Climb to the Heavens: Viewing Fresco Restoration in Assisi
I’ve just been to Heaven and back…
Five years ago today, two areas of the frescoed vault of the Upper Basilica di San Francesco here in Assisi, crashed to the floor when an earthquake struck. The frescoed vault section over the door has just been returned to the world.
In the earthquake of September 26, 1997 (6.5 on the Richter scale, 9 on the Mercalli), the collapse of the frescoed vault (attributed to the young Giotto – 1288-89) over the door tragically killed 4 persons below. Another section (frescoed by Cimabue, late 13th c.) collapsed over the altar (stress points of a Gothic church are the entrance and the crossing, ie, where the nave meets the transept), destroying the altar, since rebuilt.
The vault area over the door smithereened into 80,000 fresco pieces (which were painstakingly sorted and housed in 880 carefully-labeled drawers in the restoration area adjacent the Basilica), while that over the altar fragmented into 120,000 pieces (now in 1,150 drawers). Joining the drawers of fragments are also 1,500 bricks from the vault – with fragments of fresco still attached. A special saw was designed about 2 years ago, refined to 3 mm, so that the fragments can be sliced off the brick – without damaging the pieces… “just like an electric slicer of prosciutto”, a restoration expert told me.
The triple-level Basilica (crypt, Lower and Upper churches) di San Francesco in Assisi is an artistic treasure trove, housing 10,000 sq. m. of magnificent frescoes of the late Gothic and early Renaissance period. Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti showed their stuff here.
Over the past couple months – when taking visitors through the Upper Church – we have stood at the altar under the Cimabue frescoes (one quadrant of which is missing) and looked with fasicnation at the tower of scaffolding over the door, barely able to see the restorers in their white outfits at the top, just under the vault (60 ft. off the floor). As I had told all my tour clients, we were witnessing a milestone in the most difficult restoration project ever undertaken in the history of art in the Western world: the affixing of the recomposed fresco fragments to the vault.
The Assisi restoration project is unmatched in its complexity: the restoration of the Basilica was first structural (the consolidamento of the vault and indeed, the entire 3- level Basilica) and is now in the pictorial phase, ie, fresco restoration.
In the cantiere del restauro (the fresco restoration area) the fresco fragments of the collapsed vault over the door had been re-pieced entirely by hand – as much as is possible (an astonishing 50% success rate). A section of the world’s most precious and puzzling puzzle has just recently been put back up on the vault.
But a challenge still awaits: restoration of the Cimabue vault of the Four Evangelists over the altar. Marco, Luca and Giovanni remained intact but Matteo is in fragments (120,000) pieces and the dilemma here is grandissimo as the colors are just shades of red and yellow/orange – so the matching of pieces will be an enormous challenge. All the fragments have been scanned and the computer will be heavily relied on for this restoration project.
The variety of vivid colors used was instrumental in the repiecing of the frescoes over the exit.
The scaffolding is down. A celebration Mass to commemorate those who died in the earthquake will be held today in the Basilica and those who enter will walk under the restored vault of the Four Doctors of the Church. St. Jerome had been missing for 5 years. Now he’s back.
Nearly 2 weeks ago, I was with Duane and Beth Carlson (tour clients from Seattle, Wa) and we were having lunch in Ristorante San Francesco (one of my favorites!), right in front of the Basilica, following our Basilica tour. The restorers often eat there – and with them that day was Prof. Giuseppe Basile, Direttore, Istituto Centrale del Restauro (Director of the National Restoration Institute – in Rome). I excused myself for a moment and went over to say hello to Professore. In Feb. 1998, I had undertaken a US coast-to-coast slide lecture presentation, “Assisi: Before and After the Earthquake, 1997” and Prof. Basile had been instrumental in helping me understand the complex technicalities of the restoration project (at that time) lying ahead.
I had entered the Basilica with journalists (as translator) in Dec. 1997, moved to tears when I saw the gaping hole over the altar and the piles of rubble below, the thick coating of dust over all the frescoes along the nave (28 episodes depicting the life of St. Francis attributed to Giotto) and covering the splendid wood-inlay 15th c. choir stall in the apse. I had been into the fresco restoration area various times soon after the earthquake. Though not directly, I had followed this extraordinary restoration project from the start – with passione.
I wanted to see the conclusion.
I asked Prof. Basile if… by any (slim!) chance… I could go up on the scaffolding to see the re-pieced frescoes back on the vault? His reply “Sì… ma presto”… “Yes… but soon” – and he told me that the project was in the final days of execution and the scaffolding would start coming down in 2 days! I asked, “Domani?” and he told me that I could mount the scaffolding the next morning, with my new friends, Duane and Beth. We agreed to meet at 9:00.
The next morning, Beth, Duane and I met at the Basilica, ready to climb – and electric with anticipation and excitement. Professor Basile was there – and he told us that the restorers would come about 10:00. He was dedicating the hour to us! We entered the plywood door closing off the base of the scaffolding and started to climb: 60 ft. up. At the top of every 8-rung ladder, we came out on a platform, looked down at the tourists entering the Basilica and gazing with fascination at the frescoes right in front of us on the walls.
As we climbed higher, the magnificent 13th c. stained glass windows were right in front of us, within touching distance. We must have climbed 9 ladders. At the platform we reached just before the final one on top, we stopped and listened with fascination as Prof. Basile told us how the rose window had been mounted – as we looked DOWN at the top of the rose window!
