Restorers save Giotto frescoes in Assisi's Chapel of the Magdalene

ASSISI, Italy (Reuters) -They are using medical syringes in Assisi these days, but it has nothing to do with the pandemic. Restorers are using them to save priceless 700-year-old frescoes by Giotto.

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They are almost finished with a year-long project to clean and consolidate the frescoes in the Chapel of the Magdalene in the lower basilica of St. Francis that houses the tomb of the 13th century saint.

The frescoes depict scenes from the life of Mary Magdalene, including one where Jesus resurrects Lazarus.

Several years ago, during a check of the frescoes, chief restorer Sergio Fusetti heard hollow sounds when he knocked on them, indicating that the plaster holding them was slowly detaching from the walls.

Officials decided to carry out the first restoration of the frescoes in nearly 50 years.

“After the cleaning we do the consolidation. That is done by making tiny holes and using a plastic syringe ... the same type used for injection of medicine on ourselves. We inject an acrylic resin bond,” Fusetti said.

“Then we eliminate the old patchwork from previous restorations that were badly done or done with plaster. We re-do them using only sand and lime and then we move on to the final phase, the aesthetic one, that is done exclusively with water colours,” he said.

Consolidating the frescoes is important in an area like Assisi because of the regularity of earthquakes. Even a minor tremor can lead to the detachment of plaster.

The upper basilica, which includes Giotto’s most famous frescoes, was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1997. It’s ceiling collapsed, killing four people inside, including two Franciscan monks.

The Assisi basilica is a place of pilgrimage not only for the faithful but also for artists and art history students, because it contains about 10,000 square metres of frescoes by Giotto and other masters such as Cimabue, Simone Martini, and Pietro Lorenzetti.

“All of the best who existed at the time are here,” said Fusetti.

One of the restorers, Sara Panzino, said she feels a mix of awe, privilege and responsibility when she cleans and touches up a Giotto fresco.

“There is a technical side ... but on the other hand there is a restorer’s sensitivity, which certainly makes a difference because it is acquired though experience and allows us to return the true nature of a work of art to its historic and artistic heritage,” she said. “We make the difference.”

Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mike Collett-White