Meetings 2004

Seminar: Monday, December 6, 2004, 7-9 PM. Location: Room 103 of Braun Music Center, Stanford. (Braun is next to Dinklespiel Auditorium, near Tressider Union.)

  • Bob Scott: Can the placebo effect tell us anything about medieval miracle cures?
  • Bob has moved on from his book, The Gothic Enterprise to work on the medieval cults of saints. He hopes this provocative title can help get a good discussion going. We will continue with coffee and tea in the faculty lounge following the presentation.

Seminar: Monday, November 15, 2004, 7-9 PM. Location: Special Collections, Green Library, Stanford University

  • John Mustain: Fantastic books. Reservations required, due to limited space.

Seminar: Thursday, October 21, 2004, 7-9 PM. Location: Classroom 103 Braun Music Center, Stanford University

  • David Clover: Engineering at Assisi. (see below)
  • David is a consulting engineer who has worked on several medieval sites including the Tower of Pisa and the Cour Carree in the Louvre as well as the church in Assisi.
  • Several of us will be meeting the speaker in the CoHo (Stanford Coffee House) in Tressider at about 6pm before the talk. Join us if you'd like. The talk will be followed by a reception (with refreshments of course) in the Braun Music Center lounge, which is on the floor above the meeting room.

Seminar: Thursday, September 30, 2004, 7-9 PM. Location: Learning Center, Foothills Congregational Church, 461 Orange Avenue, Los Altos

  • Medieval Music and the Art of Memory with Anna Maria Busse Berger.

Seminar: Tuesday 25th May 2004, 7:00-9:00 PM in the Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center, Stanford University

  • Gábor Klaniczay: Images and legends of the stigmata of Saint Margaret of Hungary.
  • We have a real treat for our concluding seminar this spring. We move to Central Europe and historical anthropology. Professor Klaniczay is a Permanent Fellow of Collegium Budapest, Professor of Medieval Studies at the Central European University, Budapest, and at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Budapest. In 2003/2004 he is a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford. Gábor's research focuses on the historical anthropology of medieval and early modern European popular religion (sainthood, miracle beliefs, healing, magic, witchcraft), and medieval dynastic sainthood in Central Europe. Currently he is examining the historical role of the judicial context within the formulation of the images on the supernatural, in the middle ages and the early modern times, from the canonization trial to the witch-trial. He is a pioneer in the application of anthropological methods to historical analysis in Hungary. His other endeavor is related to the comparative approach to history, within the framework of which he intends to situate historical observations on Hungary and Central Europe in an all-European context. His most recent topic is a comparative and cross-cultural analysis of medieval and modern visions and apparitions.
  • Gábor's most recent publications include The Uses of Supernatural Power. Transformations of Popular Religion in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, translated by Susan Singerman, edited by Karen Margolis. Cambridge, Polity Press - Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990, and Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses: Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe translated by Éva Pálmai, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002.

Seminar: Monday 19th April 2004, 7:00-9:00pm

  • William A. Christian Jr: Visions of the Miraculous Crucifix at Limpias, Spain 1919-1925. He will discuss who saw what, how what people saw changed over time, what parts of the statue they looked at, what kinds of communication they described, how the media affected the visions.
  • William A. Christian Jr. is an independent scholar who writes about Catholicism in Spain and southern Europe. He is presently a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. His central concern has been the relationship of individuals and groups with the saints, Mary, and God. His studies involve fieldwork in contemporary communities (primarily in Spain) and archival work covering the medieval and early-modern periods. Christian has been investigating what happens during and subsequent to apparitions, moments in which people claim to be in direct contact with the divine. His books include Person and God in a Spanish Valley (1972, 1989), Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain (1981), Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain (1981), Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain (1992), and Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ (1996).

Seminar: Tuesday, 23 March 2004, 7:00-9:00 PM

  • Nicola Coldstream: Eleanor crosses (Making Public Monuments in Thirteenth-Century England: The Tombs and Memorials of Eleanor of Castile).
  • Nicola Coldstream taught medieval art history for many years. Her books include Masons and Sculptors (1991) and The Decorated Style, Architecture and Ornament, 1240-1360 (1994). She has published many articles on medieval architecture, decoration, and furnishings. She is now a independent scholar and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Seminar: 26 February 2004, 7:00-9:00 pm.

  • Jacqueline E. Jung (Assistant Professor in Medieval Art at UC Berkeley): French and German choir screens.
  • Jackie studied with Stephen Murray at Columbia. Her doctoral dissertation was The West Choir Screen of Naumburg Cathedral and the Formation of Social and Sacred Space. Jackie is a frequent presenter at medieval conferences and won a prize for her article in Art Bulletin entitled Beyond the Barrier: The Unifying Role of the Choir Screen in Gothic Churches.

