St Francis basilica in Assisi reopens after earthquake damage repaired

THE UPPER Basilica of St Francis in Assisi reopened its doors yesterday, 26 months after the earthquake that shook central Italy, causing inestimable damage to art works, buildings and homes. The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, presided over a Mass to consecrate the new altar, in the presence of the Italian President, cabinet ministers, Franciscan friars, restorers and residents of Assisi.

It was a day of pride for the Franciscans and Catholics, for whom the basilica with its frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue is a place of worship. Critics who had said Italy would never be capable of restoring one of its most priceless art treasures on time were silenced.

In one of the tremors that damaged Umbria's rich cultural heritage, part of the vault crumbled, bringing down priceless frescoes and burying two friars and a couple of technicians beneath the rubble.

Two figures of saints painted by Giotto, Ruffino and Vittorino, are back in place above the basilica's entrance. Giotto's fresco cycle of The Life of Saint Francis has been laboriously cleaned, though the work is not complete. But what was once Cimabue's St Matthew in the Vault of the Evangelists lies in 120,000 fragments, and there are doubts about whether it will ever be restored.

But even on a day of celebration, the controversy over the human tragedy of the earthquake refused to go away. Thirty thousand people were made homeless and many are still living in makeshift camps in the Appenine foothills.

As they face their third winter in the snow, many are losing hope of ever returning home. "The earthquake victims will always be welcome because the Basilica of St Francis is also their home" said Father Nicola Giandomenico, of the Franciscan friars.

But many ask why the same level of resources and skill used to restore the basilica could not have been applied to helping residents. Hundreds of villages are still off limits for safety reasons and reconstruction projects are slow. "We are thrilled that the basilica has been reopened," said Sister Bernadette, of the Poor Clare sisters, in nearby Nocera Umbra. "But we can't forget the difficulties of those living in prefabs."

With just a month to go until the first pilgrims arrive in Italy for the Jubilee or Holy Year, the repair of one of the most important Catholic shrines is crucial. Assisi is the second most important site for pilgrims, after St Peter's in Rome, and the Franciscan friars, business community and the government fear that if the main attraction is still closed many visitors may not make the detour to the basilica.

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