A Blessing In Disguise

A year after earthquakes wreaked havoc in Assisi, a massive rescue operation is under way. Anne Hanley met the restorers of St Francis' basilica, and the Umbrians left homeless by the disaster
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The Independent Culture
TWO VAST cranes swing to and fro in stately fashion over the 13th- century basilica of St Francis in Assisi, above the creeping jumble of scaffolding which is gradually engulfing the massive building. The occasional tourist peers through the wire netting which fences off the damaged upper church (built into the hillside, on top of the original church). Downstairs, in the lower church, small groups of visitors wander about cautiously; it is, after all, little more than a year since four people died in Italy's most-visited pilgrimage site, crushed by falling masonry and the shattered remains of incomparable artworks shaken from the ceiling by a major earthquake.

That tremor - measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale - was the worst of hundreds of shocks which devastated large swathes of the central Italian Umbria and Marche regions in the autumn of 1997. In the space of a few catastrophic days, 38,000 people were left homeless and more than 1,000 historic buildings were damaged. High in the Umbrian Apennines, whole villages crumbled.

Now, the tourists in the basilica are surrounded by a constant bustle of workmen and restorers."It's all go here," says a cheery monk at the monastery gate. "There are hundreds of them, working all over the place. But then again, we need hundreds of them. We're working to a tight schedule. It all has to be finished for the Holy Year."

Thirteen million pilgrims are expected to descend on Assisi for the 2000 Holy Year, 40 per cent more than the town hosted in a good pre-quake year, and infinitely more than the small trickle of visitors to the basilica since its ceiling fell in on 26 September 1997.

"That quake was a death knell for tourism," says Deputy Mayor Edo Romoli, exiled to temporary offices on the plain below Assisi as a result of vast structural damage to the medieval town hall. "Between the quake and July this year, tourism slumped by 85 per cent. As the industry accounts for 70 per cent of the area's income, that's a devastating blow."

By 2000, he hopes, the earthquake will be a distant memory, and pilgrims will once again throng the streets and churches of the small, pink-hued Umbrian town. "But before that happens, our landmarks have to be intact," he says. "It's vital."

On a table in a cavernous, vaulted basement deep beneath the basilica is a fragment of masonry which measures four inches by six. There's a face painted on it, the chubby, smirking face of an angel which has spent most of its 700-year life 20 metres above ground, hidden in a leafy frieze, gazing up at a huge St Jerome in a quarter-section of a roof vault. It was the only face to survive the earthquake intact.

"It's clearly the work of a master," says Paola Passalacqua, picking up the fragment and running her finger over the intricate lines of paint around the mouth and eyes with a mixture of familiarity and reverence. Passalacqua, the Technical Director of the restoration, has overseen the sifting of the rubble, the sorting of the coloured pieces, the first tentative steps towards fitting the tens of thousands of fragments back together.

For Passalacqua and her 20-strong team of restorers the pieces have become intricate clues to the artist's work. "It could be early Giotto: we'll never know. But it's by a great master, that's for sure," she says, stroking the angel. "They painted on to damp plaster, and they were painting blind. The colour soaked in, and until it dried they could only see the faintest shadow of the finished work. It took extraordinary skill to slap on brushstrokes with that kind of confidence."

The multicoloured bits and pieces - of St Jerome, and of the eight saint frescos which peeled off the arch over the basilica's front door - are lying in tray after plastic tray in the basement, waiting to be slotted into their rightful places in the immense jigsaw. On each long table is a life-size photograph of a different saint. Three white-coated assistants have dotted lumps of appropriately coloured masonry - discouragingly few of them - about on top of the photos. Paola Passalacqua is unfazed by the gaps. "It does seem unlikely we'll get them back together, doesn't it?" she says airily. "But we have our timetable. These sections will be back where they belong by Christmas 1999."

Not so Cimabue's fresco of St Matthew, which bounced off an altar in its 22m fall from the vault. This additional bump turned much of the painting to dust; few of the salvaged pieces are more than a centimetre square. The fragments now fill 1,000 plastic trays in the basement. Even the confident Ms Passalacqua is not prepared to make predictions about this bit of restoration: "I don't know when we'll have it ready, but it certainly won't be by Holy Year. No way." The Cimabue, she says, was "a problem far greater than any restorer has ever had to deal with. Though it is hard for a restorer to admit that a machine can do the job better than a well-trained eye, it was clear from the start that a computerised solution had to be found."

The solution, the first of its kind in the world, was provided by the Istituto Centrale di Restauro (ICR) in Rome, Rome University's engineering department and the alternative energy board ENEA. It is a computer programme that reads and stores the colours, and even the direction of brushstrokes, on each tiny piece of the mosaic. Once a batch of fragments has been cleaned, stabilised (Cimabue painted in powdery tempera, not in the more resistant fresco of the vault paintings) and inserted into black-painted flower- arranging foam to hold it steady, the whole is photographed and computer- catalogued. When all the pieces are ready, matching them to the whole original should, restorers hope, be child's play.

On the top layers of the labyrinthine scaffolding which fills the upper church, masons and restorers are piping reinforcing mortar through lengths of tubing which have been inserted into cracks in the brickwork of the vaults. Some of the cracks were caused by last year's earthquake, but many had been there for centuries. "Given the poor state of the whole structure," says Passalacqua, "it's a wonder we didn't lose a lot more."

