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Sunday, 28 November, 1999, 18:36 GMT
Restoring the Basilica
Bascilica of St Francis in Assisi The main altar of the Bascilica is consecrated

By the BBC's David Willey

More than 600 stone carvers, engineers, masons, and volunteers have laboured to repair the vaulted roof and restore fresco paintings of the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi.

The Basilica, built shortly after the death of Saint Francis in 1223, is one of Italy's major Roman Catholic shrines and a jewel of mediaeval art and architecture.

Fitting together the fragments of mediaeval fresco paintings is the equivalent of solving a huge jigsaw puzzle.

Lessening seismic risk

Digital technology has been extensively used for the first time in solving such problems, and also in devising new solutions to lessening seismic risk in an area where earthquakes are endemic.

Bascilica of St Francis in Assisi Holy mass is celebrated
It is likely to be some years, however, before Assisi's many other damaged churches are reopened for worship and to tourists.

The tomb of the Saint, located in the crypt of the Lower Basilica, was kept open all night for a prayer vigil attended by dozens of worshippers.

Saint Francis, known for his love of nature, his references to "Brother Sun and Sister Moon" and his preaching to animals, is considered ecologically correct by both believers and non-believers.

Interfaith relations

His shrine has also become an important pilgrimage centre for Catholics interested in improving relations with other religions.

The Pope held an important interfaith meeting here - the first in which the Catholic Church stretched out a friendly hand to leaders of other religious faiths - in 1986.

On a more practical note, the reopening of the Basilica called attention to the plight of nearly 10,000 people in Umbria who lost their homes in the recent earthquake and whose return to normality is not yet on the horizon.

Many are still living in metal mobile homes resembling sea transport containers, which are cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer.

"On this festival day, the problems of earthquake victims remain," said La Nazione, central Italy's largest paper.

As you drive through the mountainous countryside near Assisi you see many buildings still wreathed in scaffolding.

Mafia influence

Repairs are costing the Italian Government thousands of millions of dollars, but due to bureaucratic delays funds are slow in arriving and some small towns and hamlets near Assisi which suffered heavy damage will never be reconstructed.

A restored fresco A restored fresco
The long hand of the Mafia has again been detected in various construction company scams. The history of Italian earthquake relief during the past half century is one of corrupt administration of relief funds and lengthy delays in rehousing victims.

Some victims of the 1980 earthquake near Naples are still living in "temporary" accommodation.

The only recent earthquake disaster which was dealt with promptly and efficiently was that in Friuli in north-east Italy in 1976, mainly because the people of Friuli took the reconstruction of their homes into their own hands and insisted on local management of disaster relief.

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See also:
25 Sep 99 |  Europe
Basilica gets quake protector
26 Sep 98 |  Europe
Life amid the rubble of Umbria
08 Dec 97 |  World
Basilica opens doors after earthquake

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