The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

By David Clover

Paper given at Stanford University on October 21, 2004

Introduction: 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the ribs and vaults, subjected to earlier misguided structural repairs and already deformed by the earlier earthquake, no longer maintained their integrity and parts of the ceiling came crashing down.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.

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