Earthquake brings basilica's treasures to America

Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis in the Umbrian hills of Italy, has weathered many earthquakes through the centuries.

But the earthquake and aftershocks that struck in 1997 caused extensive damage to the upper church of the Basilica of St. Francis, one of the oldest Gothic religious structures in Italy, with vaults decorated by some of the pre-Renaissance's greatest masters.

To draw attention to the ongoing restoration, the Vatican collaborated with museums and private collectors on a travelling exhibition, "The Treasury of St. Francis of Assisi," now on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Objects of this quality, antiquity, and spiritual power are rarely seen in this country," says Larry Kanter, the exhibition's curator. "Certainly there has never been an opportunity, even in Italy, to see so many masterpieces of the 13th century brought together in one place."

Mr. Kanter says it is important to remember, however, that "this privileged experience is the result of a catastrophe; it commemorates the heroic efforts to restore the Basilica of St. Francis."

The basilica represents a milestone in the history of Western art. Its 2,000 square feet of frescoes, along with its many vaults, have been decorated by some of the greatest masters of the pre-Renaissance, such as Giotto and Cimabue.

The exhibition, which will travel to San Francisco later this summer, highlights the tremendous importance of the Basilica as a gathering point for some of the greatest artists of the age, whose creative experiments set the stage for the development of Italian Renaissance art.

St. Francis, the son of a wealthy merchant, Pietro di Bernardone, was born in Assisi in 1181 or 1182. He later renounced his father's wealth and lived as a hermit, turning to prayer and ministering to the poor, and eventually established an order, the Friars Minor.

As the Franciscan movement grew, St. Francis received the support of Pope Innocent III, who recognized in St. Francis the ability to inspire a newfound enthusiasm for spirituality. With continued support from Rome, Assisi became a major pilgrimage site, thus establishing the papal presence in central Italy.

Throughout the 13th century and into the 14th, a procession of great artists passed through the Basilica to decorate it. Meanwhile, donations of precious objects also flowed in.

The Metropolitan exhibition contains 70 or so masterpieces of medieval and Renaissance art, most of which Larry Kanter chose a year ago from the Basilica's museum, complementing the objects with 30 more works from museums and private collections in Europe and the United States.

The first room in the museum's Robert Lehman wing contains large color photographs, taken both before and after the earthquake.

They feature the Basilica's vaults decorated by Cimabue and Giotto as well as several close-ups of Giotto's well-known "The Dream of Pope Innocent III" and an anonymous master's depiction of Francis receiving the stigmata (the real panel is in a downstairs room).

An enormous 15th-century tapestry in wool and silk, "The Franciscan Tree," hangs nearby, one of the most important surviving tapestries from that century, donated to the Basilica by Pope Sixtus IV in the latter half of the 15th century.

The downstairs rooms contain precious reliquaries, chalices, manuscripts, and paintings. An altarpiece, painted by the Master of St. Francis for the Church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, has been assembled for the first time in centuries, the result of a loan from the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Perugia, joining other panels loaned from Assisi, Washington, D.C., and New York.

It is also the first time that two paintings of St. Francis and four posthumous miracles by the master of the Treasury and an anonymous Umbrian master are exhibited side by side; one is from the Vatican collection, the other from the Basilica museum in Assisi.

The two panels, according to Kanter, are among the most important, as well as controversial, Italian paintings of the 13th century because of the problems concerning their origins and attribution.

A group of rare processional crosses are also exhibited, including one of the two existing crosses by the Master of Blue Crucifixes, an anonymous Italian painter who used vibrant tones of blue.

A series of Bibles, choir books, and manuscripts highlights the close relationship between France and the Franciscan Order as early as 1219. King Louis IX (later St. Louis) had donated his gold leaf missal to the Basilica, one of the most precious manuscripts in the Treasury, as well as a Bible and other manuscripts.

A two-part manuscript from France containing liturgical texts and a vast repertoire of Gregorian musical compositions was given to the Basilica by Cardinal Orsini, who had studied theology at the University of Paris.

When the exhibition will be able to go home remains to be seen. Giorgio Croci, an engineer who specializes in structural restoration and who is in charge of the Basilica restoration project, says the work is on schedule. The upper Basilica is scheduled to reopen on Christmas Eve of this year.

For those yearning for more Franciscan lore, New York's Frick Collection houses the well-known "St. Francis in the Desert" (1480) by Giovanni Bellini.

*'The Treasury of St. Francis of Assisi' will be exhibited until June 27 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It will move to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in July.

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