Details of specific meetings

David Clover: The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

The earthquake

On September 4, 1997 a series of mild but sharp earthquakes struck the countryside around Assisi, Italy. Nothing particularly unusual about these quakes; they are part of the fabric of life of this region. Just another item for the old men in the piazza and the women at the well to add to their daily chatter. Very little damage was reported to the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi but friars, after seeing some small chips on the floor apparently from the frescos on the walls and ceilings, noticed during a subsequent inspection several new cracks in the main church vaults in the ceiling space above the nave. They dutifully filled out forms reporting their observations to the Umbria Superintendent of Fine Arts; but no one seemed to be overly concerned; had not the building survived with any noticeable damage the previous twenty-three strong earthquakes recorded since its erection?

All seemed to return to normal until the early morning hours of Friday, September 26th, when another, much stronger earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale struck at 2:33 A.M. This time the damage was more noticeable; several major cracks appeared along the ribs of the ceiling vaults and at the junction of the great arch of the south façade and the ceiling vault a continuous crack opened, causing some damage to several frescos and the loss of several pieces of the ceiling and the rose window.

The extent of the damage caused concern and the custodian of the Franciscan convent, Father Guilio Berrettoni, closed the Basilica to all visitors. In the morning, local building officials came to start a more through inspection with Sergio Fusetti, chief conservator of the Basilica. They were joined by two art surveyors employed by the office of the Umbria Superintendent of Fine Arts.

Then at 11:42, the strongest earthquake hit. Measuring 5.7 on the Richter Scale, it rocked the countryside for nearly a minute. The Basilica swayed with the seismic waves has it has done in the previous earthquakes it has suffered, but this time the ribs and vaults, subjected to earlier misguided structural repairs and already deformed by the earlier earthquake, no longer maintained their integrity and parts of the ceiling came crashing down. Within seconds, several of the greatest frescoes masterpieces in Western art were reduced to a pile of rubble. Worst yet, the two art surveyors, Bruno Brunacci and Claudio Bugiantella, were killed by the collapse of the arches and vault adjacent to the façade while inspecting the damage from the earlier earthquake, and two Franciscans, Father Angelo Api and Novice Borowec Zazislaw, who had arrive in Assisi only a few days earlier from Poland, were crushed to death under tons of rumble from the collapsed vaults above the main altar.

One of the amazing aspects of this collapse was that it was recorded and shown live on Italian television by a camera crew doing a news-report on the earlier earthquake. This permanent record has proved to be a valuable tool in engineers’ attempt to understand the dynamics behind this catastrophe.

Damage from these earthquakes was not exclusive to the Basilica; they affected the entire region of Umbria and were felt from the Italian Alps to Rome. Ten other people were reported to have died as a result of the earthquakes. More than 80% of the housing in Assisi was damaged and over 40% of the housing in the region had to be evacuated, leaving more than 20,000 people homeless and forced to live in hastily erected tent cities and other temporary shelters. Water supplies and road and rail traffic were disrupted across central Italy. Countless structures throughout the Umbria region, some historically important and some just ordinary buildings are damaged or destroyed. But outside the local region, the main attention of the world media was focused on the damage to the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.


Approximately 146 kilometers north of Rome, in the rolling hills of Umbria, lies the exceptionally well-preserved medieval town of Assisi. Known today primarily has the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi; the town site has been a sacred site long before the advent of the Franciscans. One legend tells of a town called Assisium built around a pagan holy spring later venerated by the Etruscans from the ninth to the fifth century B.C. Other legends, parts of which were included in a dream sequence in the Aeneid, credits Dardanus with founding a town on this site 865 years before the founding of Rome. Whatever the true story may be, positive proof of an early settlement can be found in the remaining façade of the Temple of Minerva, erected at the spring site sometime in the first century B.C. as part of the Forum complex that included bath houses, an amphitheatre and an indoor theater. The sanctuary of Minerva was destroyed in the early Christian era and the temple was converted to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. With the extensive town construction in the early middle age, the sacred spring finally ran dry. Subject to the Dukes of Spoleto in the early middle ages, in the 12th century the town of Assisi became an independent commune involved in internal disputes and wars with its neighbor Perugia.

