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Assisi’s quick re-birth after 2007 quake is one of those rare Italian miracles

by Marco Carminati

According to poet Dante Alighieri, who is considered the father of Italian language, Assisi should have changed its name.

“He who speaks of this place, should not say Ascesi,” suggests the poet in the tenth Canto of his Paradise.

“Ascesi” (i.e. Assisi) is a much too short, too limited name. The city should have been called Oriente, since here - as Dante writes - on the hillside of Mount Subasio, the same sun rose that usually rises from the Ganges. And this “new sun” Dante hints at is St. Francis of Assisi.

The “Poverello” (”Poor man”) died in his hometown in 1226. Two years later, Pope Gregory IX solemnly proclaimed Francis a Saint and, lest any time be wasted, laid the foundation stone of the Basilica dedicated to him.

The construction work took place in record time. In 1230, the lower church was almost completed and the Saint's body was placed into the grave where it still lies today. Upon the Lower Basilica, the Upper Basilica was also swiftly built, and both were beautifully frescoed.

The series of frescoes in the Franciscan Basilica of Assisi are part of the history of Italian painting. Roman painters such as Filippo Resuti, Jacopo Torriti and Pietro Cavallini and Tuscan painters such as Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini, and Pietro Lorenzetti were called to decorate the church's walls, illustrating stories from the Old and New Testament and, above all, giving particular importance to episodes in the life of St. Francis.

This was all achieved in about fifty years. The decoration of the lower church started around 1250; in 1275, the decoration of the upper church began, starting, as was usual in those days, from the apsis and continuing towards the entrance. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the frescoes were completed. No time was wasted.

However, tragedy struck here in recent times. Nearly twenty years have passed, but still nobody can forget the night of September 26, 1997. A violent earthquake shook Umbria and Marche. The vaults of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi didn't withstand the earthquake and - just like the World Trade Center in New York - collapsed in a landslide of falling stones, plaster and dust broadcast worldwide.

In the tragedy, not only frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue disintegrated, but four men lost their lives: two Perugia Superintendence officials and two friars of the Sacred Convent.
Photographer Ghigo Roli, in charge of a survey campaign commissioned by publisher Franco Cosimo Panini, was on the scaffolding the day before and the morning of the last tremors.

The photographer gave us extraordinary documentation of those hours, when the earthquake was preparing for the final push and tremors followed tremors in a dire thunder rumble.

Thanks to all these shots taken before and after the collapse, it was possible to try and rebuild portions of the church which had collapsed and had been reduced to tens of thousands of fragments.

On November 28, 1999 the Upper Basilica reopened for worship. The collapsed fragments were collected and, when possible, reassembled and placed back on site. The “resurrection” of the Basilica after the earthquake was one of those miracles that Italians are sometimes capable of. It is in itself a small record as well.