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Quake-Ravaged Frescoes of Assisi Pieced Together

September 28, 2002|From Associated Press

ASSISI, Italy — St. Jerome's white beard is largely gone, his rich cloak looks like it was devoured by moths, and the roll of writing paper on his desk has disappeared.

But in a kind of restoration miracle, much of the rest of a renowned Giotto fresco is back on the soaring ceiling of St. Francis Basilica, five years after an earthquake sent the masterpiece crashing to the floor in tens of thousands of fragments.

The fresco was painstakingly pieced back together by a team of restorers, who celebrated their achievement Thursday as this town marked the fifth anniversary of a pair of powerful quakes that claimed 10 lives and destroyed homes and artwork across Umbria, in central Italy.

The race to save the fresco, which experts believe was painted by Giotto at the end of the 13th century, began almost immediately after a huge chunk of the basilica's nave fell a distance of seven stories in the earthquake, burying two Franciscan monks and two workers in a mound of dust, plaster and bricks on Sept. 26, 1997.

After the bodies were pulled out, volunteers and restoration experts, who slept in a tent camp with some of the thousands left homeless in the quake, started sifting through some 50,000 fragments of the fresco of St. Jerome and pieces of lesser-known frescoes of eight other saints.

They tried to match pieces to an enlarged photograph of the originals and carefully laid unmatched pieces on cushions of foam in crates and drawers.

"Days would pass when people would find nothing or maybe just a little piece," recalled one of the chief restorers, Paola Passalacqua. "Then suddenly we would remember seeing a certain piece in a certain drawer that matched. It was a work of memory."

Part of the ceiling above the altar also came crashing down in the second of the quakes, including another masterpiece, a fresco by Cimabue, considered the father of Italian painting.

Restoration work on some 120,000 fragments of Cimabue's St. Matthew will begin in a few months, aided by a computer that will try to find matches between the pieces and a photograph of the masterpiece. Fragments of the Cimabue now fill 880 drawers in a cloister of the Franciscan basilica's convent.

A computer might have helped with the Giotto fresco, but right after the quake there was no time to tailor programs for it, Passalacqua said.

In the weeks after the quake, the art world debated if the wrecked frescoes should be mounted in a museum if not enough pieces were found to be put back on the ceiling.

But piece by piece, a lot of the puzzle started to be filled in: St. Clare's nose in a cycle of Giotto-school frescoes depicting a row of saints; St. Jerome's book, his two-peaked hat, his penetrating eyes and reed-thin nose, some of his burgundy-colored cloak and a few wisps of his wavy beard.

The Rev. Enzo Fortunato gazed up Wednesday at St. Jerome and the other eight saints near the entrance and said: "When we could see the face of St. Rufino, his eyes, beard, a cheek, then real hope began for us." At a kind of thanksgiving ceremony Thursday, the Franciscan custodian of the basilica complex, the Rev. Vincenzo Coli, told the restorers who will work on the Cimabue: "We're faithfully waiting for another miracle of faith and of the capabilities of man."

The upper level of the two-tiered basilica, where the frescoes are located, was reopened to the public in 1999.

"When pilgrims come in, they point to where the Cimabue fresco was and say, 'That's where the quake damage was,' " Fortunato said.

Visitors don't realize the St. Jerome fresco also was quake-damaged, its missing details taken for a casualty of passing centuries--a true indication, Fortunato said, of the restoration's success.

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