Lost treasures of central Italy Earthquake: The frescoes from the collapsed vault of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi had a beauty could transcend American comprehension.

November 02, 1997|By DONNA W. PAYNE

WHEN I WAS ABOUT to visit Italy, one of my Italian friends told me that the frescoes by Giotto in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi were a ""must see." ... ....."They are something wonderful," my friend said. She was right. When I saw Giotto's painted wall for the first time, I could only stand and stare. Now it will be a long time before another tourist will be able to stand in awe before that beauty.

Giotto's walls came tumbling down when an earthquake struck the Umbrian region of Italy on Sept. 26. I read the news with a sadness that seemed out of proportion to other, more deadly earthquakes.

My sister suffered physical and financial distress in 1994 when a 6.7 magnitude quake shook her home near Northridge, Calif. That earthquake killed 61 people and sent tens of thousands to sleep in the parks. I feared for my sister's health and worried about her home. Afterward, I found it easier to share those concerns with victims of other quakes and natural disasters. The Italian quake was different, though. I not only pitied the victims but I felt a deep loss for treasures that were destroyed.

The Basilica of St. Francis and the Giotto frescoes were badly damaged and will be difficult to restore to their former glory.

A newspaper photograph showed firefighters laying those precious bricks side by side outside the building in an effort to salvage them. The frescoes of Giotto's teacher, Cimabue, were destroyed, and so are gone forever. Perhaps for Americans who are accustomed to a constantly changing cityscape and to suburbs with ever increasing new-home developments, such loss is not remarkable. In the United States, change is a way of life. My travels in Italy and my visit to the Basilica of St. Francis altered my outlook on this.

Throughout Italy, wherever I went, the buildings were old and well-preserved. Building of new structures that is so conspicuous in the United States is conspicuously absent there. The buildings were old with an oldness we cannot approach in our baby-aged country. Our colonial Williamsburgs are modern by comparison to the cities of Europe.

I remember the owner of a Mediterranean cafe who showed me, with great pride, the Roman arch that was carefully incorporated into the interior of her shop. Her attitude was typical among middle-class Italians. My friends who lived in the oldest section of Genoa felt the same way. They cherish the past in Italy.

When the ceiling came crashing down into the Basilica that honors St. Francis, part of a treasure was lost, not just to Italians, but to any who had the eye to see, even Americans who were raised in the shadow of aluminum siding and Disneyland.

My favorite postcard from Italy shows a hill in Assisi, rising above the mist. It is headlined "Sogno & Realta" (dream and reality). The frescoes and the Basilica of Assisi represent a glorious dream and complete reality. The Umbrian earthquake took away the reality and left us with the dream.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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