoining entrance to the historical centre of Campi Alto; b plan of the church, with two naves covered
by cross vaults

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Fig. 17  Damage to the Sant’Andrea’s church caused by the event of the 24th of August: a cracks on the
cross vault; b vertical crack between the façade and the orthogonal wall; c crack on the pier adjoining the
façade—(photo taken in the attic)

Fig. 18  Damage to the Sant’Andrea church after the October 26th event (photos available at www.lavoc​e.it):
a South-West façade, with the collapse of the gable wall; b façade overturning, involving the adjacent porch

The survey carried out on September 16th, 2016 allowed the observation of sig-
nificant cracks in the cross vaults (Fig.  17a) and an external crack between the façade
and the side wall (Fig.  17b). During a second inspection, carried out on October 9th,
the attic was made accessible and the absence of filling material on the extrados of the
vaults and of any type of reinforcement was observed. A crack on the pier near the
façade, beneath the timber tie, probably caused by the thrust of the ridge beam on the
gable wall, was also noted (Fig. 17c). The presence of the porch equipped with steel tie
rods contrasted the potential out-of-plane overturning of the façade.
The October 26th earthquakes worsened the existing damages. In some photos taken
after these seismic events, the gable appears disintegrated (Fig.  18a) and the porch,
involved in the overturning mechanism, is in a near-collapse condition (Fig. 18b). The

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seismic event occurred on October 30th caused the complete collapse of the façade and
of the porch (Fig. 19a).
The lack of connections between façade and orthogonal load-bearing walls, as well
as between façade and roof structure, together with the unrestrained thrust of stone-
masonry vaults, contributed to the vulnerability of the collapsed façade.

6 Short‑term countermeasures on damaged churches

In the case of churches, the combination of frequently very high historic/artistic values
and of peculiar construction characteristics (to which, of course, very specific seismic
vulnerabilities correspond) makes the design and execution of temporary and urgent
safeguarding interventions particularly demanding in case of damage due to an earth-
quake (e.g. Modena and Binda 2009; Modena et al. 2010a, b).
In such conditions special conservation criteria make the scope of the countermeas-
ures much more wide, sophisticated and articulated then the pure protection of pub-
lic safety, which of course remains the major goal. Moreover, provisional interventions
have to be decided on the basis of a real case-by-case approach, depending on any pos-
sible combination of type and level of structural damage, of direct and indirect damage
caused to movable and unmovable artistic objects, and of the historic/artistic value of
every single portion of the ruins, even of single pieces of both structural (stone, timber)
and decorative (gypsum, plasters) materials.
According to specific guidelines, issued by MiBACT (MiBACT 2017) for preserving as
much as possible movable and unmovable testimonies of every single church, the following
activities must be carried out:

• before any short-term countermeasure is executed, artistic objects (such as paintings,

statues, books) that are known to belong to the church, in most cases on the basis of an
existing database, need to be identified and protected or removed and securely stored,

Fig. 19  Damage to the Sant’Andrea church after the October 30th earthquake: a collapse of the porch and
the façade; b close up of an ancient timber tie, characterised by small cross section and decayed state

Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering (2019) 17:5763–5790 5783

as far as possible. This action is limited to items that can be easily moved and it is usu-
ally performed with the help of fire brigades who are trained to enter damaged build-
ings and to stay inside for the minimum required time;
• then, the countermeasure must be designed and executed in such a way that restorers,
with the help of other operators, can accurately select among the debris any testimony
of historical/artistic interest, then remove and store them in a safe site for future use in
the reconstruction;
• moreover, in principle the temporary interventions have to preserve any single por-
tion of ruins, as the decision of whether remove or incorporate it in the reconstruction
works is deferred to accurate historical analyses at the time of the restoration design;
• finally, the interventions should optimise the use of financial resources; hence, they
should not hinder, but rather facilitate the final repair/reconstruction/restoration (not
only as far as a single building is considered, but even at urban level, by limiting public
area occupation), and they should be, as much as possible, already part of such final

