It’s always an enormous pleasure to visit the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. What’s not to like? There is great art, almost all of it in wall-to-wall frescos; cunning altar niches; beautiful windows, and a very Gothic feel, particularly in the 800-year-old Lower Basilica.
So, I was really excited by the opportunity to sign on for a short tour last week of restoration work being done on frescos associated with Giotto, and painted in a particularly beautiful but unkept nook in the Lower Basilica.
“The Colors of Giotto” exhibition allows visitors like me to clamber up on several different levels of scaffolding, to have a very close-up view of the restoration work being done in the Chapel of Saint Nicola, where Giotto’s presence was documented as early as 1309 (although it seems likely that much of the work was done by his assistants.) The frescos tell the story of the Life of Saint Nicholas.
This event began in April, so it’s possible to already see some small areas where restoration work has really enriched and brightened the original paintings. There is a startling contrast between the unrestored areas, severely darkened by centuries of soot from candle flames, plus dust, and general wear and tear; with the resorted portions of the frescos. Less obvious, I think, than these cosmetic improvements are the structural repairs and even replacements of portions damaged in the devastating earthquake of 1997.
The colours in the small restored portions are so alive, so vivid, that I can imagine that the entire chapel will glow when the work is complete.
Visitors are given a hard hat and an audio guide that runs for about 25 minutes, and are collected in a small group led by a guide who apparently is there to make sure no one tries to pet the frescos or falls off the scaffolding.
Not that there is any real risk of a a fall. The scaffolding platforms are very large and secure and the metal steps (not ladder) between the levels felt very stable. Not at all the kind of rickety scaffolding I had imagined -- influenced, I suppose, by too seeing window-washers hoisting themselves past my office windows.
It really is a rare treat to see these stunning frescos up so very close. This doesn’t often happen, particularly in chapels that can reach several stories high. From ground level, the perspective isn’t often great.
And Giotto did such amazing work. I was truly gobsmacked last year by his frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, a small jewel box of a chapel where the colours absolutely glow. (The photos I've used here are from Padua, since I can't yet upload any new photos of my own.)
In addition to the actual on-site tour of the Saint Nicola fresco restoration, Assisi has added other exhibitions that help to explain the work, including one in the Palace of Monte Frumentario (not far from the Basilica.) These show virtual frescoes of the pre- and post-restoration work in the Chapel of Saint Nicola for comparison.
According to organizers, this restoration project is one of the final phases of the much larger restoration of the Basilica that began after the devastating earthquake that struck Assisi and parts of Umbria in 1997. The immediate focus after that disaster had been the larger Basilica of Saint Francis, including the brilliant Legend of Saint Francis in the Upper Basilica.