…And then we climbed to the last platform, stepping off the ladder right near the Saints inside the pointed arch (just over the entrance of the Upper Basilica). I looked up and gazed at San Rufino (patron saint of Assisi – St. Francis is the patron saint of all of Italy) and thought, “you have come a long way, San Rufino”. You may remember seeing his face in the New York Times photo shortly after the earthquake. The pieces were recomposed almost immediately – and Assisians thought it propitious that the face of our patron saint had emerged at once from the rubble. I saw the fragmented pieces of his body, clothed in regal vestments – additional pieces of the face – gradually emerging in the cantiere del restauro about 3 years ago. I was amazed to see how much of his figure had been recuperated since then. I asked the Professore if I could reach up and touch San Rufino and he replied, “Just this once” . I hesitated. I couldn’t.
I had seen only a vague outline of St. Clare and St. Francis when in the restoration area – and there they were, St. Benedict and St. Anthony, too, ghosts of their former selves but there, over the arch, home again.
An entire section of the first bay (that over the door, immediately forward of the arch with Saints) had collapsed. St. Jerome was now back in his place – fragmented but recognizable, Bible open on his lap. I remembered seeing the drawer with pieces of that Bible, over 2 years ago in the restoration area and being puzzled at the script represented in the Bible. At that time, I asked Paola Passalaqua (who oversaw the cantiere work), “What language is that? not Hebrew, not Latin… it almost seems Cyrillic?” She laughed and said, “Giotto knew that the book would not be read by those on the floor of the nave, 20 m. (60 ft.) below… so he just scribbled”.
We were fascinated as the Professor explained to us how the fresco colors had been made: red, yellow and green are earth colors, blue was made of ground azzurite from the Middle East. He showed us very minute traces of the gold leaf which had been there, on the haloes of the saints. An extensive amount of gold leaf was used in the Basilica: 120 sq. m. in the fresco cycle of the “Life of St. Francis” along the nave of the Upper Church; 40 sq. m. in the frescoed vault over the door and 50 sq. m. in the Cimabue vault over the altar. As il Professore explained, mosaic decoration – considered an imperial Byzantine art form and technique – had generally been used for major churches prior to the building of the Basilica di S. Francesco. Fresco was used for the first time in this church as primary decorative art form, in harmony with Franciscan simplicity. But, explained Professor Basile, the Popes were paying for this great church and wanted to show their worth: they commissioned, therefore, extensive use of gold.
Who frescoed that section of the vault? School of Giotto or no? Prof. Basile is convinced that the frescoes just replaced on the vault (and those covering the walls of the nave below, depicting the Life of St. Francis) are the work of the “young Giotto” – and he dates them to about 1288-89.
The Professore showed us the screws which were used to mount the panels of restored frescoes. The re-composed frescoes were mounted on sections of Aerolam panels ( a material used in airplane fuselages – aluminum sheets with a special material sandwiched between, so that the surface can resist compression) and these were screwed into the vault – so that they can be taken off if restoration is ever required in the future. 110 screws up there on the vault now. At least 10 experts had worked on the re-composing of the fresco fragments since Sept. 26, 1997 and Prof. Basile told us that the restoration work required 500,000 manhours – or 20 work-years in the life of a single person! The cost of the project up to now has been $2,000,000.
The surface which collapsed over the door is 64 sq. m. – and the surface of the entire vault is 1500 sq. m. Thirty km. of cracks (due to the seismic activity of Sept. ’97) have been repaired in the vault.
I asked Professor Basile his feelings so close to the final day of this project. He said, “The work we have done has verified our convictions right from the start: that we would be able to recuperate the fragments and put them back in place. No one believed it possible. We were boycotted for months. The funds were not coming… but we went ahead, convinced. Work of this sort can only be done by experts of wide experience, those who have worked here before and have an intimate knowledge of the restoration project at hand. No one believed we could do this as rapidly as we did. Within 2 years after the earthquake, the fragments had been sorted. Other experts throughout the world estimated we would take at least 10 years to be where we are today. We feel great satisfaction in knowing that our predictions have come true”.
There had been much discussion right from the start on what type of restoration to do on the vault: re-piece (which meant leaving gaps, logicamente, as a perfect re-composing would never have been possible) or re-fresco the vault? It seems to me (and to the majority of those who visited the cantiere to observe the fresco re-piecing) that the right decision was made as “the true purpose of the restoration of a work of art… cannot be simply to reconstruct its lost physcial integrity but to work so that the image regains its formal unity and thus can return to play the role for which it was created. The option, therefore was for a solution which – while not hiding the traces of the terrible event – still guarantees the best enjoyment of the work (by) merely softening the visual disturbance of the lacunae within the saint figures. The softening effect was achieved by optically ‘lowering’ the plaster by the use of watercolors so that it would ‘recede’ with respect to the original area of the restored images,” ( Professore Giuseppe Basile in – study on the Basilica restoration project).
As Professore Basile concluded his illustration of the restored vault for us, patiently answering our questions, the restorers emerged from the ladder onto the platform and we watched Anna Maria, Emanuela, Monica, and Giancarlo add finishing touches to the vault: not repainting the frescoes but instead working with watercolors to create the desired “receding effect” on the plaster areas which no longer bear frescoes.
They have given back to us a slice of Heaven. Mille grazie.
*Warmest thanks also to Beth and Duane Carlson for the photos below taken up on the vault – and for being there that day to share the ecstasy!