Architecture: Inside the Assisi basilica, a sight to make saints weep

These are the first still photographs of Giotto's ceiling after the earthquake damage

of three weeks ago. The

question now is if and when we shall see it restored. The

answer, as Andrew Gumbel reports, will depend on politics quite as much as on

craftsmen's skill.

They mumble in the back streets of Assisi that the recent earthquakes are a punishment from God for the venality of the Franciscan friars who oversee the religious buildings of the town. They mumble, too, about a long-standing curse on the great Basilica of St Francis - a monument far too grandiose and self-important, they say, to suit the tastes of the great patron of humility, nature and the poor.

Whatever the metaphysical reasons, the tangible evidence of the tremors of the past three weeks are stark indeed. Panels from two great masterpieces inside the Upper Church of the Basilica - Cimabue's Four Evangelists and The Doctors of the Latin Church, attributed to Giotto or his school - tumbled down from their brick vaults at either end of the church on September 26, killing four people, and further little pieces of the building have been crumbling with the successive aftershocks that have followed.

Last week, the tympanum at the south transept began to crumble, and has since been shrouded in scaffolding to prevent it bringing a whole side of the church down. Technical experts have begun surveying the roof of the whole edifice to find ways to shore it up against further damage, but they have not yet dared take a proper scout around the interior for fear of further tremors.

The future of one of the seminal buildings of the dawn of the Renaissance is thus caught in a terrible structural paradox: the risk of further damage is so great that nobody has yet plucked up the courage to take the steps necessary to prevent it. Why should this calamity strike now, in our age of technology, when the Basilica had survived more than seven centuries in a notorious earthquake zone more or less unscathed?

One answer to that question can be gleaned by looking up through the hole created by the collapse of the Giotto panel. In the space between the roof and the decorated vault is the first of a series of concrete beams that date back from the 1960s. According to several art historians and technical experts, these alone may have been enough to make the difference between a few light cracks in the plasterwork and the disaster that has taken place.

The Culture Ministry officials who made the decision to replace the old wooden beams with concrete more than 30 years ago defend themselves by saying they had to ascertain whether earthquakes or fire posed a greater risk to the Basilica; events, they concede with a shrug of the shoulders, have shown that they made the wrong decision.

But this is poor judgement of the kind that has dogged artwork up and down Italy in recent years. The Culture Ministry has, notoriously, been treated as a dumping-ground where politicians like to place relatives and friends with little chance of finding a job elsewhere. The minority that feels genuinely passionate about Italy's artistic heritage is so abused and so badly paid, it is only occasionally that they get a chance to wield their influence appropriately.

That, in turn, helps explain much of what has happened at the Basilica since the first recent earthquake. There has been some sterling work, notably among the art restorers who have almost finished sifting through the rubble of the Giotto and painstakingly catalogued all the pieces according to size, colour and - in a few cases - clearly recognisable figurative chunks. The face of San Rufino, for example, has been almost completely recomposed and now sits, in a dozen fractured pieces, in a plastic tray filled with sand.

This has all been accomplished despite the uncommon difficulty of the task. The vaults inside the Upper Church were built with vertically-lined bricks, which means that when they caved in and the bricks separated, nothing came out more than a couple of inches wide. Normally, frescoes damaged in this way would be sifted by hand on the spot before being carried away. In this case, though, there were human bodies trapped underneath so the rubble was cleared away in great haste by mechanical diggers. "The plaster is fragile stuff and many of the pieces were inevitably ground to dust," explained the restoration supervisor Paola Passalacqua.

The restorers have had little or no help from the state, however. Ms Passalacqua works for the Culture Ministry office in nearby Perugia, but nearly all her team have been volunteers, energetically backed up by charity workers from a Florentine religious order called the Misericordia. They have been working out of makeshift tents on the forecourt outside the entrance to the Upper Church without fanfare; the only comment they have attracted from the government official charged with the overall rescue of the Basilica, a former culture minister called Antonio Paolucci, was a snide remark about the need to get rid of "that pile of rubble" - rubble that just happens to contain the remnants of early Renaissance masters.

There is a long way to go still. The Giotto panel may be sifted and catalogued, but the Cimabue is still inside the church, shovelled into two columns by the diggers. Because of the precariousness of the building, nobody knows the full extent of damage to the fresco cycle of the life of St Francis, also by Giotto or his school, or to other key artworks such as a magnificent, if rather faded, Cimabue Crucifix. Aside from possible cracks, they are all covered in thick, grey masonry dust which is gradually eating into the paintwork. Bits are stilling falling down, with or without further tremors, although by now mattresses and blankets have been put on the floor to try to keep them from pulverising.

It is too early to say how much of the artworks can be salvaged; if things go well, it could be as much as 80 per cent. "At least there should be islands of decoration that can be joined together through restoration techniques," Ms Passalacqua said. But again, the dead hand of Italian officialdom could be a problem. Restorers say there are already signs of a power struggle between the local experts and the Central Restoration Institute in Rome. As officials scout around for a suitable location for recomposition of the recovered fresco pieces, companies in the private sector with good government contacts are stirring themselves to grab the potentially lucrative contract away from the genuine art lovers.

One curious irony is that those troublesome concrete beams might at last make themselves useful. Too scared to prop up the Upper Church from the inside, the technicians are now considering building a pontoon bridge between the roof and the vault and attaching grips to the top of the vault with epoxy resin. The whole structure would be suspended from the concrete beams. Not, one suspects, a use those Culture Ministry officials in the 1960s ever dreamed of.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Media Sales - £36,000 OTE

£28000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Recruitment Genius: C# .NET Developer / Application Support - Junior

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This business has an industry r...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Planner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Day In a Page

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash