Arts: A restoration drama

The story of one Umbrian church is witness to the desperate attempts to halt the destructive power of Italy's earthquakes. By Rachel Halliburton
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The baptism of Constantine the Great - the first Christian Roman emperor - was long attributed to Pope Sylvester I. This historically groundbreaking event was later shown to be a piece of medieval myth-making, but it is not the only legend that surrounds the early fourth-century pontiff. Indeed, a more fantastical act earned him the arguably more exotic title of "dragon- tamer".

Some time after Sylvester's death in AD335, a book called the Aurea Legenda appeared, which listed the saints and their feast days and provided unorthodox accounts of their lives. Sylvester's entry detailed an encounter with a monster who was not a virgin-chomping dragon, or indeed a flame-belching dragon, but a dragon with breath so poisonous that any Roman citizen who came within exhaling distance was dead quicker than you could say the word "Listerine". The pope, assiduously collecting points for sainthood, went down to the Forum, where the dragon was spreading its deadly fog, and after declaring his belief in Christ, revived two pagan priests and calmly led the monster out of Rome, thus ridding the city of its halitosis nightmare.

More than eight centuries after Pope Sylvester's death, Maestro Binelli finished building a church consecrated to his memory in the Italian town of Bevagna. San Silvestro, completed in 1195, is a strikingly beautiful piece of Romanesque architecture, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, dramatically raised chancel and starkly simple interior, all of which combine to make it a gem. As the story of its saint shows, however, religion has a habit of fusing elements more at home with myth into its history, and this, tragically and ironically, has proved to be the case with the church.

Earthquakes, along with floods and thunderbolts, are very much the stuff of Old Testament legend, but in 1997 and 1998 a series of tremors in Italy left behind an all-too-prosaic catalogue of disasters - which included, along with the devastation of approximately 1,400 other churches in Umbria alone, severe damage to San Silvestro itself.

Stephen Eddy is the programme director for the World Monuments Fund (WMF) in Italy, and has the job of maintaining links with both local and national Italian authorities in order to determine which projects the fund takes up. As the eyes of the world focused on the apocalyptic devastation of the works of Giotto and Cimabue at the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Eddy was touring Umbria, helping his organisation in the almost impossible task of selecting which of the many other beautiful and historically important churches it should help resurrect. He was surrounded by chaos. Umbria was also dealing with the human tragedies caused by the seismic impacts - the Assisi earthquake alone had made 30,000 people temporarily homeless, while several people were on medication to reduce the nervous strain of coping with their treacherously shifting landscape. After a long search he reached Bevagna - described by Sir Patrick Fairweather of the British/ Italian Society as "an exquisite example of a nearly complete vision of medieval architecture" - and it was here, in the form of San Silvestro, that he found the WMF's first post-earthquake project.

"Earthquake damage is a basic and fundamental attack on a building's structure," says Eddy. "The most serious damage normally happens at the parts of the building that are most rigid, so when the church starts swaying backwards and forwards there's damage where the naves and the transepts meet [at the building's main intersection], and the facade frequently detaches from the body of the church. This was what happened at the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi. The facade became insecure, and the vaults immediately behind it collapsed.

"San Silvestro, however, is even more complicated. During the earthquake, it turned clockwise on its foundations and tilted back. The back right- hand corner of the building split open and a quarter of the apse opened up. Two supporting columns on the right-hand side of the nave were so contorted that eventually they splintered."

To look at pictures of San Silvestro before and after the earthquake brings home the full force of the tremor's power. Indeed, stand in any church and imagine the columns dancing and the walls splitting open, and you will have some small idea of what the Italians endured from the middle of 1997 through to early 1998. Eddy is emotional when he describes San Silvestro today: "The columns are now completely reinforced and bound together with straps and with splints. You see this building which is seriously compromised - all full of scaffolding - and it's upsetting."

The scale of the task facing restorers is gargantuan - not just physically but also intellectually. The high-profile controversy that art and architecture restoration continually court world-wide has led to increasing debate about which techniques to use - a process well illustrated in the art world by the ongoing restoration of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. Early restorers made the mistake of attacking the decaying painting with glue and oil, which was stripped off by Giuseppe Mazza in the 18th century before he radically repainted the masterpiece. In 1924, the most sacrilegious assault occurred when Oreste Silvestri tried to "iron" the painting with heated cylinders, in a misguided attempt to push the paint back into place. Now such attempts would be obviously unthinkable - but even so, Signora Pinin Brambilla's painstaking and subtle 21-year restoration has attracted fraught debate over the centuries as to what extent she should reinterpret the gaps in the painting, and how much she should leave to the viewer's imagination. Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses that "the skill lies in concealing the skill", and this increasingly seems an apt way of summing up the philosophy behind leading restorers' work today, in their care to avoid the unwitting vandalism of their predecessors.

Unlike the Basilica of St Francis, San Silvestro has no frescoes or individual art works to deal with but, as Eddy points out, the history of architectural restoration has also gone through phases now denounced by experts as philistine - most recently in the Fifties. "There was a campaign by civil engineers to put reinforced concrete roof structures on all buildings, and that's been disastrous because you end up with buildings that are exceedingly top-heavy. Now the accepted method of restoration is to change as little as possible, and to use essentially traditional materials." He explains that as well as being historically more authentic, these methods of restoration give the churches a great practical advantage. "Buildings that have been restored according to traditional building techniques - such as those with timbered roof structures - tend to be more flexible and therefore more resistant to earthquakes."

Although the plans for the restoration have been drawn up, there is still the eternal problem of getting funds. Last year the British/ Italian Society, in conjunction with the WMF, raised pounds 30,000 towards the money already secured. But, as Sir Patrick Fairweather points out, this is only a fraction of what is needed. Eddy is optimistic, however: "One of the things our funding is going to be able to pay for is the two splintered columns. I think that's marvellous, because it's symbolic. After all - they are the things that actually hold up the church."