St. Francis

St. Francis was born in Assisi, by most accounts sometime in late September, early October 1182, and was baptized Giovanni, the son of a well-to-do cloth merchant Pietro Bernardone, who, at the time of his birth and baptism, was on a business trip to France. Upon his return, reflecting on his prosperous business journey, Pietro decided to re-name his son Francesco after the country that had provided him with such good luck and fortune. As a youth of twelve he accompanied his father on his business journeys through northern Italy and France, getting exposed to different worlds and new religious experiences. His youthful dreams of adventure and military glory however were dashed when he was taken prisoner of war in a battle with Perugia on December 12, 1202.

The sudden shock of the harshness of being a prisoner in a dark and damp dungeon and his rather poor health led Francis to abandon his worldly ambitions. Following his release, he became a mystic who claimed to have experienced visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary. He composed the first poems in the Italian language about the beauties of nature. His repudiation of the worldliness and hypocrisy of the church, his love of nature, and his humble, unassuming character earned him an enormous following. In 1210 he founded the order of mendicant friars known as the Franciscans, seen as a unprecedented challenge to the decadent Papacy of Pope Innocent III. While finally being accepted by the Pope, the general rules and organization of the Franciscan Order were accepted by the Church of Rome only after his death. Francis was the first known Christian to receive the stigmata, the spontaneously appearing wounds on the hands, feet, and side of the body corresponding to the torments of Christ on the cross. He died on October 3 1226 and was buried in the Church of San Giorgio in Assisi. In 1227, the new pontiff, Pope Gregory IX took up the cause of the Franciscans, leading to sainthood for Francis in just over one year. On June 18, 1939 Pope Pius XII declared St. Francis the patron saint of Italy.

The Basilica of St. Francis

On July 29, 1228, the day after the canonization of St. Francis, Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone of the Lower Basilica. Construction proceeded so fast than in less than two years, on May 25, 1230, the saints body’s, that had been resting in the church of San Giorgio, was solemnly transported to the new crypt and buried in secret for fear of looting by fanatic pilgrims and tomb raiders. This burial was so secret that the crypt was only rediscovered in December 1818.

Work on the Upper Basilica began sometime after 1232 with full financial help from the Vatican at the insistence of Pope Gregory IX. The structure of the upper church was completed in 1239, but construction continued on the campanile, completed in 1240, and other structures in the complex. Pope Innocent IV finally consecrated both churches in 1253 and the church was raised to the status of basilica in 1754.

The style of the lower basilica is Romanesque with barrel arches. The upper basilica heralds the arrival of Gothic architecture into Italy. While the floor plan for the upper church resembles several French models including the Angers Cathedral, it is designed in the style of the Ile-de-France, with its emphasis on large, un-broken wall area that shows its indebtedness to the chapels of Saint Germain-en-Laye and Sainte Chapelle. However Assisi is typical of Italian churches in that it lacks the twin-tower façade, for in Italy the tower has been treated as a separate entity, the freestanding campanile.

As a typical Gothic church, the vaulting of the Upper Basilica, 278 feet long, rises in bays to an interior height of 65 feet, made possible by the use of pointed arches and a skeleton of columns and ribs. There are two sets of ribs converging on each column, one for supporting the ceiling and one for supporting the roof. These ribs converge and intersect at the top of each bay. This skeleton construction relieves the walls of the weight of the stone roof and much of the brick ceiling, transferring it to the ribs, which in turn transfer it to the columns, from which it is carried to the church’s floor and foundation. This allows the walls to be pierced by large windows, in this case filled with multicolored stained glass permitting light to enter in abundance and illuminate the interior paintings.

It is a characteristic feature of Gothic architecture that the skeleton of ribs and columns allows for a large amount of flexing, enabling a structure to controllably sway with an earthquake. However, time, disintegrating building materials and added weigh and miscellaneous structural additions from later construction and repairs alter this ability.

The floor plan consists of a single nave terminating in a polygonal apse adjacent to the transept. The ceiling is cross-vaulted, and a gallery runs along the entire perimeter under the windows that are placed half way up the walls.

The Ceiling and Walls of the Upper Church

No sooner had the construction stopped than the painting of the interior begun. It is through these paintings that the true glory of the Basilica shines. In the middle age though, the religious scenes portrayed on the walls and the figures on the ceiling were not there for artistic expression. Rather, they were didactic; their primary function was to provide the faithful with easily recognizable and understandable images – a sort of “Bible for the Poor”. The religious scenes portrayed on the walls continued the ancient tradition of interior decoration of Christian structures. The frescoes of the upper basilica were started around 1275 and most of the work was entrusted to the Florentine artist Cenni di Pepi, known as Cimabue (c. 1240 – after 1302). In the history of Italian painting, Cimabue marks the end of an era, belonging to the ancient school of Byzantine painting. Work began in the apse with frescoes illustrating the life of the Virgin and continued around the transept towards the façade. These paintings are in extremely poor condition as a result of being painted a secco, that is, after the plaster has dried. This technique is notoriously fragile since the pigments do not bond with the plaster. In true fresco painting, the pigments are applied to the wet or “fresh” plaster. As the plaster dries, a chemical transformation called “carbonation” takes place, which gives the painting an internal cohesion that makes the colors almost indestructible. Compounding the problem of the technique that Cimabue used was also his usage of large amounts of white lead in his paints, which upon contact with the atmosphere is prone to oxidize and turn to black. The result here is an inversion of the relationship of depth and color, the very parts that were intended to light, and thus project, turn dark and recede.

