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Keeping the faith

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buildings - Restoration architect Mirella Macera is painstakingly restoring the Sindone Chapel in Turin, home to the famous shroud

The clean linen in which the body of Jesus had been wrapped is known under the Byzantine Rite as the Plaschanicja - in Rome, as the Sindone - and in English as the Holy Shroud.

In the city of Turin is a cloth measuring more than 4m long, more than 1m wide and showing the marks of the body of a crucified man. It is popularly known as the Shroud of Turin and in the 17th century, the shroud was in the possession of the Royal House of Savoy.

The decision of where and how to house the shroud was significant for both the church and the rulers of Savoy. Understanding Turin's pivotal position between the advancing Protestants to the north and Rome's Counter-Reformation to the south, the location chosen to house what they saw as their shroud was the most significant in Savoy's kingdom. A new chapel was to be built in the centre of their capital city, Turin, linking the Royal Palace and the cathedral.

The new chapel was to be one floor higher than the cathedral floor, to bring it to the level of the royal apartments, and the dome of their chapel was to be higher than the dome of the cathedral itself. This was to signify protection for the House of Savoy and its people, giving a symbolic link to the glory of God and, by its placement, ensuring that nobody would forget who were the earthly rulers of Savoy.

A priest, Guarino Guarini, was chosen to design the chapel. A member of the Theatine Order, he had undertaken his Novitiate in Rome, working directly with the architects and sculptors Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini at St Peter's - an experience that is believed to have resulted in him practising architecture. However, architecture was still a branch of that highest of the liberal arts: mathematics.

Born in Modena, Guarini had spent many years teaching mathematics and designing buildings. His earlier buildings, including Saint-Anne-la-Royale in Paris, are now lost.

For Turin, Guarini produced a design of exquisite complexity. As Associazione Torino CittÓ Capitale Europa (Turin Capital City in Europe Association) describes it: 'The circular plan has three entrances and three large arches on a lofty tier. This lower area is topped by the drum with its wide windows and a pierced conical vault with superimposed arches? the shiny surfaces of the black Frabosa marble chosen for the interior are the source of infinite possibilities for the play of light. The cupola is supported on masonry ribs and topped by a small pinnacled dome.' 'The dome is without precedent in Western architecture, ' says naturalist and geologist Emanuela Marinelli 1. 'Upper arcs build themselves on the keystones of the underlying arcs, getting smaller and smaller. At the peak the dome finishes with a sharp pyramid; on the thin spire there is a globe surmounted by a cross encircled by Passion emblems.' Fighting fire In 1997, during preparatory celebrations for the public showing of the shroud the following year, tragedy struck. At an upper level of the chapel, what is believed to have been an electrical fault started a fire. It spread rapidly, and the fire brigade was called out to contain the flames. The very site became the problem - the flames had to be stopped from spreading to the cathedral on one side, and to the Royal Palace on the other. To achieve this the firefighters opened the great west doors of the cathedral, causing a through draft that turned Guarini's chapel into a chimney.

It was clear that the iron struts that had been inserted round the drum under Guarini's design to absorb movement had sheared in the heat. After the fire had been contained, it looked as if the intense heat would cause collapse and the chapel would be lost, but a professor of engineering from the Turin Technical University, Vittorio NascÚ, sent the firemen to inspect and report on the specific damage to the struts. He immediately set about designing a braced chain system to replace the sheared iron. He also designed iron braces for the outside of the structure to stop or contain further fractures.

This solution was designed so quickly that the heat and fragility of the structure still meant that it was impossible for anybody other than the firemen to approach the building. Professor NascÚ told them precisely how the braced chain system and the iron braces were to be placed and fitted. He designed them, had them made and then gave instructions that the firemen followed. The bracing system was ready and fitted within days. In this remarkable manner the structure of Guarini's chapel was saved. It was to be three months before anybody other than firefighters was allowed into the building.

Changing churches The results of the fire, however, had been catastrophic. The scaffolding that had been inside the chapel had melted. The marble facing had actually blown - exploding along the natural fissures in the stone itself, leaving pieces of unknown stability. Since the fire had started at an upper level, the worst damage was higher up, but falling debris had caused serious damage to the building's interior. Antonio Bertola's altar was a burnt-out wreck.

