Arts: Restorers assess Assisi damage

After the shock of Friday's double earthquake, restorers began contemplating the mammoth task of repairing damage to the Upper Church of the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi. Andrew Gumbel looks at the job ahead.
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Antonio Paolucci, the man charged with restoring the great Basilica in Assisi, emerged grim-faced from his first detailed inspection of the earthquake damage. "One Cimabue lost, one Giotto probably lost, 60 square metres of painting destroyed," he reported. "I don't think it's idle doomsday talk to say this is a real catastrophe."

Mr Paolucci is probably the country's most experienced art restorer and a former culture minister, so a bruised and shaken Assisi could not be in better hands. But before any repair work can begin, the town needs to protect itself against further damage. There were aftershocks from the quakes all weekend, one of them causing a few more lumps of stonework to fall from the Basilica ceiling.

The first priority therefore will be to prop up the precarious Upper Church with a full array of scaffolding, whose installation Mr Paolucci will begin overseeing today. The second priority will be to sort through the rubble, pick out any pieces that look like they belong to the damaged works of art and safeguard and catalogue them properly.

According to art restorers, this process is the key to any future prospects of resurrecting the crumbled masterpieces. Ideally, debris should be sorted by experts only, and by hand - something that was not possible in this case because of the need to dig out human bodies following the collapse of two ceiling vaults in the quake.

As things stand, much of the rubble has been piled by mechanical diggers on the lawn outside the Basilica.

Pieces of fallen fresco have been assembled on a small scaffold and covered in thick plastic sheeting to protect them from the elements.

"From a technical point of view, it would obviously have been better if nobody had touched anything because inevitably things get damaged or thrown away by mistake," said Cristian Beltrami, an experienced art restorer who has worked extensively in Assisi.

The restoration process is a tortuous one, but the time it takes depends largely on funding. So far, the Italian government has pledged more than pounds 200m, and there is talk of diverting resources from the joint Italy-Vatican millennial jubilee fund to try to have the Basilica back in shape by 2000.

The standard technique is for restorers to take each piece of fresco, scrub away the masonry behind the plaster and attempt to assemble it in its place in a giant sandpit. Once the giant jigsaw is complete, or as complete as possible, it is then mounted on a base or series of bases, usually made of aluminium, with an intermediate layer of cork or soft mortar acting as a buffer in case changes need to be made later or the base replaced.

Gaps in the artwork are filled in such a way as to make clear what is original work and what is not. Usually, a piece of plaster will be inserted in a crack just below the level of the rest of the fresco and painted a shade close to the surrounding artwork so that visitors cannot notice the discontinuity from afar.

Similar techniques are used on wall panels that have been cracked but have not come apart altogether.