In 1285, a young student of Cimabue, Ambroggio da Bondone, known as Giotto (1267 – 1337) was entrusted with the painting of the vault and arch adjacent to the façade. It was mainly Giotto, along with his collaborators and assistants, who, in a condensed burst of creativity over a period of fifty years, executed those frescoes that mark the dramatic transformation of Western art and laid the groundwork for the beginning of Renaissance painting.

The nave of the Upper church is composed of one great arch and five ribbed vaults, each divided into four triangular sections. Proceeding from the inner façade, the great vault depicts male and female Saints, the first vault, known as the Vault of the Doctors of the Church comes next. The second vault is painted in the style known as starry skies. The third or middle vault is known as the Vault of the Intercessors, the fourth vault is again painted in the style of starry skies, The final vault, the crossing vault at the transept, is known as the Vault of the Evangelists. Each transept vault is also painted in the style known as starry skies.

The Damage

What follows is a more detailed description of the paintings, their subject matter and further commentary including a list of those frescoes damaged or destroyed during the earthquake.

The great arch, adjacent to the façade is attributed to Giotto and his workshop. Depicting Male and Female Saints starting from south to north: Two Unknown Saints (One a King), these are in such poor shape that less than one-half of one figure remains and the other can only be identified as a king because of his crown. St. Agapetus and St. Lawrence, here the lower half of one figure and the lower third of the other are gone, St. Antony of Padua and St. Benedict (collapsed), St. Francis and St. Claire (collapsed), St Clare (d. 1253) is the founder of the Sisters of the Poor Clare, the female branch of the Franciscans. After her canonization in 1255, Pope Alexander IV commissioned the building of a church in her honor. St. Clare’s Basilica was built on the site formally occupied by the Church of San Gorigo, St. Victorinus and St. Refinus (collapsed), St. Peter Martyr and St. Dominic (collapsed), it is these eight collapsed figures that the true glory and color of Giotto works comes to play, Bishop-Saints, the figure on the left is half gone and thus unrecognizable, Female Martyrs.

It is the Vault of the Doctors of the Church, depicting the great early Christian theologians whose writing laid the foundations of the Church doctrine, that best shows Giotto’s revolutionary approach to representation, each painting characterized by a precise sense of space independent of the figures occupying it. To the east: St. Jerome and a monk (collapsed), to the south: St. Gregory and a Deacon, to the west: St. Ambrose and a Deacon, and to the north: St. Augustine and a Deacon. St Augustine and St. Gregory are shown dictating their books to a deacon, while St. Jerome and St. Ambrose are shown reading.

Next comes one of the starry vaults, painted blue and dotted with golden stars. Here the blue pigment, which was derived from copper, has turned green in some areas due to humidity.

The Vault of the Intercessors, those who can obtain salvation for the faithful with their prayers, was executed by painters gathered under the title of the Roman School from the studios of Filippo Rusuti and the Franciscan painter Jacopo Torriti. It is painted in a style derived from pagan Classical art, somewhat incongruous with the work of the other frescoes but an understandable motif from an artist of the Roman School. To the east: St. Francis and Two Angels, to the south: Virgin Mary and Two Angels, badly damaged and completely separated from the supporting masonry, to the west: Christ and Two Angels, also separated from its masonry support, and to the north: St. John the Baptist and Two Angels.

Then comes another starry vault followed by the Vault of the Evangelists. Each are shown writing his gospel, identified by a inscription, by the presence of his traditional symbol and, in the foreground a miniature city representing the part of the world that he was sent to preach. To the east: St. Matthew with an angel and Judea (collapsed along with the adjacent vault section with the starry sky and the connecting rib), to the north: St. John with an eagle and Asia, to the west: St. Luke with an ox and Greece, and to the south: St. Mark with a lion and Ytalia. While all the other cities are imaginary, Cimabue, for the first time since Antiquity, attempts to represent Italy as an actual place with topographic accuracy featuring identifiable monuments specific to Rome.

