Earthquake damage to Assisi frescoes linked to modern reconstruction techniques; Giotto’s Padua frescoes threatened

Experts now suspect that the earthquake damage to the Assisi frescoes was caused in part by earlier structural changes in the building, particularly the use of reinforced concrete beams in the roof. Similar reinforcements have been used in old churches and could be threatening masterpieces contained within them. The most dramatic example is in Padua, where the Scrovegni Chapel contains Giotto’s most important frescoes.

In addition to damaging several distinctive churches, the earthquake in central Italy on September 26 has raised serious questions about the implications of various restoration techniques for the preservation of art in Italy. The unfortunate substitution of reinforced concrete for wooden beams in the restoration of the roof of the Basilica of San Francesco a generation ago appears to have contributed to the extensive damage to the building. This distressing practice seems to have placed a cloud of danger over buildings in Umbria and the Marches. In the case of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi we witnessed the loss of several early frescoes, and the long-term effect of the quake has yet to be evaluated for other frescoes in the church.

Italy’s leading art historian, Professor Federico Zeri [Zeri, in La Stampa, sett. 27, 1997], has stated, “Ecco l’effetto di scelte dissennate. Sono stati dei folli, ecco, dei folli. a sostituire le travi di legno del tetto della Basilica con travi di cemento armato che hanno appensantito e reso rigido il tutto.” Zeri, in an interview with the London Times (10-4-1997) went so far as to say: “Italy’s art is in the hands of people who are cretins or corrupt, or both.” Grave concern has been expressed for other buildings and their contents which have been similarly treated.

Apparently during the restoration of the roof of San Francesco, the original old wooden beams of the roof were removed and replaced by concrete ones. It is well known that concrete is not as elastic as wood and that it “moves” with different oscillations than the wood beams and the masonry of the walls, which had withstood seven centuries of quakes. Furthermore, the more rigid reinforced concrete is considerably heavier than the wood it replaced, putting additional stress on the vertical supports and thereby increasing the danger to the structure. Despite these inherent problems, reinforced concrete has been widely used in so-called technological restorations of architecture over the more recent decades and has become a fashionable procedure. (Parenthetically, another disadvantage to concrete is that its presence in walls is highly detrimental to the longevity of the intonaco of which buon fresco is a part).

Similar errors in the treatment of Italy’s finest structures can be recited. Two decades ago, over fifty large spaces or “holes” in the cupola of Florence Cathedral provided for by Brunelleschi for static as well as for maintenance reasons were filled in with cement when restoration work was being done there. The additional weight and alteration of the equilibrium of the structure had made the cupolone a candidate for disaster. More recently, recognizing the problem, the local soprintendenza has re-opened most of the holes. Of course, the removal of the concrete is tacit recognition of the inherent danger of its use in the first place. [Apparently it took six years of work to undo the filling of the holes which must have taken a matter of days or weeks to fill. It goes without saying that both money and labor have been wasted, and it becomes ever more clear that the indiscriminate use of concrete may be coming to an end in such restoration efforts. (See a letter by Arch. Mario A. Lolli-Ghetti to Il Messaggero of 6 October 1997). We can be grateful that the Soprintendenza saw and corrected the original error.]

Similar imprudent methods have been employed for the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In the attempt to correct its tilt, or at least prevent further leaning, the tower has been wrapped in metal bands and its base surrounded by tons of concrete, while lead weights were placed to one side. Initially, this simplistic ‘solution’ seemed to function as hoped to the enthusiastic headlines of the press. Then, about a year ago, the few centimeters of the much-hailed correction were lost in a day or two. Work had to be stopped and the experts are now in a dreadful quandary, not knowing what to do. It is quite possible that the costly project has placed the tower in greater danger of collapsing than before.

[For up-to-date information on the Tower of Pisa consult: Prof. Piero Pierotti, Univ. of Pisa. Dept of storia delli arti, P. S. Matteo, 2. (office:) 39-050-542345; (home:) 050-525220. E-mail: 050-587224; (fax:) 050-580128.]

The situation at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua

The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is the home of Giotto’s famous fresco cycle depicting the life of Mary and the life of Christ, regarded as the finest work of the period and a high point of Italian art. In an effort to protect the frescoes, an ill-looking and incongruous bussola or technological entranceway to the chapel has just been constructed, which is intended to filter the humidity and dust that could be brought into the chapel by visitors. [The structure is referred to as a “bussola d’ingresso antismog” by the Assessore alla Cultura of Padua, or as a technological structure suitably furnished where all the visitors must pass to enter the chapel (“un corpo tecnologico attrezzato attraverso il quale dovranno passare tutti i visitatori”), as paraphrased in Il Gazzettino, sett. 25, 1997.] This substantial construction of concrete, steel and glass, measuring 8 meters square, should now be re-examined in the light of the recent and ongoing events in Assisi. The nature and amounts of these materials all add considerable weight to the spongy area surrounding the foundations of the chapel. This pressure on the foundations is further increased by the presence of part of an old base of an earlier structure in the ground dating from earlier in the century (as there was in Pisa). [During World War II, a project to encase the chapel in a reinforced concrete bunker got as far as placing foundations on the sides of the chapel, according to G. Basile, Giotto. The Arena Chapel Frescoes, London, 1993, p.178.]

