I am not Catholic, it is my first time at a catholic service, so I just stand there trying to blend in. I’m not really succeeding (being two foot taller than the Italian Red Cross volunteers around me doesn’t help) so I focus on the spectacle of colour, singing and ceremony. We are at the beautiful church, Santa Maria di Collimagio, built in 1294 and we are here to thank the fire-fighters from all over the region who worked tirelessly following the earthquake.
Engulfed in the lovely lilt of Italian but without understanding sharpens my senses to the symbolism of the event. The church bears severe scars but is back in action, there is a real sense of occasion in the air. Outside there is everything from antique fire engines to amphibious rescue craft – a show of strength, gratitude and pride.
Later, as a guest lecturer at a master class in Milan, I talk a little about this event and mention that the Christchurch cathedral is unlikely to be rebuilt due to technical/economic reasons. It is a side comment which garners a huge response. One student sits up as if woken from a slumber, “but technically it can be done! We have done it, you methodically number each stone, and rebuild from scratch according to the original plans.” I nod, this is a little off track and not my area of expertise. “But do you understand me? This can be done,” the student continues emphatically. In case the point was not clear enough another student pipes up: “In Bosnia after the war a historic bridge was rebuilt stone by stone. Even though the bridge had been blown apart, the stones they could not find in the river were quarried from the same source as the originals.” I move us on to another subject in that teacher-kind-of-way, but their comments leave me thinking (as generally happens when I take a class, the learning goes both ways) and remind me of my visit to ‘99 water spouts’.
In L’Aquila I was taken to visit 99 water spouts – built in 1272 it is a symbol of the city, it used to be used for washing wool and as a trading meeting place. I am told “It was restored very quickly after the earthquake; it was very moving to be at the opening ceremony, a lot of people cried. When the water started flowing through the spouts again we felt like our city was not like the city of Pompeii, but living again”.
It would seem the restoration of iconic city symbols give hope, a concrete measure of progress, and a sense of familiarity that people yearn for. I suspect I have previously underestimated the power of this symbolism, and the way in which certain places act as a compass for people – directing the way home.