Painted on the gallery walls on the north and south sides of the nave is a cycle of 34 episodes from the Old and New Testament. These are attributed to painters of The Roman School and followers of Cimabue. Only the scenes from the life of Isaac are thought to be early work by Giotto.

The lower walls of the nave contain twenty-eight frescoes from the “Greater Life of St. Francis” by St. Bonaventure. Painted from 1296 to 1300, the cycle starts on the south wall adjacent to the altar and circle clockwise around the nave and entrance. This cycle revolutionized the art of storytelling in paint. The many illiterate pilgrims who came to worship him could easily understand St. Bonaventure’s story, told in a theatrical narrative. Though originally attributed to Giotto, the consensus today, based upon modern analysis of pigments and paint formulations is that it was executed by the saloon of Pietro Cavallini (1250–1330) from Giotto’s original projected design.

The walls of the north transept are all painted by Cimabue. Facing the façade, in the upper level are Angels in Arcades, middle or gallery level: Angels with Scepters and on the floor level: Crucifixion. One the north wall: to the left: The Vision of the Throne and the Book of the Seven Seals and to the right: The Vision of the Angels in the Four Corners of the Earth forming part of the cycle of the Apocalypse of St. John.

On the walls of the south transept facing the façade: at the upper level: Bust of Angels and at the middle or gallery level: Saints and Prophets by a painter simply known as Northern Master – perhaps British (13th century). On the lower level: another Crucifixion by Cimabue. On the south wall: left: The Crucifixion of St. Peter and right: The Beheading of St. Paul, both by Cimabue.

Though not a painting, the altar was also destroyed by the collapse of the vault of St. Matthew.

Though my discussion is mainly about the Upper Basilica, this was not the only area of the church compound damaged as a result of the earthquake. Outside, the tympanum of the north transept, more than forty feet high and three feet thick, was left unhinged and leaning dangerously over the Chapel of St. John in the Lower Basilica, with its Gothic stain glass windows and the fresco cycle of the Passion by Pietro Lorenzetti (1280 - 1348). The Gothic refectory was heavily damaged and a large segment of the exterior portico had collapsed. Many frescoes in the Lower Basilica were also damaged by cracks and large holes; some even detached from the supporting walls.


The dust had not even settled when the first discussions began about the means and methods to stabilize the remaining portions of the Basilica to prevent any further collapses and to insure the safety of those people working in and around the structure. The earthquakes also caused permanent deformation in all the remaining vaults, leaving the entire ceiling of the Basilica in a precarious and dangerous condition. The Italian Cultural Resources Administration immediately activated a scientific and technical commission to arrange the necessary emergency operations. At the same time the Ministry of Cultural and Environmental Resources formed the Pro Basilica Commission to co-ordinate the reconstruction and restoration efforts. All were aware of the fragile condition of the remaining parts of the two partially collapsed vaults and a rather ominous bulge in the exterior wall of the tympanum and the fact that the region was being subjected to many aftershocks of varying intensity.

First we will discuss the tympanum of the north transept, constructed of a cavity wall with two faces and an inner fill. The two earthquakes caused extensive deterioration of the mortar and the resulting reduction of cohesion and bonding which connected the stones of the exterior face caused a progressive failure, stone by stone, creating a large hole during an aftershock on October 7th. The risk was that if there were any further failures, the tympanum could collapse inward, resulting in enough damage that the entire roof of the transept could fall onto the ceiling below, causing everything to fall to the floor level or worse.

After a quick discussion, it was decided to anchor two cantilever steel trusses on the walls of the transept. These trusses were designed to support a four and one-half ton steel frame in the shape of the tympanum, a triangle 27 feet high and nearly 58 feet wide at the base. However the big problem was how to erect these trusses? A huge crane, 170 feet tall was required, but the only cranes immediately available could not fit through the narrow portal to the inner courtyard. This problem was solved by using a second crane to lift the first one over the roof of the building and into the courtyard. During the week of October 10th to 14th, the steel trusses and frames were fabricated, the crane lifted into the courtyard, with many nervous looks from the Franciscans, the two cantilever steel trusses hoisted over the roof of the transept and anchored to the lateral walls. Despite some rather heavy wind and rain the steel frame was finally set in place and anchored back to the body of the church. Then the masonry was temporarily stabilized by filling the collapsed portion of the wall, other large holes and the empty spaces between the walls with polystyrene foam. Less than one-half hour after the above tasks had been completed, a severe aftershock rocked the countryside, probably strong enough to have brought down the unprotected tympanum.

