In 'Monuments-Men' Style, Italy's Art Police Save History : Parallels Over the decades, they've tracked down looted paintings and manuscripts, and rescued artwork after natural disasters. These days, they're salvaging centuries-old works in Italy's Amatrice quake zone.
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When Cultural Heritage Is At Risk, Italy's Art Police Come To The Rescue

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When Cultural Heritage Is At Risk, Italy's Art Police Come To The Rescue

When Cultural Heritage Is At Risk, Italy's Art Police Come To The Rescue

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The powerful earthquake that struck central Italy this summer killed nearly 300 people. Survivors have all been accounted for, but countless works of art remain trapped beneath the rubble. Reporter Christopher Livesay caught up with the elite team that's hurrying to try to save them and maybe even secure the future of these towns in the process.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The church of San Lorenzo in Accumoli is tiny and dark. The electricity has been out since the quake ripped through the area and knocked over these three rows of pews on this wooden floor, soggy since parts of the foundation receded.

SILVIO SANTI: (Through interpreter) But don't step over there. You could fall through.

LIVESAY: Silvio Santi is the church caretaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYS JINGLING)

LIVESAY: He opens up an old medieval door for two Carabinieri police officers from the Comando Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, better known as the art squad. The Italian government has sent them to account for the thousands of artworks that are damaged or at risk since the quake hit on August 24. These include frescoes, mosaics, stained-glass windows, paintings and sculptures, along with centuries-old churches and other historic buildings.

Wearing blue miners' helmets, they shine a flashlight on a gilded altar to reveal a towering fresco of a Madonna and Child from the 17th century on the wall above. The officer snaps some photos of the deep cracks that run through the surface...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKING)

LIVESAY: Then cover up the artworks in a plastic tarp...

(SOUNDBITE OF TARP RUSTLING)

LIVESAY: ...Until they can be safely removed and taken to a nearby town for restoration. Captain Lanfranco Disibio commands this unit of the art squad. He says they rushed to the epicenter in hilly central Italy as soon as the quake struck.

LANFRANCO DISIBIO: (Through interpreter) Naturally, the first priority was to save human lives. Our work to save artwork begins when we know that all the people in a specific area have been saved or accounted for. We're like the Monuments Men.

LIVESAY: Founded in 1969, the art squad was the first police unit of its kind in the world. Over the decades, they've tracked down artwork looted by the Nazis, priceless manuscripts stolen from libraries and, of course, paintings threatened by disasters, both natural and man-made. One unit is currently awaiting a U.N. deployment to Syria.

In the quake zone, they work in a crisis unit alongside structural engineers with the fire department, like Ciro Bolognese. In one dramatic rescue, his team lowered firemen through the collapsed roof of the Basilica of Sant'Agostino, a cherished church in the town of Amatrice, and hoisted paintings and statues to safety at great personal risk and with a sense of urgency.

CIRO BOLOGNESE: It's urgent because we have to stop the movement of the church. Otherwise, with the aftershock, other parts could collapse.

LIVESAY: Can it be made more earthquake-resistant so that if a similar earthquake happens in the future, we can hope this doesn't happen again?

BOLOGNESE: Yes, when we will repair this church using actual national code for buildings, it will be repaired providing a reinforcement of the structures.

LIVESAY: So why wasn't it reinforced before the earthquake (laughter)?

BOLOGNESE: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: He can't answer that. He says it's a political question. But many are asking. A state prosecutor is investigating over 100 buildings that fell down but perhaps shouldn't have. One of them is the Capranica elementary school in Amatrice. Much of it crumbled to the ground. Fortunately, the quake struck at 3:30 in the morning and not during a school day with more than 200 students inside.

Sergio Pirozzi is the mayor of Amatrice. The Italian government has vowed to spend billions on rebuilding his town and the others and making them quake-resistant. The mayor is cautiously optimistic.

MAYOR SERGIO PIROZZI: (Through interpreter) It depends on how much the state wants to spend. Reconstruction will happen according to the right resources available. With the right resources, you can do something. If you don't have the right resources, you can't.

LIVESAY: Can the town be reborn? (Speaking Italian).

PIROZZI: (Through interpreter) Sure, just as it was before. And these historic monuments will be the keystone of the rebuilding process, everything that symbolized this community. I'm hoping - counting on this.

LIVESAY: The local artwork is the backbone of any Italian town, he adds. If it doesn't return, then the people might not either.

For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Amatrice, Italy.

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