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Repairs begin on irreplaceable St. Francis frescoes damaged in Italy quake

September 29, 1997
Web posted at: 4:35 p.m. EDT (2035 GMT)

ASSISI, Italy (CNN) -- Work began almost immediately at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi to assess the damage and restore precious frescoes wrecked in Friday's twin earthquakes.

The quakes caused significant damage to the 750-year-old church and killed four people inside. A vaulted ceiling in the upper level of the building -- actually two large churches, nestled one above the other -- collapsed, reducing priceless frescos painted by Cimabue and the school of Giotto to little more than rubble.

Other frescoes directly attributed to the master Giotto, depicting the life of St. Francis, appear to have survived the quake relatively unscathed.

Pieces of the ceiling

Difficult task

The basilica -- the final resting place of the 13th century monk who founded the Franciscan order -- is a popular attraction to pilgrims and tourists alike. U.S. tourists hiking on Mount Subasio behind the basilica got a firsthand look at the quake.

"It's very dramatic," said Carol Ward. "I was standing on the mountaintop looking down at the earth and it was moving, and you didn't know whether it was going to split or sink."

St. Francis' tomb was untouched, but restoring the fresco damage left behind by the rumbling earth won't be easy.

Crews began work quickly after the tremors, collecting debris from inside the church and piling it on the grass outside, where volunteers began the delicate job of separating out pieces bearing paint.

The colored fragments were brought into a tent, where restorers hope to be able to recreate the crumbled works of art. Workers can only guess where some pieces belong.

"I can only tell these green and blue pieces belong to a part of the starry sky," said Paola Passalacqua, the restorer who is supervising the operations. "But there's only one (cherub in the fresco)," she said, which makes it clear where a piece with a face on it fits in.

Face of a Cherub

Previous repairs to blame?

The basilica has undergone repairs in the past -- in fact, some experts contend repairs carried out in the 1950s contributed to Friday's damage. During those repairs, wooden beams supporting the roof of the church were replaced by reinforced concrete -- which made the building heavier and more rigid.

Because of that, the theory goes, the stiff concrete beams did not absorb the impact of the quake the way the wooden beams would have, causing the ceiling to collapse at both ends of the church.

The second quake came almost nine hours after the first -- and killed two technicians and two Franciscan friars who had come to inspect the damage.

In all, the quakes killed 11 people and razed many homes.

Correspondent Wolf Achtner contributed to this report.

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