The ceiling vaults presented a completely different situation. It was quickly ascertained that the principle cause of the collapse of the vaults could be traced to the volume of miscellaneous fill accumulated around the vaults as well as the addition of several concrete beams added at the time that recent roof repairs were made in the 1960s. This large volume of mass, mainly broken roof tiles and other loose materials accumulated over centuries of roof repairs, filled the area adjacent to the lower intersections of the vault ribs. When an earthquake comes, this non-cohesive fill, only capable of acting in one direction at a time, follows the movement of the vaults, counterbalancing their recovery and increasing the existing permanent deformations caused by earlier earthquakes. At the same time the added concrete beams created stiffness in the vault that prevented the ribs to deform properly during earthquakes, thereby transferring these swaying movements into sharp jolts, damaging the mortar of the stone joints. When the first earthquake hit during the early morning hours of September 26, the movements caused an increase in the permanent deformation, reducing the ceiling curvature and the bearing capacity of the vault.

When the major earthquake came at 11:42 in the morning, the progressive loss of curvature of the ribs resulted in a hinge being formed in the middle and finally the rib collapsed, taking the adjacent vaults with it. Visual evidence supporting of this type of failure can clearly be see in the collapse of the great arch and vault adjacent to the façade which was filmed live by Umbria Television. It can be concluded that a similar failure mode occurred in the vaults close to the transept. The collapses occurred in these areas because during these particular earthquakes, the directions of the seismic forces were mainly perpendicular to the axis of the nave. This caused the series of vaults to act globally like a beam with the kind of restraint provided by the stiffness of the façade and the transept. Added to these restraints were those added by the volume of the loose fill and the irregular stiffness created by the added concrete beams, making some sort of structural failure almost inevitable.

The surviving vaults were damaged by large cracks distributed on both the interior and exterior faces of the vaults. The curvature of the ribs, and as a result, the vaults, was reduced in many areas. The immediate danger of further collapses, and the consequent risk to human safety, precluded the possibility of supporting the vaults from the floor level. Instead, platforms were suspended from roof above the vaults, allowing for an area to make a through inspection and providing for a base for working on the vaults from above.

During the following month workers started the removal of the accumulated loose fill from the base of the ribs. Then the vaults and ribs were connected to the roof framing with a series of tie bars with springs to maintain the bearing capacity independent of thermal effects and minor vibrations. Movement transducers were connected to these springs to monitor the strains on the vaulting and the stress on the tie bars. These monitors continuously recorded movement in the areas of greatest risk and correlated these readings with a preset threshold of alarm. The monitoring system proved its value by allowing work to progress safely, by having instantaneous evidence of damage caused by aftershocks as well as verifying the effectiveness of emergency measures as each one was taken.

To strengthen the remaining vaults and arches, a special mortar had to be developed, having the following requisites:

  1. This mortar had to be able to be injected through holes only millimeters wide and penetrate into very small spaces, bonding with the original mortar and consolidating it.
  2. It had to have the ability to be injected “dry”, that is, without having to wet the damaged surfaces.
  3. It had to be permanently compatible to the original mortars.
  4. It had to have a low soluble salt content to avoid any adverse interaction with the plaster of the frescoes.
  5. It had to form a composite brick-original mortar / brick-repair mortar with good mechanical strength yet without making the structure excessively rigid.

With the selection of a specially developed mortar, the process of filling the cracks on the exterior face of the vault could begin. Strips of polyurethane were inserted in the larger cracks to prevent the mortar from escaping to the interior face of the vault.

During this process, workers had removed more than 1,300 tons of debris and haphazard additions. Researchers, using data gathered during the aftershocks from the movement transducers, were able to conclude that the ribs and vaulting had regained most of their flexibility, thus better able to withstand a seismic event of the same magnitude as the September 26 earthquake with a very little possibility of a major collapse.

The most amazing aspect of all this work was the collective effort by structural engineers, worrying with good reason about the possible collapse of a piece of loosened vaulting and having to undertake a risky reinforcing job, the art-historians and restorers determined to save every molecule of medieval pigment, construction workers, who knew the secrets of stone, brick, metal and mortar, members of the Franciscan community and administrators from all types of governmental agencies and private institutions, all managing to come to terms with and to respect each other in an effort to guide all available resources towards a common goal. Somehow this diverse interdisciplinary effort, through frank and lively discussions and meetings, learning to move with flexibility, co-operated and made quick decisions that kept the entire project focused on its goal: the prospect of Christmas Mass in 1999 in the Upper Basilica.