With constant monitoring and frequent mini-facelifts, the frescos of the church had been in good shape. Restoration work to the fabric of the church and monastery, on the other hand, was long overdue. "There was talk last year of divine justice, of the wrath of God descending on venal monks," says Passalacqua, chuckling. "Don't you believe it. All that overdue work is finally being done. If anything, it was God's gift."

As they contemplate their second Christmas in rented accommodation, or in damp, cramped prefabricated housing scattered around the plain, the 1,200-plus households in the municipality of Assisi which found themselves without a safe roof over their heads last September must be hard-pressed to see it that way.

The aftershocks which rumbled on through the autumn and into the winter terrorised local people. Although the death toll was only 11, they were gripped by earthquake trauma, poised to leap into cars and flee to the open countryside with each tiny aftershock. Since spring, there has been little seismic movement, and the prefab-dwellers are now longing to get home.

Little building work is under way, however. State funds for properties which suffered minor damage have only just come through. Larger projects will have to wait until next April before they can start; building applications for these jobs will not be considered until then.

According to Assisi's deputy mayor, red tape and a lengthy timetable are essential if the town is to retain its unique beauty. "Assisi is one of the most perfect, the most unspoilt medieval towns in Italy. It has to be restored carefully to ensure that it stays that way," Edo Romoli says. Every surface in his office is piled high with building applications.They cascade to the floor as he puts signature upon signature to sheets of official-looking paper.

Central government has earmarked 7.5 trillion lire (pounds 2.7 billion) for reconstruction in Umbria. Estimates by local authorities put the real cost of repairing the damage at over 20 trillion lire (pounds 7.4 billion). Delayed by the bureaucratic process, and hampered by inadequate numbers of architects and building companies to attend to the reconstruction of so many buildings all at once, it promises to be a long, long time before Umbria is back to normal. "It will be a very gradual process," Romoli agrees. "But there is, naturally, a bright side to all this. There were churches and ancient houses in the Assisi area that were seriously in need of restoration. Now they'll get it. The earthquake has given us the means to save them for posterity."

High in the Umbrian Apennines, in the zone where the earthquake hit hardest, each town along the country road that climbs to Colfiorito (the town at the earthquake's epicentre) has a field of khaki-coloured corrugated steel containers, looking like so many rows of shoe boxes. Snow came early to the area this year, falling in mid-November. Lace curtains flutter at the container windows, and smoking chimneys suggest evening meals being cooked, but there's little about the scene that's homely. In the icy evening gloom, harsh street lights create a prison effect as they reflect off the snow between the dwellings.

In the village of Annifo, all 200-odd houses were declared uninhabitable after the quake, and the church was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished. As evening falls, there is a flurry of activity among the abandoned houses as the owners come to tend the livestock. Battered Fiats tear up the hill, chickens are shooed into basements, tractors locked in barns. Then the Fiats bumble back to the container park below. "Benvenuti ad Annifo" (Welcome to Annifo) says a cheery billboard on its gate. One sign points to the bar; another to the office of the Catholic charity Caritas.

No reconstruction work has begun in Annifo proper. "Which doesn't mean we're just sitting here doing nothing," insists community spokesman Massimo Bartolini. "It's just that our hands are tied."

"There was one old man who wanted to go ahead without waiting for the state money. He wanted to spend his life savings on putting his home to rights," he says. "But he wasn't allowed to. And there were others who would gladly have built new houses on the plain below Annifo, but no land has been re-zoned for construction."

Local authorities, he says, dragged their feet over creating a reconstruction blueprint for the village ("The technicians they took on to draw it up were too inexperienced. They weren't up to the job. But then, they were held up too: they couldn't start until the geologists had finished their survey"). Moreover, the structural damage in Annifo was so extensive that few houses qualified for the first round of smaller state hand-outs.

The Annifo container park has plumbing, electricity and heating. The creature comforts stop there. The occupants complain of terrible humidity. One couple who married a couple of days after the quake still haven't been assigned a container of their own. A year later, they're cooped up with the bride's parents. A baby has added to the confusion.

Yet there's a friendly bustle around the bar, and the village shop, and the brightly painted nursery and elementary schools, all housed in containers. The residents of this makeshift Annifo yell back and forth through the foggy dusk. They remind each other of the evening's community co-operative meeting; they gather on street corners to discuss how to use the Caritas container when the volunteers' mandate runs out in December; they comment enthusiastically on the new village website. In the community co-operative container, Massimo points out the computers on his desk, donated by the Association of Italian Municipalities, which keep him in constant contact with other quake-hit communities. He is almost embarrassed by his own pride in it all.

Until September last year, Annifo was a typical Italian mountain village. The young couldn't wait to get out. The old - who spend the icy autumn days parked in their tractors on the Colfiorito road, their potato crop arrayed on the grass verge for sale to the occasional passing vehicle - were finding it increasingly difficult to work the land alone. Many houses were shut up for most of the year, waiting for the return each summer of residents who have left for more prosperous regions.

Now, like Paola Passalacqua preparing her beloved frescos for a return to a much stronger structure in St Francis' basilica, and Edo Romoli signing building projects into action in the deputy mayor's office, Massimo can put a happy slant on the catastrophe.

"I wouldn't say Annifo was dying exactly, but we didn't have much to keep us together," he explains. "Now we do. This co-operative is important. Our website is important. Reconstruction is important. I wouldn't wish an earthquake on anyone, but, well ... for us, it hasn't been all bad."