A powerful quake hit northern Italy on Sunday, killing seven people, injuring dozens, and leaving at least 5,000 homeless.
The magnitude 6.0 quake to hit the country since 2009, when a tremor in the Abruzzo region killed nearly 300 people, the magnitude-6.0 earthquake was followed by more than 100 aftershocks in 24 hours.
The quake struck at around 4 a.m. local time in the flatlands of the Emilia Romagna region, hitting an area between the historic cities of Bologna, Modena and Ferrara, a Unesco World Heritage site.
Castles, bell towers and medieval churches have been reduced to rubble and dust.
"The state of cultural heritage in the area is even more dramatic than it looks," Antonia Pasqua Recchia, an official from the culture ministry, told reporters.
Indeed, the damage to the cultural heritage is the most serious since 1997, when an earthquake badly hit the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Umbria, sending the frescoed ceiling to pieces.
According to Recchia, Finale Emilia, a town 20 miles north of Bologna, is where the largest artistic damage occurred.
There, the 13th century clock tower was sheared in two, leaving one half intact for some hours. Showing the Roman numerals from seven to eleven, the standing half was brought down by a magnitude 5.1 aftershock twelve hours later.
The Estense Castle, built in 1402, has partly collapsed, while the cathedral, three churches and the town hall may be damaged beyond repair.
At Felice sul Panaro, a town some 18 miles from Modena, only one of four turrets of La Rocca, the town's trademark 14th century castle, is still standing.
Built in 1332 by the Este family, the castle withstood wars and invasions for centuries. Now a large crack suggests it might soon disappear from history.
"We have practically lost all our artistic heritage," said Alberto Silvestri, the mayor of Felice sul Panaro.
In the village of San Carlo near Ferrara, the roof of a 16th century chapel collapsed, leaving statues of angels exposed to the sky. The church also housed a painting by 17th century artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino.
In the village of Sant'Agostino an impressive gaping hole wounded the Renaissance town hall, which is now at risk of collapsing.
"A thousand years of art has turned to dust," the daily La Repubblica wrote.
And the worst may be yet to come.
"It is possible that other tremors, ever stronger than what already experienced, rattle the area in the next days," Franco Gabrielli, the head of Italy's Civil Protection Department, said.
For those who wish to pray, officials recommend avoiding churches.
"Most of them are badly damaged and really dangerous," Gabrielli said.
Image: Italy's artistic heritage turned to dust. Credit: Mario Fornasari/ Flickr-Creative Commons