Reconstruction of the vaults and arches

Of immediate concern after the earthquake was the removal of the debris from the collapsed vaults and arches to avoid any possible damage to the ceiling of the Lower Basilica. Debris from the collapse of the great arch and first vault, adjacent to the façade, was removed by all sorts of methods from small mechanical loaders and miniature bulldozers to wheelbarrows and shovels, and placed on the lawn outside the Basilica. Restoration volunteers assisted by non-specialist volunteers sifted through the nearly 1,000 tons of material, separating the parts that belonged to the vaults and ribs from the accumulated fill and recovering fragments of painted plaster that survived. At a later date and in a separate area, the remains of the collapsed transept vaults were gathered and examined. Recovering and examining stone and brick pieces from the rumble enabled several portions of the two collapsed arches to be identified, sections of brick that had stayed together along with a large part of the painted surface despite the long fall.

The arches were then reconstructed using these elements and piecing together others in order to recover their authenticity, even if they were to be partially integrated with new blocks. The collapsed ribs were reconstructed consisting of old, restored and new stone pieces with a central nucleus of wood in order to avoid any phenomenon of local instability. To absorb flexural stress in the reconstructed arches and vaults, a skin of fiber coated in epoxy resin was applied to the surfaces with unidirectional Kevlar reinforcement on the interior face and unidirectional fiberglass on the exterior face.

After the vaulting was secured, scaffolding was erected inside the Basilica, allowing art restorers to access the damaged frescoes still in place on the vaults. In the end, preservation and reconstruction was completed to nearly 24,000 square feet of plaster of the entire vaulting of the Upper Basilica.

There were many areas that required immediate attention:

  1. In areas where portions of the painted plaster no longer adhered to the ceiling in areas where the masonry of the vaulting had to be secured, a bonding of a light, transparent fabric to the surface was used to prevent these pieces from falling. The first area of this application was around the two holes created by the collapsed vaults and arches.
  2. Re-bonding the plaster to the masonry, and paint to the plaster, using adhesives wherever it was most urgent, especially in the areas that had suffered widespread damage to the masonry.
  3. Re-bonding and consolidating painted surfaces, especially in the pilasters between the second and third bays of the nave and several sections adjoining the south wall.
  4. The special re-bonding of two portions of frescoes in the Vault of the Intercessors, the Virgin Mary and Christ, which had become completely separated from the masonry vaulting as a result of serious buckling of the painted surfaces caused by the seismic movement. After careful restoration and re-attachment of fallen flakes, especially to the face of the Virgin Mary, they were re-bonded to a restored surface.

Three frescoed sections in the Vault of the Doctors that remained attached to the parts of the vaulting that had not collapsed yet still severely damaged, were removed from their supports. These supports then had to be demolished and replaced with new brick vaulting fastened to the ribs left standing.

Bricks forming the transverse rib separating the St. Matthew vault from the starry sky vault, many with the decorative painting still intact, were recovered and transported to a special laboratory. There, they were reassembled into a partial re-composition of modular monolithic blocks. These blocks were then repositioned on a form to re-create the fallen rib. After precise measurements these pieces were transported back to the Basilica and reconstructed on wooden formwork.

Reconstruction of the tympanum of the Transept

Once permanent scaffolding and supports were in place, the temporary steel frame was removed from the tympanum. The severely damaged tympanum of the north transept was dismantled. The fallen stones were recovered with many heavily damaged ones being replaced with new stones from a quarry with characteristics similar to the original. The new wall was reassembled with metal rods inserted to prevent individual stones from slipping. At the south transept, closer examination revealed that although appearing intact, the wall had actually suffered strong deformation with portions protruding up to 4 inches. This was corrected with a series of jacks and then filling the voids with mortar.

Restoration of the mural fragments

It is to the world of art in particular and to the public in general that the collapsed frescoes of Cimabue and Giotto received the most concern. Almost immediately an international relief fund was established by the Friends of Assisi, together with the World Monuments Fund, to raise money for the expenses of reconstructing and restoring the destroyed masterpieces.

In the lawn area outside the Basilica, specially trained volunteers, mostly students from the local universities, began the slow process of recovering painted fragments from the paintings of the Saints on great arch and of the St. Jerome fresco in the first vault. These frescoes, done using the technique that had the paint being applied to wet plaster, could be carefully handheld without fear that they would crumble to dust. A special laboratory, financed by the Italian government, was set up in the 15th century horse stables. Full sized photographs of the destroyed frescoes were stretched out on individual tables and covered in clear plastic. Piece by piece the recovered fragments were properly located. With more than 1000 square feet of shattered masterpieces to be reassembled, it was truly the greatest jigsaw puzzle in the world. The problem of looting became a big concern when several large fragments were found being sold on the “black” market that sprung up around Assisi to supply unscrupulous collectors, tourist and pilgrims with souvenirs of the collapse.

