Visso (Italy) (AFP) - Inside the crumbling medieval church of San Francesco di Visso, the "blue helmets" of the art world are racing to save a masterpiece damaged in Italy's devastating earthquake last year.
The crucifixion scene attributed to 15th-century master Paolo da Visso was found in the rubble-strewn church behind a huge wooden wardrobe which miraculously stayed standing in the sacristy.
The pale ochre and violet fresco is now in the hands of Italy's art police, who collect and catalogue fragments, battered crucifixes and cracked candlesticks and hand them to a team of restorers, archaeologists and historians.
A cultural version of the UN's peacekeepers, they have been dubbed the "blue helmets", an elite task force dedicated to protecting and salvaging historic artworks and monuments damaged by the country's deadly tremors.
Italy's Carabinieri Art Squad, an expert force founded in 1969 which combats art and antiquities crimes, and helps train art police in other countries, forms the backbone of the blue helmets.
A deal between Italy and UNESCO will see similar teams sent worldwide to salvage heritage sites devastated by conflict or natural disasters, with their first gig expected to be in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria once it is safe for them to enter.
But first there are priceless artefacts to save at home.
- From Goths to quakes -
A team of some 40 people made up of art police, firefighters, culture ministry officials, civil protection officers and volunteers painstakingly remove items from the Visso church, which dates back to the Middle Ages.
The main altar was reduced to rubble and each piece must be pulled from the wreckage and numbered before being carefully wrapped and stowed for transport to a secret location. The ministry is taking no risks with treasure looters.
"It was the oldest church in the Marche region (in central Italy), a region with invaluable treasures and no fewer than 483 churches," Pierluigi Morricone from the ministry's crisis unit, who heads up the recovery effort, told AFP.
"We are saving about 600 works of art a day, at least 5,000 in the last two weeks," he said.
The town, which nestles in the Sibylline Mountains near a national park, was founded in 907 AD and survived a sacking by Goths and looting during the Byzantine empire.
Today under a cold spring sun the only people in sight are the blue helmets, carrying a Madonna statue out of the church or wrapping a battered oil painting up in the makeshift open air theatre of operations in the main square.
Visso has become a ghost town, since locals largely abandoned their damaged homes after two series of earthquakes -- a deadly tremor on August 24 that killed 300, and twin quakes that wreaked further damage to buildings on October 26.
"The priority is to save artworks, paintings, frescoes, relics, sculptures, statues, liturgical objects, candlesticks, crosses, thuribles," said Morricone, pointing to each object as it is catalogued and packaged.
- Slice of world's heritage -
Art police chief Paolo Montorsi rushed here with his team after the August quake and have not moved since.
Once Italy had mourned its dead it began counting its cultural losses. Volunteers came from all over the country to help the region.
Antonio is one of them, patiently brushing the dust off an enormous 18th-century painting of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.
Slowly the robes in vibrant reds and blues emerge, Mary's gold crown gleams, the angels reappear in the heavens.
"Six percent of the world's art heritage is in this region," says this museum director who wanted to remain anonymous so as not to draw attention from the collective salvage efforts.
"Visso is a city of art, this is a tragedy. We have to save this territory, we cannot give up," he said.