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Kazakhstan’s restoration of Italian chapel gives devastated city a bit of hope

29.07.2013
Hal Foster Hal Foster ex-Los Angeles Times journalist, journalism professor

Many of the 67,000 residents of L’Aquila, Italy, have had little to cheer about since an earthquake leveled much of their city four years ago.

Kazakhstan recently provided them with a bright spot.

The earthquake in April of 2009, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, killed 309 people, left 50,000 homeless in the city and its surroundings, and destroyed much of the downtown area.

With Italy in an economic crisis, restoration of L’Aquila, a medieval university town in the Appenine Mountains, has been excruciatingly slow. This has angered the city’s residents, who place the blamed mostly on the shoulders of those running the national government in Rome.

L’Aquila’s devastated buildings included hundreds of architectural, cultural and historical treasures, including the Chapel of San Giuseppe dei Minimi.

The 17th-century Oratory of San Giuseppe dei Minimi. Photo courtesy of www.theartnewspaper.com

The 17th-century Oratory of San Giuseppe dei Minimi. Photo courtesy of www.theartnewspaper.com

This month Kazakhstan made good on a 3 ½-year-old pledge to rebuild the chapel, one of the most important examples of baroque architecture in L’Aquila. The $2.3 million donation is the largest chunk of foreign aid the country has given a developed country.

Its other donations to developed countries have included money to help address the Fukushima disaster in Japan and Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

Completion of the L’Aquila project was commemorated in a ceremony at the chapel July 8, according to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry and news reports. The event drew Italian dignitaries plus members of the countries’ diplomatic corps.

In addition to Italian government, business and cultural leaders, those thanking Kazakhstan’s government and people for the restoration have included the Roman Catholic bishop of L’Aquila, Giovanni D’Ercole.

Kazakhstan pledged to restore the chapel on the eve of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s state visit to Italy in November of 2009, where $1 billion in business deals were signed.

Italy has long been one of Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partners. At the moment it is the fifth-largest buyer of Kazakhstan’s products, according to the CIA World Factbook.

But trade wasn’t the main reason Kazakhstan decided to make the foreign-aid donation to Italy, Kazakh officials have said.

Mukhtar Kul-Mukhamed was the minister of culture when Astana announced the chapel-restoration donation in late 2009.

Kazakhstan Minister of Culture and Information Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammed. Tengrinews file photo

Kazakhstan Minister of Culture and Information Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammed. Tengrinews file photo

He noted that Kazakhstan’s main motivation for reaching out to the residents of L’Aquila was of course to help the victims of a tragedy – but there was more to it than that.

Kazakhs have long felt a special bond with Italy because of the two nations’ love of art, music, writing and other trappings of culture, he said in an interview with the news service Aki.

"The people of Kazakhstan were very upset by the earthquake in Italy, so the government decided to restore a piece of Italian culture” that belongs not just to Italy but the world, Kul-Mukhamed said.

"Like Italians, we love the beauty of nature, architecture and literature, and we are brought up with the painters of the Medieval period,” he said. Those artists include Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Kazakhs love Italian music, “particularly the operas of Verdi and Puccini,” Kul-Mukhamed added. In fact, one of today’s classical-music singers whom Kazakhs admire is Andrea Bocelli, who has held concerts in Kazakhstan, he said.

Some of Kazakhstan’s young singers have performed at the famed La Scale opera house in Milan, Kul-Mukhamed pointed out.
And the poets Kazakh school children study include the Italians Petrarca and Dante, he said.

Unfortunately, Kazakhstan has been one of only a handful of nations to have made good on pledges to help restore L’Aquila’s cultural heritage, according to news reports.

Immediately after the earthquake, a lot of countries announced they would pitch in.

L’Aquila after the earthquake. Photo courtesy of www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz

L’Aquila after the earthquake. Photo courtesy of www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz

L’Aquila residents thought it fortuitous that the Group of Eight nations were holding their annual summit in the city in July, just three months after the earthquake.

With devastation all around them, G-8 leaders couldn’t help but discuss the tragedy. L’Aquila residents hoped those comments would translate into hundreds of millions of dollars in landmark-restoration money and billions in general relief.

Neither has been the case.

The only countries that have actually made donations to restore L’Aquila’s cultural landmarks have been the G-8 nations of Russia, France and Germany – plus Kazakhstan, which is not a G-8 member, according to Der Spiegel Online.

The biggest donation has come from Russia -- $ 9.6 million to restore the Palazzo Ardinghelli.

France donated $8.6 million to restore the Church of Santa Maria del Suffragio and Germany $4.7 million to rebuild the Church of San Pietro Apostolo in Onna, near L’Aquila.

“The damage to the town’s cultural heritage and general infrastructure was so pronounced, and the government’s subsequent mismanagement of the crisis so conspicuous, that the town center is still deserted and many restoration projects have yet to start,” according to theartnewspaper.com.

“Progress is slow because the culture ministry’s budget has suffered in the current economic climate, and it has focused its energies on more ‘mainstream’ and tourist-friendly schemes,” journalists Il Giornale dell'Arte and Ermanno Rivetti reported on the website July 26.

One of the ministry’s priorities is the $200 million European Union-funded Great Pompeii Project, whose goal is to preserve the priceless archeological site that Mount Vesuvius eruption created in 79 AD.

The ministry has so far come up with only $200 million of the $698 million needed to restore L’Aquila’s heritage, dell'Arte and Rivetti reported.

The lack of action led to1,000 art historians holding a protest demonstration in central L’Aquila on May 5.

Those leading the rally included art historian Thomas Montanari and the new culture minister, Maximum Bray, according to Il Journal reporter Valentina Veneroso. Others included professors, students and public officials.

Dissatisfaction with the Italian government’s response to the rebuilding of L’Aquila goes far beyond unhappiness with the cultural-restoration effort.

Thousands of ordinary residents say officials in Rome need to do more to help them get their lives back to normal.

Late last year Der Spiegel Online reported that 19,000 residents of the L’Aquila area were still awaiting housing.

"Everything has been delayed. And young people are leaving. Politicians keep bickering," Archbishop Giuseppe Molinari told the Catholic news site tempi.it on the fourth anniversary of the earthquake on April 6, 2013. "The situation is still critical."

Interior Minister Fabrizio Barca, who took part in a ceremony in downtown L’Aquila marking the fourth year of the tragedy, has promised to speed up the city’s reconstruction.

But the news service Agence-France Presse also quoted him as saying that reconstruction will require so much money that “the state cannot not rebuild this city” on its own.

The total restoration cost is estimated at $13 billion, according to Der Spiegel Online.

“L'Aquila must rise again,” asserted Mayor Massimo Caliente. “The monuments must be restored” and “people need to get back to their lives before the earthquake.”

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