With chimes ringing out from a newly reinforced bell tower and thousands of pieces of frescoes painstakingly put back in place, the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi fully reopened to the public today, two years after a devastating earthquake shook it to its foundation.
The $37 million restoration was hailed as "the miracle of Assisi" not only for its quick completion--such projects normally drag on for many years in Italy--but also for its combination of high-tech engineering, use of special computer software for piecing together the frescoes and cooperation by more than 600 construction workers, art restorers and volunteers.
"The restoration of the Basilica of Assisi is a model for us, to put civil passion, technology, talent, resources and work at the service of a country that is finally learning to love its immense cultural and artistic patrimony," said Culture Minister Giovanna Melandri, who attended today's opening with President Carlo Ciampi and other top officials.
The vast 13th century church complex is Italy's most important Catholic shrine after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and Saint Francis is Italy's patron saint. Today, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, said Mass, and consecrated a new altar to replace the one smashed when part of the vaulted ceiling crashed down on Sept. 26, 1997.
Two friars and two technicians were killed in the quake, which measured 5.6 on the Richter scale. They were trapped by falling rubble inside the upper basilica where they had been assessing damage from another strong tremor earlier that morning. Seven other people in neighboring towns were also killed.
The collapse of the vault brought down an invaluable fresco of Saint Matthew and part of a starry blue sky painted by Cimabue. Near the entrance of the basilica, the images of Saint Girolamo, attributed to Cimabue's student Giotto or his school, and eight other saints crumbled to the ground in hundreds of thousands of pieces.
Sergio Fusetti, chief restorer of the basilica, said about 180 square meters of frescoes fell, breaking into an estimated 400,000 pieces.
Paola Passalacqua, who headed the team that sifted the colored pieces of fresco from the piles of debris, said: "We were able to collect even the tiniest pieces. There was a lot of care and a lot of love put into the work."
After the pieces were gathered, experts used photos to help figure out how to put the frescoes back together. In the church today, visitors could see the fragmented frescoes of Saints Rufino and Vittorino, with 70 percent of the image remaining and the rest left white.
"It's a testimony to what happened, and that's the way it should be," Passalacqua said.
For the Cimabue and Giotto frescoes, the team is using special software that allows them to scan the pieces and figure out how to arrange them without having to handle the fragile pieces until they are put back in place. That should happen in 2001 or later, she said.
In addition to working on the frescoes, workers removed 1,300 tons of material from the top of the ceiling vaults that had been added over the centuries, Fusetti said. They then shored up and reinforced the structure.
While the reconstruction and restoration of the basilica has been impressive, it also highlighted the lagging efforts to rebuild housing damaged by the earthquake. More than 10,000 people in nearby towns like Foligno, Colfiorito and Gualdo Todino are facing their third consecutive winter in prefabricated, box-like houses known here as containers, after their homes were destroyed or made uninhabitable by the earthquakes. They are awaiting government assistance for the construction of new houses or reinforcement of their old ones.