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Santo Terremoto or Diavolo Terremoto? Saint or Devil?

Anne Robichaud

Certainly, nothing saintly about an earthquake, though the term "Santo Terremoto" - uttered sadly, soberly here in Italy - refers to the reconstruction work generated by any natural disaster. Ironically, the restoration work following a tragic natural event can be a lifesaver to many in moments of economic crisis.

In late August, the Franciscans of Assisi announced that September 24 and 25th would be dedicated to two days of meetings, studies on how to prevent, avoid, and limit damage in the future to seismic activity, dubbing this international encounter "Quarantanniditerremoto" (Forty Years of Earthquakes that is Friuli 1976 to Emilia Romagna, 2012). After all, the day after our earthquake of September 26, 1997 at 11:42am (6.1 on the Richter scale, causing the collapse of two vaults in the Basilica di San Francisco), the Franciscans of the Sacro Convento, adjacent to the Basilica, had invoked "Fratello Terremoto" ("Brother Earthquake"), asking all to join in full reflection and analysis of past earthquakes in order limit future seismic damage.

As I listened to the Emilia Romagna earthquake benefit concert on TV the other night - and as we approach the 26th - thoughts turn to our devastating earthquake in 1997. Tragically, four lives were lost in the Basilica di San Francesco in the earthquake when the vault collapsed over the exit.

And we lost two slices of Heaven: a quadrant of the frescoed vault over the door - attributed to the school of Giotto, late 13th-century - collapsed (killing four below) and Cimabue's frescoed vault (1280) caved in over the altar (since rebuilt by the Vatican mosaicists). Paradise seemed lost to us - in a way, it has been regained: in about five years, fresco experts re-pieced about 50% of the 80, 000 pieces of the Giotto frescoes (his vivid colors made it possible) over the door.

Due to color loss over the centuries, twice as much time was needed for the work on the Cimabue quadrant over the altar: in ten years of work on the world's most puzzling puzzle, fresco restorers pieced about 1/4 of the 120,000 pieces (some minuscule) of the St. Matthew fresco. The star-studded heavenly vault adjacent was too limited in color variation to attempt re-piecing: the vault was structurally restored and then painted a neutral blue, indicating that the original had been lost. Over forty other earthquakes had jostled the Basilica since its dedication in 1253 ... and each time, fallen fresco pieces were simply swept up and thrown away.

But not this time: the 1997 earthquake restoration project was a masterpiece of anastilosi restoration, (i.e., "Ricostruire dove era e come era" or "restore where it was and how it was."). The expression was coined by the committee - headed by the great art critic, Bernard Berenson - overseeing the restoration of the Ponte Santa Trinita bridge in Florence in the1950's. Destroyed in 1944 by retreating Nazis, the rebuilding of the bridge with the original blocks fished out of the Arno debuted Italy's first restoration by anastilosi (from the Greek, "rebuilding"). Not long after, anastilosi was used again - not without polemics - in the restoration of the Sicilian Greek temple of Selinunte, destroyed by a tenth-century earthquake.

The Church of San Giorgio Velabro in Rome (devastated by a Mafia bomb), the Bosnian bridge of Mostar and the stunning Baroque cathedral of Noto (which collapsed in 1996 as a result of the 1990 earthquake) are shining examples of brilliant anastilosi restoration.

Professore Pietro Rocchi of the Universita' di Roma defines anastilosi as "The rebuilding of a structure using the original building materials and remaining faithful to the original form." A true anastilosi restoration in Emilia Romagna will not be possible, he warns as, "The churches and bell towers of the area were all of small, uniform, very normal bricks." The structures can only be rebuilt with similar materials, underscoring a visual similarity. Hopefully, those campanili will be restored soon: the bell tower is everything for an Italian whose loyalty is first to his family, then to the quartiere, then to the town (called campanilismo or bell-towerism"). Nationalism? Not an Italian phenomenon!

Alas, in Emilia Romagna, the restorers of those campanili won't be able to echo the words of Giuseppe Basile - in charge of the Assisi fresco restoration - that magical day in 2002 when I was up on the vault with him right over the door, gazing at the just-completed Giotto fresco restoration. With deep satisfaction, he said, "The work we have done has verified our convictions right from the start: that we would be able to recuperate the fragments and put them back in place. No one believed it possible."

Giuseepe Basile

Prof. Basile shows us a trace of the 30 km of cracks throughout the Basilica

Restorers in Emilia-Romagna will be facing new challenges. Anastilosi will have to be set aside: yet another challenge for Italian creativity.

Click here to read about the astounding Assisi fresco restoration project, following the 1997 earthquake.


Contributed by Anne Robichaud (see bio) - Anne offers unique guided tours of the Umbrian hilltowns (centered on art, history and contact with "the locals") and cooking classes in the family Assisi area farmhouse (see www.annesitaly.com/Cooking.html). She and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970's and rural life, rural people are una passione for Anne. Anne teaches Umbrian rural cuisine in private homes in the U.S. each year in February and March. She writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. See www.annesitaly.com for more on her US Events, tours, cooking classes – and her blog! Coming soon: website on the Assisi apartment she and Pino now rent!

© Anne Robichaud, 2012. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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