The 5.4 magnitude earthquake struck just after 7 p.m. local time (1700 UTC) on Wednesday, bringing down power lines and sending anxious residents into the streets. It was followed by a second, stronger quake about two hours later.
Italy's National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV) said the epicenter of the first tremor was in Macerata, near Peruglia in the quake-prone Apennine Mountain chain. Two people were injured in the nearby Visso area, and there were several reports of damaged buildings.
"For sure there will have been some collapses," Mauro Falcucci, the mayor of Castelsantangelo sul Nera, a village of about 300 residents near the epicenter, told the SkyTG24 channel. "We're without power, waiting for emergency crews...We can't see anything. It's tough. Really tough."
The first quake struck at a fairly shallow depth of around 10 kilometers (six miles), and was felt as far south as Rome, where it rattled the historic city center. Given the size, depth and location of the quake, the US Geological Survey estimates that about 12 million people would have felt the shaking. The INGV said the second earthquake was of 5.9 magnitude and had a similar depth.
"It was a very strong earthquake, apocalyptic," Ussita Mayor Marco Rinaldi told the ANSA news agency. "People are screaming on the street and now we are without lights."
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he was in contact with the civil protection agency. Schools were ordered closed on Thursday, while some roads were blocked off.
The tremors come after a much more powerful quake in August flattened a number of villages in central Italy, killing nearly 300 people. The disaster caused an estimated 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion) in damage, with hundreds of people still living in temporary shelters.
Wednesday's quakes caused further damage to buildings in Amatrice, the town that was worst hit by the deadly seismic event in August. Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told ANSA news agency that the latest incident "certainly reawakens our fears."
"We are thanking God that there are no dead."
nm/sms (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)