As the fragments were being recomposed, individual movable supports were made replicating the curvature of the arches and vault. In the case of the frescoes of St. Rufino and St. Vittorino, the fragments were applied to the moveable supports, plaster was used to fill the gaps and the entire assembly repositioned on the restored arch.

At the time of the reopening of the Basilica, the frescoes of St. Rufino and St. Vittorino were returned to the arch above the entrance. More than 80% complete, these two examples showed what had been accomplished and also to solicit ideas and comments from art critics as well as from visitors and pilgrims. Restorers opted against filling in the gaps with background colors or actually trying to duplicate the missing pieces and instead left the restored pieces stand out against the gray plaster background.

Debris from the collapsed vaults over the Altar was left in place until the ceiling scaffolding could be put in place. Here the pieces of the ceiling frescoes of Cimabue presented a different problem. The overriding problem came from the fact that Cimabue painted on dry plaster, thus as a result the paint separated from the plaster as it crashed to the floor. From Christmas 1997 until the Pope’s visit in mid-January 1998 twenty firemen, specially trained by art restorers, carefully removed the debris to special tents set up in the courtyard. There, groups of volunteers, from Italy and abroad, carefully sifted through the rumble to recover and separate the fragments of the Cimabue frescos from the starry sky fresco. Nearly 300,000 fragments of the collapsed St. Matthew and Judea fresco, inner-mixed with fragments of his other frescos jarred loose by the earthquake, were recovered. Each of these fragment were almost too fragile to be touched, so re-assembly by hand was impossible.

However the advantages of modern technology come into play. Using computers and digital cameras, computer programmers, working with art historians, developed a special program using 3-D virtual imaging to recreate the original frescos right down to the brush strokes. Then over a period of six months, nearly 100,000 fragments large enough to be possibly identified were mounted and digital images produced. Computers slowly matched these fragments to a master digital image, eventually small portions of the frescoes reemerged. The problem of attempting to re-assemble these frescoes was compounded by the fact that so much simply turned to colored dust, many small fragment were taken as souvenirs and identifiable pieces were stolen and sold on the black market. Even though small portions have been assembled, the task of remounting it on the vaulted surface has so far proved to be nearly impossible. It is my current understanding that whatever finally can be restored with be displayed separately in the Church’s museum.


Even from the time Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone, the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi has been a favorite of the Vatican. During the reconstruction and restoration, the resources of the Vatican Archives and Library were made available for whatever means were necessary to hasten the completion. This was especially important for historical verification of the restoration and for examination of the original construction records that included such items as from exactly which quarry came which stones, extremely important in the reconstruction of the arches and ribs.

During his visit to the Basilica on January 3, 1997, Pope John Paul II declared that he prayed that the edifice would be re-opened before the beginning of the Jubilee Year celebrating the new millennium. The challenge was made and met. The total cost of the reconstruction and restoration was between $40 million and $50 million at the end of 1999. Work continued, however, on the restoration of the remaining frescoes of the great arch and the first vault. As of 2000, these frescoes were more than 50% to 70% complete. I have no knowledge of their present state.


On Sunday, November 28, 1999 the 47 residing Franciscans brothers reopened the doors of the Basilica of St. Francis with a solemn mass of rededication, a memorial mass for those who died during the collapse, and a ceremony which consecrated the altar that replaced the one destroyed in the quake. This ceremony, presided over by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, with an audience that included the Italian president, was broadcast live on television throughout Italy.

Through all this fanfare, attention was brought to one glaring social issue; the homeless situation created by the earthquake and the fact that the Church and the Italian government concentrated its rebuilding efforts and funds on the church, much to the bitterness of the nearly 12,000 earthquake homeless. Most were still living in metal mobile homes, which resemble sea transport containers, while awaiting the rebuilding process that would allow them to return to their new or rebuilt homes. Church and regional officials claimed that it was best for everyone to have harried the reopening of the basilica to revive the region’s flagging tourist industry.

As a final note, it was extremely fortunate that a renown art photographer, Ghigo Roli, was commissioned to provide a complete set of documentary photographs for what was projected to be a two-volume set on the Upper and Lower basilicas edited by Professor Giorgio Bonsanti of Florence. Mr. Roli, with permission from the Vatican, was given full access to the church and even allowed to construct special scaffolding to facilitate his work. He was completing his work on the Upper Basilica at the time of the earthquake and his photographs preserve the damaged and destroyed masterpieces as a lasting record fore all to see and study. No manner what restorations and reconstructions are possible, much of the artwork on the ceilings and walls of the Basilica of St. Francis at Assisi will never be the same again.

Copyright © 2004, David Clover.