L’AQUILA, Italy – On a sunny morning, things were in full swing in Piazza Santa Maria Paganica, a square in the central Italian town of L’Aquila. Various officials, their entourage, journalists, passers-by and museum employees mingled excitedly in front of a baroque palazzo that was to be opened as Italy’s newest bastion of contemporary art.

But opposite the cream-colored facade of the museum building, which shines after decades of restoration, the eponymous church formed a sharp contrast opposite the piazza. Although the outer walls are still standing, Santa Maria Paganica is in ruins, with no roof or scaffolding that barely protect the nave and side chapels from the elements.

These are the two faces of L’Aquila, 12 years after a powerful earthquake struck the mountainous region of Abruzzo, killing more than 300 people and leaving an estimated 65,000 homeless. Much of the damage was concentrated in this city, the region’s capital, and so many buildings were destroyed, including popular historical monuments, that at first it looked like the city would never recover

The reconstruction and rebirth of Palazzo Ardinghelli, which will house the contemporary art museum called MAXXI L’Aquila, tells the story of the city’s resurgence. But it is also a signal that culture must play a fundamental role on the path to full recovery, said Giovanna Melandri, President of the MAXXI Foundation, which oversees the museum and its bigger brother MAXXI Rome. (MAXXI is an acronym from Italian for National Museum of the 21st Century Arts.)

“We are not a shop window that is alien to the city and its social, cultural and civil forces, but a meeting point, a place of exchange and cooperation,” said Melandri in a speech at the inauguration on April 28th.

Earlier, while touring the building, Melandri said that MAXXI L’Aquila would “become a kind of laboratory” as she strolled through the ground floor of the palazzo, where the museum’s first exhibition, “Point of Equilibrium”, was installed.

During the restoration of the 18th-century palazzo, which was also rebuilt after another devastating earthquake in 1703, museum staff decided to leave visual traces of the disaster, including fragmented frescoes damaged when the ceiling collapsed.

Eight new works were commissioned for the show, which also includes a selection of “jewels”, as Melandri called them, from the MAXXI collection in Rome, including works by Italians Maurizio Cattelan and Michelangelo Pistoletto, models by Japanese architect Toyo Ito and large mohair and silk carpets by the South African artist William Kentridge.

These come from the museum’s permanent collections, which consisted of more than 500 pieces from the 1960s to the present day. It shows a who’s who of contemporary Italian art alongside foreign artists such as the Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor, the German painter Gerhard Richter and the Argentine installation artist with a penchant for spiders, Tomás Saraceno.

The site-specific works commissioned for MAXXI L’Aquila were all inspired in their own way by the city and its history, and it was only natural for some to contemplate the 2009 earthquake.

Elisabetta Benassi’s salt sculpture “La Città Sale” alludes to the Italian word for salt and pays homage to the 1910 work “The City Rises” by the painter Umberto Boccioni, which channeled the energy of the rapidly growing metropolises of Italy after the industrial revolution.

Benassi’s work – two block-like shapes that are reminiscent of city silhouettes and jacked up on supporting platforms – reflects the fragility of urban environments, “which strive to be something permanent, but in reality they are not – because they can be swept away and destroyed” , she said.

In 2018, the Italian photographer Paolo Pellegrin was commissioned to photograph L’Aquila for a retrospective of his work at MAXXI Rome. Two haunting color photographs and an arrangement of 140 smaller images – black and white snapshots of a still wounded city with its scaffolded facades, empty cobblestones and abandoned apartments – are installed in one room of the palazzo.

“One of the ideas of this play between light and shadow was to create a feeling of fragility and fragility,” said Pellegrin on the phone from his home in Geneva. The photographs also play with the “relationship between the scars of the city and the beauty that continues to exist in L’Aquila even after it has been destroyed,” he added.

Riccardo Rufini wore a t-shirt that said “Ask Me” in English and Italian and was one of several students at the Academy of Fine Arts in L’Aquila who helped visitors navigate the works. He was commissioned to explain a work by Moscow-born artist Anastasia Potemkina: the focus is on a hydroponic basin in which local wildflowers grow. The work “is about the resilience of the city,” he said.

Rufini is particularly attached to the play, he said. Because the inauguration had been postponed twice when the coronavirus cases increased in Italy, Rufini took the system home and looked after it there.

“My name is on the project,” he said proudly, pointing to the label on the wall.

The restoration of the palazzo was made possible mainly thanks to the Russian government, which responded to an appeal by then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2009. He urged countries to fund the reconstruction of the monuments and churches of L’Aquila, and Russia coughed seven million euros, about $ 8.5 million; it was one of only a few countries that responded to the call.

After the earthquake, the extent of the devastation was terrifying. Since then, brick by brick and with funds and investments from various sources, the city has slowly awakened from the ruins.

However, the Italian Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini said the state of the Church of Santa Maria Paganica is a “sign that something is not working”.

The mayor of L’Aquila, Pierluigi Biondi, called for an international competition among architects and engineers to work out a plan for the restoration of the church. “There is still a lot to be done,” he said.

Franceschini, the Minister of Culture, agreed. “Let’s unite the two sides of the piazza and we’ll do something great for L’Aquila,” he said.