A Day of Memory in Assisi

September 26, 2014 / Events
Assisi, Umbria

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.

The majestic Basilica di San Francesco

Basilica di San Francesco splendor

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See www.annesitaly.com for more on her Umbria tours. Do see www.stayassisi.com for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

25 Responses to “A Day of Memory in Assisi”

  1. Such a solemn day for those in Assisi; their lives were changed forever and so was the city. Thanks for sharing this story, we tend to forget in this age of 24 hour news.

  2. Sandi Spector

    Another moving article by Annie. That’s how I first met her – because of the earthquake when she was sent by the government to the US to tell all of us that “Assisi is still here & alive! Please visit”. Our 1st wonderful tour was 2 years later when we had a timeshare exchange in 1999. We have since done at least 10+ tours with Annie all over Umbria +. And there is still so much to see & do. We must come back for Calendimaggio & ‘do it’ with Annie. p.s. – Love the cute photo of you & the bottom photo looks pretty familiar too! Until our next tour together… thank you for all your articles.

  3. Mike Jones

    Pilgrims from all over the world know this to be a special place but generally have no idea as to all of the work and dedication that has gone into restoring it. I know I didn’t. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Thanks, Anne, for the reminder and for all the work you do in Assisi and throughout Umbria to help travelers better understand. Although it’s been almost four months since we were there, these pictures bring it right back. We’re off to Sulmona again in a few weeks . . . maybe some day we can host you there!

  5. Gull-Britt Lundstrom

    I remember it well. Wi were visiting you that june.Gunilla and her husband Inge.Annelie and I.We had such a great time,so it was so sad when we heard about the earthquake. It could just had happen when we where there.My thoughts are with all in Assisi today!

  6. Anne and GB:
    That is a beautiful story. Thanks for the photos and behind-the-scenes insights. Brings back vivid memories of our first visit to this remarkable place .Suzanne and Ron

  7. William Strangio

    I have been to Assisi several times, 2009 being the most recent trip. It turned out that it was he 80o0th anniversary of the Franciscan Order. It was a great time to be there. The 4000 Franciscans were having a good time and I
    appreciated their attitude and actions!!!

    that we were there during the 800rth yuear anniversary of the fouinding of

  8. Anne,
    What a sad yet joyful memory in the long and storied history of Assisi, Francis and the Franciscans! You are a master at weaving the present day events of Umbria to the rich past of the region showing the resilience and determination of all who call it home. As always, I have fond memories of all the times we have visited and enjoyed your company. Chin, Chin

  9. Jan Johnson

    Thanks for reminding us all Annie. I look forward to seeing the good work being undertaken soon. Best to all the restorers and their supporters.

  10. Judi Dalton

    We will appreciate this site even more when we see it next May! What a solemn occasion with a hopeful ending.

  11. Rosemary Johnson

    In remembrance of lives forever changed by the 1997 earthquake, may God bless you today and always.

  12. Donna Ulteig

    I have such vivid emotional memories of my visit to the basilica prior to the earthquake and it’s damage. I need to see it again!

  13. Suzanne and Jack

    Thank you for another wonderful article Anne. What a poignent reminder of a sad day. So much to be proud of in the restoration and how the Assisi community supports one another.

  14. Katie Larsh

    Having just returned from our wonderful visit to Assisi it is even more powerful to read Annie’s notes and appreciate all that has been done to reconstruct this beautiful town after the devastating earthquake. These master craftsmen and women are truly inspired to bring the artistry back as much as humanly possible and Annie has an amazing gift to tell the story and give you a true appreciation of their efforts! My son was in Assisi in August of 97 and saw an older Assisi than the one we saw a few weeks ago, but as other places we visited have grown and forgotten their history as they build upon and over historic sites, Assisi flourishes and rebuilds with integrity. We shall return to enjoy more of Assisi and Umbria! Thank you, Annie!

  15. Dixie Mahan

    Annie, those wonderful pictures make me so homesick. I am so happy you have made such a beautiful home from our old farm house!

  16. Hannah Lorenz

    May the memories of the four who lost their lives in the earthquake be eternal. Blessings! Hannah

  17. Cindy Tanner

    Great reminder of the devastating events of 1997. Your articles are always wonderfully descriptive and interesting. The tolling of the bells must be quite emotional.

  18. Kevin Crocker

    Anne, a wonderful piece, thank you. I remember standing in the Basilica with you as you explained the devastation and the amazing restoration – a shame such destruction came to such a peaceful place. A true testament to the power of St Francis that one can still sit there and feel the peace of the place.

  19. Beth Uffner

    My husband, Rob, and I toured Umbrian villages with Annie Oct. 5th, 6th, and 7th. I had the pleasure of touring with Anne in 1998 when my daughter and I were in Italy on another tour. My husband had never been there before and I was determined to have Annie show us around. As before, she was wonderful; funny, knowledgeable on history, art and, best of all, food. And her energy is boundless; she could have gone on for hours more. It’s truly wonderful to learn from someone who is in love with their subject.

  20. Patrizia Carroll

    Agree with all the comments. Anne’s interesting articles provide valuable info on Umbrian gems. This one tells the story in beautiful photos.


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