Restorers piece together art

Historical Giotto fresco reconstructed on basilica's ceiling

— St. Jerome's white beard is largely gone, his rich cloak looks like it was devoured by moths, and the roll of writing paper on his desk has disappeared.

But in a kind of restoration miracle, much of the rest of the Giotto fresco is back on the soaring ceiling of St. Francis Basilica, five years after an earthquake sent the masterpiece crashing to the floor in tens of thousands of fragments.

Like a giant puzzle knocked apart by an angry child, the fresco was painstakingly pieced together by a team of restorers, who celebrated their achievement Thursday as this town marked the fifth anniversary of a pair of powerful quakes hours apart that claimed 10 lives and destroyed homes and artwork across Umbria in central Italy.

The race to save the fresco, which experts believe was painted by Giotto at the end of the 13th century, began almost immediately after a huge chunk of the basilica's nave fell a distance of seven stories in the earthquake, burying two Franciscan monks and two workers in a mound of dust, plaster and bricks on Sept. 26, 1997.

After the bodies were pulled out, volunteers and restoration experts, who slept in a tent camp with some of the thousands left homeless in the quake, started sifting through some 50,000 fragments of the fresco of St. Jerome and pieces of lesser-known frescoes of eight other saints.

They tried to match pieces to an enlarged photograph of the original St. Jerome work and carefully laid unmatched pieces on cushions of foam in crates and drawers.

"Days would pass when people would find nothing, or maybe just a little piece," recalled one of the chief restorers, Paola Passalacqua. "Then suddenly we would remember seeing a certain piece in a certain drawer that matched. It was a work of memory."

Part of the ceiling above the altar also came crashing down in the second of the quakes, including another priceless masterpiece, a fresco by Cimabue, who is considered the father of Italian painting.

Restoration work on some 120,000 fragments of Cimabue's St. Matthew will begin in a few months, aided by a computer that will try to find matches between the pieces and a photograph of the masterpiece. Fragments of the Cimabue now fill 880 drawers in a cloister of the Franciscan basilica's convent.

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AP Photo

Lidia Rissotto compares one of the 120,000 fragments of a Cimabue frescoe with a photograph of the original in Assisi, Italy. Rissotto is one of three restoration directors who collected the fragments of the frescoes of the St. Francis Basilica and are working to put them back together. The works were damaged five years ago by an earthquake.

A computer might have helped with the Giotto fresco, but right after the quake there was no time to tailor programs to the enterprise, Passalacqua said.

The Rev. Enzo Fortunato gazed up Wednesday at St. Jerome and the other eight saints near the entrance and said: "When we could see the face of St. Rufino, his eyes, beard, a cheek, then real hope began for us" that the restoration would succeed.

"When pilgrims come in, they point to where the Cimabue fresco was and say, 'That's where the quake damage was,'" Fortunato said.

Visitors don't realize the St. Jerome fresco also was quake-damaged. That's a true indication, Fortunato said, of the restoration's success.

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