There were no immediate reports of deaths.


The quake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.6 was the strongest to strike the country in nearly 36 years, hitting a mountainous region northeast of Rome where people were still unnerved after a pair of jolts last week and an August quake that killed nearly 300.


 Some 20 people suffered minor injuries. That there were no reports of fatalities was largely due to the fact that thousands had left their homes after the earlier temblors. Premier Matteo Renzi pledged that wrecked homes, churches, and businesses would rise again, saying they were part of Italy's national identity. The government last week earmarked 40 million euros for rebuilding.


"We will rebuild everything," Renzi said. "We are dealing with marvelous territories, territories of beauty."  Residents already rattled by a constant trembling of the earth rushed into the streets after being roused from bed by the 7:40 am quake. It was felt as far north as Salzburg, Austria, and all the way down the Italian peninsula to the Puglia region, the heel of the boot.
 


"It is since 1980 that we have had to deal with an earthquake of this magnitude," said Fabrizio Curcio, head of Italy's Civil Protection agency. Curcio was referring to a 6.9-magnitude quake near Naples that killed some 3,000 people and caused extensive damage in November 1980. Curcio said authorities were responding with helicopters to help the injured and monitor collapses, as many roads were blocked by landslides. Some 3,600 people had already been relocated, many to the coast, following last week's quake, and Curcio said more would follow.
 


Closest to the epicenter was the ancient city of Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict, the father of monasticism, and famed for its Benedictine monastery. Witnesses said the 14th century St. Benedict Cathedral collapsed in the quake, with only the facade still standing.



"It's as if the whole city fell down," Norcia City Assessor Giuseppina Perla told the ANSA news agency. The city's ancient walls suffered damage, as did another famous Norcia church, St Mary Argentea, known for its 15th century frescoes.


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.


The town's deputy mayor, Pierluigi Altavilla, said his house remained standing, but everything inside had been toppled.  "It seemed like a bomb exploded inside the house," he told Sky TG24.