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.

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