The shroud itself had been saved by a fireman smashing the heavy case with a sledgehammer and carrying the relic to safety. It is now in a side chapel in the cathedral, where it will remain.

Conservationists have said that in order to preserve the cloth as much as possible it must be kept flat and in a controlled environment.

But Guarini's chapel was designed for the shroud to be kept rolled up in its casket, and is not large enough to allow for its being kept flat under the necessary conditions. Thus, the future of the 'Shroud' Chapel without the shroud is still under discussion.

The comparison used by the chapel's restoration architect, Mirella Macera, was with the Royal Chapel at Versailles. Guarini's building was designed as a royal chapel; it is on the same floor as the royal apartments;

it is seen as being on the tourist route - cultural tourists, that is, who visit Turin and its surroundings and are interested in seeing buildings and works of art that represent the history and culture of the area that they are visiting. For Italy, and especially Savoy, the chapel is not part of a museum, but an important part of that living culture.

For the others, those who come out of faith or curiosity to visit the shroud, it was agreed that it should remain nearby, but not within the chapel. This gives a historic and possibly emotive emphasis to the role that the chapel has played in the shroud's history, but keeps it distinct in its future identity and function.

It would also mean that the holding of services in the cathedral need neither affect nor be affected by the tourists visiting the chapel.

Even without the fire, the role of Guarini's chapel would have had to change. It is easy to say that, for such a unique location, having a large influx of tourists would be a benefit but the huge numbers of people have to be planned for. When the shroud is publicly shown, millions visit, and it is predicted that, even with the shroud in its new location, many will still want to see the chapel.

Future thought With the situation frozen pending a decision on the chapel's future, Macera's team is studying the unique problems associated with restoring such a complex building.

Even here, the answers are not always clear. Where the damage is so severe, what is legitimate restoration? Furthermore, Turin is within a seismic region - shortcuts such as using reinforced concrete to patch things up carry risks from the material's inflexibility under seismic movement, whereby the concrete itself could cause more damage than the natural shock waves. There are many options:

to leave the chapel in its ruined state; to make it 'new' with the risk of the restoration being a pastiche, a fake; or to try as faithfully as possible to restore it as it was originally built.

Mentioning La Fenice - Venice's opera house destroyed and rebuilt - got a laugh from Macera's assistant, Salvatore Esposito.

'That's easy, ' he said, 'it was wooden. It burns down - you rebuild it. There is no other choice.' What the architects are trying to do in Turin is to understand precisely how Guarini's remarkable building was originally constructed and how it works. Guarini was no ordinary architect - he was a mathematician and had worked in Paris while the great French mathematician Girard Desargues was founding the non-Euclidian discipline of projective geometry. Guarini's use of this in the Sindone Chapel and other work comes from stereometry or projection - the art of measuring and computing the cubical contents of bodies and figures. Desargues had even written a book for the guidance of stonemasons.

The Sindone Chapel is, therefore, a scientific structure. It is in part an illusion - internally its upper tier appears to rest on nothing - a building that looks as if it could never have been built. The structure itself is hidden in the thickness of the massive masonry walls. The famous black Frabosa marble was used only at the lower level, and it is now realised that the marble in the middle area was grey to add to the impression of verticality. In addition, the marble is no mere facing, but joined to the brickwork by iron studs to have an integral function in the working of the structure.

Macera is sorting every single piece of fallen and damaged material, which already fills dozens of large packing cases in its restoration workshop. They are seeking to relearn how Guarini was able to design a mathematical space and then deduce how the craftsmen of the 17th century could cut and fit intricate and subtly altering stone shapes within a light, tall structure. It is an archaeological quest - a multidimensional architectural jigsaw.

Guarini respected the traditions of Vitruvius and the High Renaissance, but dared to look across them back to the Gothic. In 1563 the Council of Trent had called for the arts to cultivate piety through simplicity. Perhaps we can forgive a priest the quiet joke of having offered us a place of light, leading to the glory of faith that was of such exquisite complexity that even we, armed with our high-speed virtual intelligence, feel what he hoped that we would: humility.

Richard Haut has worked with the architectural profession for over 25 years.

Contact: hautrichard@hotmail. com or visit http: //communities. msn. com/RichardHauts competitions

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