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21 Years After Fire, Shroud of Turin Chapel Restored to Former Glory

The space, originally designed by priest and mathematician Guarino Guarini, includes a spectacular and intricate wood and marble dome

View of the restored Guarini chapel (ANSA via AP)
smithsonian.com

In April, 1997, a fire swept through the newly restored Guarini Chapel in the San Giovanni Cathedral in Turin, Italy. As the building burned, firefighters smashed their way through four layers of bulletproof glass to save the reason the extraordinary chapel was built in the first place: the Shroud of Turin, a legendary and controversial Christian relic believed by some to be the blood-stained burial cloth of Jesus Christ (though forensic science has cast some serious doubt on its provenance). After the fire, it was thought that restoring the chapel, a masterpiece of Baroque architecture, was impossible. But workers have proven otherwise. Now, 21 years later, Barbara Antonetto at The Art Newspaper reports that the chapel has been restored to its former glory.

The shroud was originally captured by European crusaders in Constantinople circa 1353. It was housed in a church in Chambery, France, until that church burned in 1532, and so the textile moved on to Turin. In the 17th century, the ruling Savoy family, which owned the shroud, decided to commission a new chapel for the textile behind the Turin Cathedral’s main altar.

Priest and mathematician Guarino Guarini was tapped to design the room, and his creation was remarkable, including a black marble façade and intricate self-supporting wooden and marble dome. But 200-plus years takes a toll on a structure, and by the 1980s, the chapel was in rough shape. When a large chunk of marble fell from the dome in 1990, the chapel closed its doors. During the restoration that followed, the fire occurred, flamed on by all the wooden scaffolding in the chapel.

Antonetto of The Art Newspaper reports that technical problems and squabbling delayed the restoration. Since there were no blueprints for the chapel and its dome, detailed analysis of the chapel also had to be completed before work could begin. Restorers also argued about how many of the original elements that had survived the fire should be used. Eventually, it was decided that about 4,000 original elements would return to the chapel and 1,150 pieces were beyond repair and needed to be replaced. That meant opening up the ancient quarry at Frabosa in Piedmont to get marble to match the original, and using aging techniques to match the original pieces just so. The building process was plagued with delays, however, and the firm initially in charge of the restoration was fired in 2012, and a new firm was put in charge.

Despite the drama, the almost $40 million restoration led by architect Marina Feroggio is finally complete. “This has not been a rebuilding, but a conservation project,” Luisa Papotti, superintendent for archaeology in the Piedmont region tells Antonetto.

There are conflicting reports on whether the shroud will return to the chapel or if it will remain in the Turin cathedral where it has been since the fire. In the past, the public climbed stairs behind the cathedral altar to reach the chapel, but now they will approach the space through the royal apartments which are located behind the cathedral. The Savoy family built the chapel between the church and their living space so they could have private access to the shroud, which was considered the family’s crown jewel.

While it is considered one of the most important relics in Catholicism, the Vatican has never taken a position on whether 53-square-foot rectangle of linen is authentic or not. Carbon dating of the shroud in 1988 indicated that the shroud was a Medieval forgery dating between 1260 and 1390 A.D., though those dates were disputed in a 2013 retest of the fibers which dated them to 300 to 400 A.D. (in either case, centuries after the death of Christ). Another study published this summer looked at the purported bloodstains on the shroud, which would have been produced by the wounds on Christ’s wrists, feet and a lance that punctured his side. Researchers determined that the blood patterns on the shroud were not consistent with a crucified person being wrapped up in the sheet.

Putting the shroud’s authenticity aside, its restored chapel sure looks like the real deal and may just be worth a pilgrimage all its own.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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