(1) Even more worrisome is the fact that the bussola was built flush against the original early fourteenth-century side wall of the chapel. The various materials, steel, glass and concrete, have different properties and different tensile strengths, both from each other and from the brick wall of the chapel. In the event of an earthquake, they would oscillate with differing waves or swings, making a collision among them almost inevitable. This already dangerous situation will be increased by the heavy machinery for filtering the air, not yet placed on the roof of the bussola, which will multiply the potential for disaster. One can imagine a scenario in which the bussola would function like a jack-hammer or a gigantic battering-ram, smashing the adjoining wall of the chapel and creating havoc with Giotto’s frescoes.

(2) A potential catastrophe for the Scrovegni Chapel is further aggravated by another ‘Assisi’ factor: In 1962 the original wooden beams of the chapel’s roof were replaced by metal supports, the so-called metal trusses [“capriata metallica, di tipo inglese”], engaged into the wall with concrete. Here, unlike the case with the bussola and the walls of the chapel itself, the “new” roof would move with greater elasticity than the other elements. [According to an item in the Il Mattino of 11 January 1997, “Un lavoro importante h compiuto all inizio degli anni 60 [1962]; viene sostituta la capriata di legno, ormai illanguidita dal tempo, con una metallica, si incatenano le pareti, si sistema la statica con un cordolo in cemento armato e si ineietta nella pietra parecchio cemento consolidante.”] These interventions, including the substitution of three chains (“catene”) of concrete in place of a wooden one on the facade and a similar substitution of four of the five original chains in the nave, should be a cause of deep concern, particularly because Padua is a seismic area. In addition to these dangerous alterations, the original tile-covered timber roof has been replaced by one constructed of metal. [Basile, Giotto. The Arena Chapel Frescoes, p.381.]

Indeed, there was an earthquake that affected Padua on the 18th of October 1936 which caused damage especially to the east wall, and a quake mainly in the Friuli in 1976 which exaggerated the cracks on the facade. Worse still, the facade itself separated from the vaulted interior. [Basile, Giotto. The Arena Chapel Frescoes, p.379.] We have no way of knowing whether the materials and new techniques applied to the building in the 1960s did not contribute to the damage. One also has to wonder whether the concrete placed in the walls of the chapel had a negative effect upon the frescoes chemically. Besides, the rigidity of the concrete compounded with the extreme flexibility of the metal are hardly a happy and safe situation. What we seem to have is a series of alterations that comprise a built-in time bomb about to explode in Giotto’s chapel, with the bussola as the trigger that could set it off.

(3) While the experts have been experimenting with the highly questionable entrance system, they seem to have entirely neglected the problem of the presence of water in the crypt of the chapel. This, in the face of visible evidence that moisture can be detected above ground. To be sure, in these very weeks, the situation is becoming increasingly urgent, and emergency work is being done to Giotto’s frescoes because they are literally falling off the wall. We learn from Padua’s Assessore alla Cultura that work is beginning on the plaster surface (intonaco), that is, the very surface on which Giotto’s frescoes are painted. It is detaching because of the humidity. [In an item in Il Gazzettino of sett. 24, 1997: “Nuovo intervento di restauro per le cappella degli Scrovegni, che remarr` chiusa domani e venerdl per l’allestimento al suo interno di alcuni ponteggi necessari ad intervento urgenti per consolidare gli intonaci su cui Giotto ha affrescato i suoi dipinto. H stato notato infatti che in piy puinti questi intonaci si sono distaccati dal retrostante muro, ed h risultata pertanto improragabile l’opera di riadesione.” In Il Gazzettino of sett. 25, 1997: “Lunedl mattina, intanto, inizieranno anche lavori per sistemare l’intonaco interno del monument che ha dato segni di cedimento a cause dell’umidit`. Parte dello stratto si sarebbe staccato ed questo punto gli interventi non erano ulteriormente rinviabili.”]

This very serious condition has gone unnoticed by the national press in Italy as well as in the international press. Correctly, of course, first aid is being tended to the frescoes at this very moment to firm them up where they are falling off or about to fall from the walls, yet there is no serious talk about resolving the problem of the water in the crypt (basement) and the surrounding area. [See also, Basile, op. cit., p.379, where he says that there is “no evidence of rising damp either; the basement appeared to have reached a thermal and hygrometric equilibrium, and to have a stabilizing function in geomorphological terms.” Yet one can see with the eye the dampness above ground level, and besides, the frescoes are falling off. What more evidence does one need?]

There is a true emergency in Padua and part of the solution must be tearing down the bussola. A study should be immediately undertaken to determine whether the metal beams in the roof and the added cement in the chapel are not also reasons for concern. As a fundamental part of a campaign for emergency action in the Scrovegni Chapel, the water in the basement must be separated from direct contact with the chapel and its frescoes. This can be accomplished in various ways, for example, by raising the chapel off its present basement, or treating the entire area surrounding the chapel to eliminate the water, or the frescoes can be removed from the chapel itself.

The notion of filtering the tourists in the technological entranceway, a kind of modern labyrinth for 25 visitors at a time in preparation for their entry into the chapel, as a major if not unique step in preventing future loss to the frescoes runs contrary to common sense, and ignores the more substantial and continuous damage caused by the water even when the chapel is closed to the public. It is time to put first things first.