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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro filling in for Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

Bells were tolling in the hills of central Italy as people began burying those killed in a devastating earthquake. The number of dead is now 279. The earthquake has also inflicted heavy losses on architectural treasures, many of dating back more than 700 years. In the medieval town of L'Aquila it demolished bell towers, now silent. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from the scene.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Over the centuries, L'Aquila has undergone Norman, Spanish and papal domination. Founded as a mountain stronghold in 1240 by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II, its name means the eagle. The high-flying bird is the emblem on the façade of the castle fortress overlooking a city that has withstood besieging armies - until this week's devastating earthquake and aftershocks. Part of the roof has collapsed. Cracked masonry and marble litter the ground.

Maurizio Galletti, the man in charge of the Abruzzo region's artistic heritage, has come to assess the damage.

Mr. MAURIZIO GALLETTI (In charge of region's artistic heritage): (Through translator) This castle was built in the 16th century on Norman foundations and had always been able to resist attacks and previous quakes. But now several of its interior walls have been severely damaged.

POGGIOLI: Culture ministry officials are now compiling a list of damaged landmarks in the city and region. These include the duomo, whose transept has collapsed; the baroque Church of the Anime Sante, whose cupola has all but disappeared, the Renaissance San Bernardino Church, whose bell tower crumbled on top of a neighboring convent. And the building housing the region's historical archives has also been severely damaged. This is just a sampling, Galletti says.

Mr. GALLETTI: (Through translator): Abruzzo has a high concentration of monuments, starting from Roman times. This was already an important trade route in antiquity. Then there was a florid medieval period. We have major Benedictine churches. And in Fossa, a medieval Gothic church covered with unique frescos. It, too, has been seriously damaged. The entire territory has suffered unbelievable artistic destruction.

POGGIOLI: The most severe damage was done to the 13th-century basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. With its red and white stone façade combining Romanesque and Gothic architecture, it's widely considered the artistic masterpiece of the Abruzzo region. The three majestic naves are now laid bare to the elements, the apse has collapsed, and a mountain of rubble covers the main altars.

Father NUNZIO SPINELLI (Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio): (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: Father Nunzio Spinelli, rector of the basilica, says it was founded in 1298 by Celestine V. Elected pope in his old age, Celestine soon abdicated. The only pope in history to do so. That decision earned him the scorn of the poet Dante, who in "The Divine Comedy" places Celestine at the entrance of hell for his cowardly great refusal. Now Celestine's tomb is also buried under rubble.

The continuing aftershocks have inflicted more damage on the entire historic center of the city. Streets lined with 16th, 17th and 18th-century buildings — many of which are teetering.

The area has been declared off limits. Residents are banned from returning to their homes. Streets are patrolled by soldiers and police to prevent looting.

Culture ministry authorities say a full damage assessment and estimated costs of repair will take time. It's clear that the $45 million in emergency funds earmarked by the government are a drop in the bucket. But art experts are already shaking their heads at the poor state of conservation in Italy, a country with one of the world's richest cultural heritages.

Emanuela Grifoni is studying to become a professional diagnostician of damaged art.

Ms. EMANUELA GRIFONI (Studying to be diagnostician of damaged art): (Through translation) What is of fundamental importance in this field is constant maintenance. It's unthinkable that we intervene once in awhile and then abandon these artistic monuments to themselves. Our conservation is a national responsibility.

POGGIOLI: But in Italy, Grifoni adds, there's little awareness of the need to safeguard and conserve the country's immense artistic wealth.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, L'Aquila.

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