L'AQUILA, Italy - Built as a mountain stronghold during the Middle Ages, this cultural gem in central Italy has withstood sieges and battles, but its architectural treasures suffered severe damage in Monday's quake.
The city's historic centre boasts buildings that represent some of the great stages of western architecture - Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque - and much of it was turned to rubble by the pre-dawn jolt.
Harm to ancient monuments was recorded as far away as Rome, where the famed thermal baths built by the Emperor Caracalla suffered slight damage.
Though not a major tourist destination like Florence or Venice, the scenic city of some 70,000, nestled in a valley and ringed by snowcapped Apennine mountains, has ancient fortifications, castles, churches, and tombs of saints.
''The damage is more serious than we can imagine,'' said Giuseppe Proietti, a top Culture Ministry official in Rome. ''The historic centre of L'Aquila has been devastated.''
The 5.8-magnitude quake struck as residents slept, killing more than 100 people in the country's deadliest quake in nearly three decades.
Tens of thousands were left homeless and 1,500 were injured, government officials said.
Experts in L'Aquila were struggling to assess the cultural losses even as the city's own cultural offices, housed in a 16th century Spanish castle, were shut down by collapses, Proietti said.
The damaged fortifications, once perfectly preserved, are also home to a museum of archeology and art from prehistory to modern times.
L'Aquila, whose name means ''The Eagle'' in Italian, was built around 1240 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and was under French, Spanish and papal domination through the centuries. The high-flying bird was Frederick's emblem and reflects the city's 714-metre altitude.
The city is the capital of the Abruzzo region, a mountainous area home to national parks and hilltop hamlets. In 1943, overthrown dictator Benito Mussolini was briefly held at an isolated hotel on the nearby Gran Sasso massif before being freed in a raid by his German allies.
The Culture Ministry was compiling a list of damaged landmarks in L'Aquila, which mainly included collapsed bell towers and cupolas in the city's churches.