A crucial role is played in this context by Fire Brigades teams, specifically trained to
both execute the recovery and/or the protection of very important movable cultural herit-
age via “air operation” (i.e. suspended by movable cranes) and define possible installation
procedures compatible with the safety of operators.
Obviously, the first step is the recognition of the type and level of damage correspond-
ing to activated collapse mechanisms, in order to establish intervention priorities and iden-
tify the corresponding most appropriate solutions. To reduce as far as possible the danger
for the operators, priority is given to the prevention of further collapses of damaged and
precarious structural and non-structural elements. The easiest and fastest technique has to
be used, possibly upgrading it at a later stage, to provide firemen and other operators with
relatively safe working conditions. In this context, it is preferable to adopt solutions that
tackle each mechanism independently, to avoid complex interactions.
For structural reasons, confirmed by observations in previous earthquakes, the out-of-
plane overturning of some portions of the building are the most frequent mechanisms. Pro-
visional interventions can be designed to prevent this type of failure and to help achieving
a box-type behaviour. In-plane failure mechanisms are more difficult to be counteracted
at this stage, because they need global interventions improving masonry characteristics
and allowing force redistribution. Nonetheless, bracing of openings can improve in-plane
seismic response. Another crucial issue is the fast assessment of masonry quality and the
potential for disintegration, in particular due to already occurred damage. In this case, a
natural lime mortar render with fast hardening and reduced shrinkage might be adopted.
The same solution might be used on wall edges to prevent degradation and mortar washout.
Once fragmentation is prevented, it is possible to define two approaches to contrast
the activated failure mechanisms. One is based on the addition of an external structural
system to bear the seismic action (timber or tube-and-coupler shoring systems), whereas
the other one, very effective when applicable, relies on the masonry itself, connecting
each block together by means of steel ties or polyester bands (e.g. Bellizzi et al. 2001;
Dolce et al. 2002). In the first case, the increase in stiffness and the interaction with the
original structure may lead to some punching effects (Calderini et  al. 2004). Moreo-
ver, the effect of the seismic action on the propping system need to be accounted for.
In the second case, the presence of some elements capable of bearing the lateral force
originated by the overturning mechanism is necessary and their capacity needs to be

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For both approaches, the STOP manual (NCP 2009) is a practical tool prepared by
the Fire Brigades providing suitable solutions to rapidly design typical interventions
aimed at restraining out-of-plane overturning, propping arches and windows or confin-
ing columns. Examples of the two approaches, applied to the church of San Benedetto
in Norcia and the sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Amatrice, are illustrated in
the following.
The church of San Benedetto dates back to the thirteenth century. Due to the sub-
stantial seismic hazard of the area, the basilica was damaged by several seismic events
during the centuries. One of the most important event occurred in 1703 and led to some
collapses and following reconstructions. This reconstruction involved some changes
in the plan and in the height of the church. For instance, the height of the bell tower
was reduced from more than 63 m to 33 m, during the reconstruction occurred in 1734
(Comino and Iambrenghi 2013).
The August 24th earthquake caused relatively minor damages to the church, with one
of the pinnacles of the façade evidently rotated about its axis. On October 26th the stone
cross at the top of the façade collapsed on the roof and parts of the left-lateral internal
trabeation disintegrated and fell in the nave (Fig.  20). During the October 30th earth-
quake, the almost complete collapse of roof, porch, nave and a major portion of the bell
tower occurred (Fig. 21a).
In this case, the main aim of the intervention was to preserve, as much as possi-
ble, what remained after this massive collapse. The approach based on connection of
masonry blocks by means of ties was not feasible, because only the façade remained.
For this reason, a tube and coupler scaffolding was designed. The entire scaffolding and
the façade were calculated by means of a detailed FEM model, to account for the seis-
mic action, the significant wind action on the free-standing wall and very different load
conditions during installation. To define accurately the weights amount and position, a
model with only compressive restraints on nodes was adopted. Specific attention was
given to joints: connection details and capacity forces were defined by means of labora-
tory tests performed by the Fire Brigades.
Another issue concerned the installation sequence. Usually, the first step is the debris
removal, but this operation requires firemen to operate in a safe position. To avoid building
an additional temporary shelter, and taking advantage of the limited amount of debris in
front of the façade, a remote controlled scraper was used for debris removal, hence without

Fig. 20  The San Benedetto church, in Norcia, after the events occurred on October 26th

Bulletin of Earthquake Engineering (2019) 17:5763–5790 5785

Fig. 21  The San Benedetto church, in Norcia, after the event of the 30th of October (a) and design sketch

the presence of any operator near the damaged façade, then a crane moved the scaffolding
(blue portion in Fig.  21b), previously built on a safe position (Fig.  22a), directly on the
façade. Then, a cantilever scaffolding beam was installed (Fig. 21b, red part, and Fig. 22b)
on the internal side of the façade tympanum in order to prevent an overturning towards the
nave. Finally, once the debris in the interior side will be removed, the yellow part will be
A different example is that of the Santa Maria delle Grazie sanctuary, in Amatrice. In
this case, the damage was limited and emergency interventions aimed at preventing the
façade overturning and at increasing the in-plane capacity of façade and triumphal arch.
Some minor interventions were also performed on internal altars. The façade overturning
was counteracted by means of a temporarily and provisional intervention which will require
a further intervention of consolidation. The solution is made of two vertical steel beams
used to distribute forces on the timber elements on the masonry and two levels of cables
anchored in the longitudinal wall (Fig.  23a). Conversely, the in-plane strengthening was
designed with stainless steel bars, installed inside the masonry, as in the case of a definitive

