At 11:42 a.m. today in Assisi, all the bells will solemnly toll reminding all of the devastating earthquake on September 26th, 1997, paying tribute to the two restorers and two friars who died running towards the door as the earth boomed and the Basilica shuddered.
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 the 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 work on “the world’s most puzzling puzzle,” restorers pieced about one fourth of the 120,000 pieces (some minuscule) of the St. Matthew fresco. The blue star-studded heavenly vault adjacent collapsed too but re-piecing was impossible due to limited color variation. 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” (rebuild where it was and how it was). The expression was coined by the committee – headed by the great art critic, Bernard Berenson – that oversaw the restoration of the Florentine Ponte Santa Trinita’ bridge in the 1950′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).
I’ll be in the Upper Basilica di San Francesco today for a tour and as we head out the door, I’ll point out to my tour guests the greatest anastilosi restoration project ever done in the history of western European fresco art: the restoration of the fresco attributed to Giotto over the doorway. And then we’ll note the memorial plaque to those who died set into the floor right below. Today that plaque will be mounded with bouquets of flowers brought by Bruno and Claudio’s families (the two restorers) and others placed there by the Franciscans to remember their “confratelli.”
And as I look up one last time before heading out the door, I’ll remember the emotion of being on the vault in 2002 to view the fresco restoration firsthand.