The third powerful earthquake to hit Italy in two months spared human life Sunday but struck at the nation's identity, destroying a Benedictine cathedral, a medieval tower and other beloved landmarks that had survived the earlier jolts across a mountainous region of small historic towns.
Lost or severely damaged were ancient Roman walls, Gothic and Baroque churches and centuries-old paintings crushed beneath tons of brick and sandstone and marble.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi said the nation's "soul is disturbed" by the series of quakes, starting with the deadly Aug. 24 shaking that killed nearly 300 people, two back-to-back temblors on Oct. 26, and the biggest of them all, a 6.6-magnitude quake that shook people out of bed Sunday morning. It was the strongest quake to hit Italy in 36 years.
There were no reports of fatalities -- a fact that experts attributed to the evacuation of sensitive areas and fragile city centers. Some 3,600 people had been moved to shelters, hotels and other temporary accommodations after last week's quakes, and the head of the Italian Civilian Protection agency said more would follow. Many who stayed behind were sleeping in campers or other vehicles, out of harm's way.
Renzi vowed to rebuild houses, churches and business, saying, "a piece of Italian identity is at stake at this moment."
"Feeling the earth collapse beneath your feet is not a metaphorical expression but is what happened this morning, and half of Italy felt this," Renzi said.
The quake struck another painful blow to Italy's rich artistic heritage in the communities that dot the Apennine Mountains.
The worst damage was reported in Norcia, a town in Umbria closest to the epicenter. Two churches were destroyed -- the 14th century Basilica of St. Benedict, built on the traditional birthplace of St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine monastic order; and the Cathedral of St. Mary Argentea, known for its 15th century frescoes. Only the cracked facades of those churches were still standing, with most of the structures collapsing into piles of rubble and dust.
Television images showed nuns rushing into the main piazza as the bell tower appeared on the verge of collapse. Later, nuns and monks knelt in prayer in the main piazza. A firefighter appealed to a priest to help keep residents calm in an effort to prevent them from looking for loved ones.
Large sections of Norcia's ancient Roman city walls -- which suffered damage and cracks in the previous quakes -- crumbled, along with towers.
Amatrice, the town that bore the brunt of destruction on Aug. 24, sustained blows to treasures that had withstood the quakes of the past weeks.
The community's medieval bell tower stood tall amid the rubble after the August quake, becoming a symbol of hope and resilience for the stricken population. During a visit to the quake zone earlier this month, the pope prayed alone amid the rubble, the brick tower still standing in the background. But the latest shaking partially collapsed it. The 15th century Church of Sant'Agostino also collapsed.
`'The monster is still there," Amatrice Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told Sky TG24.