The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most popular shrines in Christendom, draws millions of tourists each year to pray at the tomb of the saint and admire Gothic frescoes painted in his honor.
But the 20 visitors inside the medieval church near midday Friday came not to worship but to inspect the damage from a 5.5-magnitude earthquake that had rocked this walled Umbrian hill town during the night. They couldn’t have chosen a worse time.
At 11:42 a.m., a second and slightly stronger quake sent two massive chunks of the basilica’s vaulted ceiling crashing down. In a tragedy for life and art, four people were crushed to death under the rubble of a priceless 13th century fresco by Giotto di Bondone.
The victims, two Franciscan friars and two government art restorers, were among 10 people reported killed when the two quakes rumbled across mountainous central Italy. Civil defense officials said at least a dozen others were injured and 2,000 were forced from damaged homes into shelters.
Giuseppe Basile, an expert from the government’s Central Institute of Restoration, said Italy’s cultural heritage suffered “incalculable and irreplaceable” damage, one of its biggest single losses since World War II.
The giant hillside basilica, divided into upper and lower chapels, was built starting in 1228, the day after St. Francis was canonized, and its decoration attracted the leading artists of the day. Its best-known work is Giotto’s cycle of 28 frescoes depicting the saint’s life on the walls of the upper chapel.
Art specialists said the cycle appears intact, with two of those frescoes sustaining jagged cracks.
But another Giotto fresco fell with the ceiling near the upper chapel’s main entrance. It was titled “The Doctors,” depicting four Catholic philosophers.
The other chunk of ceiling crashed near the chapel’s main altar, destroying “The Acts of the Apostles,” a 13th century masterpiece by Giovanni Cimabue, Giotto’s mentor at the dawn of the Italian Renaissance.
Plinio Lepri, an Associated Press photographer, was inside the basilica when the second quake struck with a force of 5.7 on the Richter scale. “First there was a slight shock,” he said. “Then about 15 minutes later came the big jolt,” filling the chapel with a roar and blinding dust.
The Rev. Nicola Giandomenico, a Franciscan priest who was also inside, defended the ill-fated inspection tour, saying the basilica had held up well in the first quake at 2:33 a.m. and appeared safe. The tour was led by Assisi’s mayor.
The dead friars, who had been escorting the restorers ahead of the group, were a 48-year-old Italian in charge of the seminary and a 25-year-old Polish student who had just begun studying for the priesthood.
Two elderly couples from the villages Collecurti and Cesi were among six reported dead in the first quake, buried in the rubble of their homes.
Both quakes were centered near Foligno, 20 miles from Assisi in the Appenine mountains. They were felt from the Italian Alps to Rome, where buildings swayed and a wrought-iron lamp crashed in the Senate.
Medieval churches were reported damaged in Foligno, Bevagna, Urbino, Orvieto and Tolentino.