Assisi interior

The earthquake which shook Umbria last Autumn touched the art-historical community deeply. The disaster was felt throughout the Institute, from the first-year student offering a sheaf of photocopies of daily newspaper reports, through the second-year group about to start a two-term course centred around the St. Francis cycle in the Upper Church at Assisi, to the doctoral student who arrived in Rome on a one-year scholarship to study Franciscan houses in Umbria the day after the first tremors, and another doctoral student who was in the Lower Church of S. Francesco itself when an aftershock brought down part of the vaults of the Upper Church. I myself was packing my bags for a trip to Rome and Umbria when I heard the news. First reports were shocking but very imprecise and I found myself travelling towards a void which might or might not contain the church of S. Francesco at Assisi. Six days later, having experienced alarming tremors while working in the Soprintendenza in Perugia, I was standing outside S. Francesco with a member of the Soprintendenza who was born in Assisi, and the Italian art-historian Elvio Lunghi whose career has largely focused on studies of the art of that town. Besides sadness and depression one could feel relief at what was still standing, but concern at such widespread signs of structural damage, and fear of how much invisible structural damage existed both here and throughout Umbria and the Marches.

Looking back, five months later, the urge to buy a daily Italian paper has subsided, but there remains a sense of loss as well as feelings of anxiety and unease as to the fate of the many churches other than S. Francesco which have suffered damage.

While media attention and funds are concentrated on a single church, many other important monuments remain sealed off, their contents crated and stored away, with no sign of work beginning on them in the near future. Meanwhile a healthy debate has begun as to how best to treat the shattered remains of the vaults which fell at S. Francesco. Bruno Zanardi, a restorer and art-historian long connected with the church has proposed that in the original site on the vaults there should be reconstruction paintings, executed by an artist very familiar with the decoration of S. Francesco. At the same time the basilica's museum would display the original material, permitting close scrutiny of the precious surviving fragments. This proposal seems to me persuasive, offering a close-up view which could focus and nourish our understanding of what remains, and would be a constant reminder of the fragility of much of what we study. Holding classes on the decoration of the Upper Church last term, with the aid of the magnificent illustrations in a controversial recent publication by Bruno Zanardi, Chiara Frugoni, and Federico Zeri, and thinking at the same time of those pathetic fragments waiting in their grading trays in Assisi to be sorted and treated, I was made vividly aware of one of the key roles of the art historian: by studying, recording, describing, analysing and arguing over these works we help to keep them alive, even after their partial destruction. Although we cannot revive the friars and technicians who were crushed beneath the vaults of the Upper Church when they collapsed, we can at least keep faith with the achievements of their predecessors who created these works some seven hundred years ago.

Joanna Cannon