Fig. 22  Main (front) scaffolding launch (a) and launch of the back scaffolding beam (b)

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Fig. 23  Santa Maria delle Grazie sanctuary, in Amatrice: out-of-plane (a) and in-plane (b) strengthening,
whenever possible with definitive tie rods and anchor plates (c)

intervention against future earthquakes and not only as a short-term countermeasure. The
intervention, typical of restoration solutions, was carried out after a masonry consolidation
by lime injection and then the stainless steel tie-rod was inserted in a continuous coring
throughout the façade at the level between the rose window and the church portal. The in-
plane strength on the triumphal arch was made by to tie-rods installed at each edge of the
arch (Fig. 23b) and connected together by means of an external plate. This case highlights
that another criterion for safety measure is to look for solutions already pointed to the final
restoration, saving costs and reducing the downtime of the church.

7 Conclusions

The 2016–2017 earthquake sequence caused severe damage and collapses to the churches
distributed over an extended land area, largely wider than the one where ordinary buildings
were significantly affected. This general outcome needs to be complemented by specific
observations related to different sites. In some places, several churches performed better
than ordinary buildings (e.g. Amatrice) due to a combination of very poor construction
of ordinary unreinforced masonry structures and different dynamic characteristics (longer
period of churches and other heritage structures). In other cases, ordinary buildings per-
formed very well to strong shaking, also thanks to suitable strengthening interventions
(e.g. Norcia), whereas churches showed dramatically their significantly higher vulnerabil-
ity, mostly collapsing after cumulating damage during the main shocks of the earthquake
The distribution of these strong motions over time luckily helped in preventing victims
associated with the collapse of buildings and churches. These happy circumstances cannot
hide the need for a renewed attention to structural safety of these complex and vulnerable
From the safety viewpoint many churches can be surely regarded as important struc-
tures, i.e. buildings whose seismic resistance is of importance in view of the conse-
quences associated with a collapse (buildings potentially hosting a significant number of
people). The seismic protection of important structures is guaranteed by adopting higher
design actions, i.e. adopting in the design or retrofitting of these buildings a value of the
return period of the seismic events higher than that of ordinary structures. Conversely, the

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observation of seismic damage to churches is unfortunately again confirming that the oppo-
site generally happens.
On the other hand, the intrinsic value of historical constructions is well known, as it is
the need to pass them on to future generations. Similarly, it is recognised that several inter-
ventions executed in the recent past were not even effective under the conservation aspects.
This was in some cases due to too strong approaches of intervention, such as those imple-
mented in the second half of the past century without proper consideration of compatibil-
ity, reversibility and durability, not preserving the integrity of the original constructions
and in many cases leading to unexpected behaviour of the original structure. In some cases,
interventions did not even account for seismic issues.
The central Italy seismic swarm once again pointed out the high vulnerability of
churches. The high diffusion of masonry crumbling highlights the need of improving
masonry quality and the need of maintenance of those structure. Moreover, too often sim-
ple seismic devices capable of preventing wall overturning (e.g. ties or roof connections)
are lacking although they repeatedly demonstrated their effectiveness. Another key aspect
is the lack of intervention in vulnerable cases pointed out by assessment. The quality and
the reliability of the assessment procedures in the last decades improved and they proved
to be a suitable tool to identify structural deficiencies and guide retrofitting interventions.
The systematic observation of damages to the churches and the collection of survey
information surely constituted and still constitutes a valuable knowledge basis for better
understanding and interpreting the response of this type of structures. To this aim, sur-
vey forms also including some information on relevant structural details should be recom-
mended to allow associating and identifying key vulnerability aspects.

Acknowledgements  The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of a number of colleagues,
students and co-workers who voluntarily participated to the surveys, also providing a fundamental contribu-
tion to the critical emergency phase. The presented activities have been conducted by the Italian Centres of
Competence on Earthquake Engineering EUCENTRE and ReLUIS under coordination and supervision of
the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and of the Department of Civil Protection. A specific contract has been
signed between ReLUIS and DPC in order to support travel and lodging expenses of involved researchers.

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