How were medieval churches affected by the 2016 Umbrian earthquake?

In 2016, earthquakes in the Italian region of Umbria caused the collapse of several medieval churches, resulting in the destruction of local architectural and cultural heritage. The recent article, ‘Analysis of the collapse mechanisms of medieval churches struck by the 2016 Umbrian earthquake’ by the research team Antonio Borri, Marco Corradi, Giulio Castori, and Romina Sisti of the Department of Engineering, University of Perugia, Italy, and Alessandro De Maria of the Umbrian Seismic Safety Office, Perugia, Italy, investigates the cause of this problem and what may be done about it.

The authors begin by pointing out that medieval churches are typically more at risk in the event of seismic activity due to several factors: ‘in general churches, because of their architectural layout, do not feature rigid diaphragms, load-bearing walls are slender, the box-like behavior of the masonry structure is less likely to occur and, in many instances, the horizontal and vertical structural elements are not “rigidly” connected.‘ This lack of ‘wall-to-wall’ connection lead to the overturning of walls and the collapse of roofs.

St Mary’s in Campi, before the earthquakes.

Three medieval churches are studied in the article: St. Mary’s, St. Saviour’s, and St. Andrew’s, all in the village of Campi and all of which suffered near-complete collapse in the earthquakes. As the authors state, ‘The aim of this work is to study the collapse mechanisms, highlight their structural weaknesses, and categorize and prioritize possible reinforcement methods for use in future interventions on similar buildings.

A brief history of each church is given, followed by a numerical analysis of the masonry structure. A survey of the damage sustained in the earthquakes is also provided, and, finally, an attempt is made to ascertain the most important cause of the collapse. In each case, a wide range of in-depth analyses and tests have been run.

Medieval wall paintings in St Andrew’s, Campi.

In addition to the results presented, the authors also demonstrate that future preventative measures could be taken to avoid the collapse of further architectural heritage due to seismic activity. They put forward the idea that, when undertaking conservation or restoration work on such buildings, consideration should particularly be given to the long-term safety and stability of the structures and intervention taken where needed. After all, ‘These were buildings of considerable interest showing a variety of highly interesting work from the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance period, in terms of their architectural structure and assets (decorations, statues, paintings, frescoes, etc.). The Mediaeval decorative scheme in the churches and in their adjacent chapels, together created an interior of note.

‘Analysis of the collapse mechanisms of medieval churches struck by the 2016 Umbrian earthquake’ appears in the International Journal of Architectural Heritage, published online 08 February 2018.

Click here to visit the publisher’s website for more details. 

Top Image: St Saviour’s in Campi, before and after the earthquakes.

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