ROME Dec 6 (Reuters) - Restorers believe they may have found the initials of Giotto in a fresco attributed to the early Renaissance master in the lower basilica of St Francis in Assisi.
The discovery, unveiled on Thursday, was made in the Chapel of St. Nicholas, one of the last parts of the basilica-convent complex to be restored since it was damaged in by an earthquake in 1997.
"This is clearly a type of signature. These are clearly initials and not a decoration," said Sergio Fusetti, who restored the chapel, which is near the tomb of St Francis.
"It was not added on later but was done at the same time as the fresco, when the plaster was wet," he said by telephone.
The initials were discovered in a triptych showing St. Nicholas, the Madonna and child and St. Francis.
In a triangular area dividing the second and third part of the triptych, restorers found what clearly resembles the letter B and under it, what may be the letter G.
Giotto's full name was Giotto di Bondone. Italians often use their surname before their given name, hence Giotto, who died in 1337, could have used the initials BG.
The second letter, the presumed G, is below the first and is much harder to see because that part of the triangle is damaged.
The chapel was painted in the first few years of the 14th century after Giotto painted the more famous frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St Francis in the upper basilica.
The chapel had been for centuries attributed to the work of Giotto's pupils until modern art historians began attributing the triptych to the master himself.
The discovery of the initials would strengthen the case that Giotto was the painter of the triptych.
"Giotto did not sign many things. It is now up to art historians to study this and see what it means," Fusetti said.
The chapel of St Nicholas, in the northern end of the transept of the lower basilica, was commissioned by Cardinal Napoleone Orsini to be his burial place, but his brother died first and was buried there instead.
For decades before the restoration that discovered the initials, the chapel near the main altar of the lower basilica, had been closed to the public. It was used as either a dressing place for priests celebrating Mass or a depository for candles, vestments and other material.
The initials were the latest discovery related to Giotto in the basilica.
Last year, restorers found the figure of a devil hidden in the clouds of one of the most famous Giotto frescos in the upper basilica.
The devil was hidden in the details of clouds at the top of fresco number 20 in the cycle of the scenes in the life and death of St Francis painted by Giotto in the late 13th century.
The basilica was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1997. Two parts of the ceiling of the upper basilica collapsed, killing four people, including two monks. (Reporting By Philip Pullella, editing by Paul Casciato)