Fourteenth-century frescoes in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi have been damaged by over-ambitious restorations. Experts claim the frescoes have been significantly compromised; segments that have fallen victim to over-enthusiastic work now stand in stark contrast to the untouched areas.
Unique in their range and quality, the murals were created by numerous late medieval painters from the Roman and Tuscan schools, and include Giotto frescoes as well as works by Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti, and possibly Pietro Cavallini. The frescoes are considered instrumental for understanding developments in Italian art history.
The Directorate General for Fine Arts of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage, led by architect Francesco Scoppola, was alarmed that changes have been made at the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, and ordered an inspection.
Bruno Zanardi, a restorer and lecturer at the University of Urbino, Italy, said he noticed considerable changes in the chapel: “I saw the site in 2011, and got the impression it was a good job, executed by someone I thought was a capable and expert restorer. But when I went back to the basilica a couple of months ago with my students, I had a very different impression,” Zanardi said.
Frescoes at one end of the transept in the Chapel of St. Nicholas, where restoration is already concluded, are heavily compromised. A fresco by Giotto depicting the Madonna fainting at the cross has lost its light and shade contrasts and its colors are dulled.
Martini’s figures of saints appear flattened, while some details of the decor have been obliterated. The Virgin Mary at the center of the triptych in the Chapel of St. Nicholas has completely (and allegedly irreversibly) lost its top coat.
However, Sergio Fusetti, lead restorer at the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, claims that the allegations reported in the Italian press are completely unfounded. “The problem doesn’t exist. We carry out regular checks and maintenance, taking off the hard dust that’s been deposited on the frescoes. We have never done anything without the authorization from the superintendency, which is the culture ministry in the territory,” he said.
Fusetti has overseen the restoration work since 1997, when the basilica was hit during an earthquake. “I was the last restorer there after the earthquake. I risked my life,” he said.
At the end of an assiduous restoration process following the earthquake, art experts were afforded a moment of celebration in 2012 when Giotto’s signature was discovered on one of the frescoes.