Earthquake tremors continue in northern Italy as we in Assisi share collectively in the anquish, remembering our own devastating earthquake in 1997. Tragically, four lives were lost in the Basilica di San Francesco in the earthquake of 1997 when the vault collapsed over the exit.
And we lost two slices of Heaven: a quadrant of the frescoed vault over the door – attributed to the school of Giotto, very late 13th-century – collapsed (killing four below) and Cimabue’s frescoed vault (1280) caved in over the altar (since rebuilt by the Vatican mosaicists). Paradise seemed lost to us – in a way, it has been regained: in about five years, fresco experts re-pieced about 50% of the 80, 000 pieces of the Giotto frescoes (his vivid colors made it possible) over the door.
Due to color loss over the centuries, twice as much time was needed for the work on the Cimabue quadrant over the altar: in ten years of playing with the world’s most puzzling puzzle, fresco restorers pieced about one fourth of the 120,000 pieces (some minuscule) of the St. Matthew fresco. The star-studded heavenly vault adjacent was too limited in color variation to attempt repiecing: the vault was structurally restored and then painted a neutral blue, indicating that the original had been lost . Over forty other earthquakes had jostled the Basilica since its dedication in 1253….and each time, fallen fresco pieces were simply swept up and thrown away.
But not this time: the 1997 earthquake restoration project was a masterpiece of “Ricostruire dove era e come era”: “restore where it was and how it was.” The expression was coined by the committee – headed by the great art critic, Bernard Berenson – overseeing the restoration of the Ponte Santa Trinita bridge in Florence in the1950’s. Destroyed in 1944 by retreating Nazis, the rebuilding of the bridge with the original blocks fished out of the Arno debuted Italy’s first restoration by anastilosi (from the Greek, ” rebuilding”). Not long after, anastilosi was used again – not
without polemics – in the restoration of the Sicilian Greek temple of Selinunte, destroyed by a tenth-century earthquake.
The Church of San Giorgio Velabro in Rome (devastated by a Mafia bomb), the Bosnian bridge of Mostar and the stunning Baroque cathedral of Noto (which collapsed in 1996 as a result of the 1990 earthquake) are shining examples of brilliant anastilosi restoration.
Professore Pietro Rocchi of the Universita’ di Roma defines anastilosi as “The rebuilding of a structure using the original building materials and remaining faithful to the original form.”
A true anastilosi restoration in Emilia Romagna will not be possible, he warns as “the churches and belltowers of the area were all of small, uniform, very normal bricks.” The structures can only be rebuilt with similar materials, underscoring a visual similarity. Hopefully, those campanili will be restored soon: the belltower is everything for an Italian whose loyalty is first to his family, then to the quartiere, then to the town (called campanilismo or belltowerism”). Nationalism? (Not an Italian phenomenon!)
Alas, in Emilia Romagna, the restorers of those campanili won’t be able to echo the words of Giuseppe Basile – in charge of the Assisi fresco restoration – that magical day in 2002 when i was up on the vault with him right over the door, gazing at the just-completed Giotto fresco restoration. With deep satisfaction, 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.”
Restorers in Emilia-Romagna will be facing new challenges. Anastilosi will have to be set aside: yet another challenge for Italian creativity.
Click here to read about the astounding Assisi fresco restoration project, following the 1997 earthquake.
Read about Ferrara, another Emilia Romagna gem
Read about Emilia Romagna’s capital, Bologna, called “la città del cibo”