The 1997 Fire

April 12, 1997

Fire In The Chapel Fire In The Chapel Fire In The Chapel

All Frames Taken From Original Footage Courtesy RAI Italian Television-The view from the front of the Cathedral, as flames engulf the Chapel dome and the west wing of the Royal Palace

The Fire and Rescue

For no less than the third time in its recorded history, the Shroud of Turin has faced a dangerous trial by fire and survived. This is an account of the event and its immediate aftermath, taken from a number of sources (see credits at bottom of this page).

At approximately 11:45 p.m., Friday, April 11, 1997, Guido Principe, a citizen of Turin who saw the fire from his home, called in the first alarm. The fire began in either the Dome of the Chapel, which was currently undergoing renovation for the upcoming public exhibitions, or in the west wing of the Royal Palace, which immediately adjoins the back area of the Chapel. In either case, the fire quickly spread to the Guarini Chapel, situated between the Cathedral and the Palace, and engulfed it in flames.

Palace custodian, Giuseppe Ivano said, “We smelled smoke, and then we saw the flames raging from the dome.”

Fortunately, on February 24, 1993, the Shroud was moved from the altar of the Chapel to a safer place inside the Cathedral itself while the renovation was undertaken (see map below). Still sealed in the silver reliquary in which it is always stored, it was placed in a special case made of bulletproof glass to protect it. Authorities agree that if it had been in its normal resting place in the altar, it would have been completely consumed by the flames.

Fire In The Chapel Fire In The Chapel Fire In The Chapel

The Turin Fire Department responded almost immediately, and one fireman, Mario Trematore, knowing the important relic was at risk inside, grabbed a large sledge hammer and ran into the Cathedral to effect a rescue. He approached the bulletproof glass and began striking it with the hammer, eventually causing the 39mm thick material to shatter. At that moment, other fireman arrived to assist Trematore and actually helped smash the remaining glass with their gloved hands.

Fire In The Chapel Fire In The Chapel

Then, the team grabbed the silver casket from the shattered case and quickly took it out the front of the Cathedral, where it was promptly taken to the apartment of Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini, Archbishop of Turin and Custodian of the Shroud, for safekeeping. Although the flames had not yet reached the area of the Shroud, large pieces of the dome were breaking away and falling to the floor of the Cathedral, putting the firemen at great risk. (Pieces of glass and masonry from the dome and a shattered wall can be seen on top of the case in several of the photographs above). When asked where he found the strength to break the “bulletproof” glass, Trematore replied, “The bulletproof glass can stop bullets, but it cannot stop the strength of values represented by the symbol inside it. With only a hammer and our hands (still bleeding), we broke the glass. This is extraordinary!”

Fire In The Chapel Fire In The Chapel Fire In The Chapel
Fire In The Chapel Fire In The Chapel

At 1:36 a.m., as the Shroud was carried from the Cathedral by the team of fireman, hundreds of onlookers applauded the rescue effort while many others wept at the sight of the seriously damaged dome. Around 200 firemen continued to fight the blaze for more than four hours, until 4:30 a.m., when it was finally brought under control.


The Damage

As authorities sift through the ashes and rubble left behind by the fire, they must now try and determine the extent of the damages and the possible cause of the blaze. First reports indicate that the interior of the Cathedral and the neighboring Royal Palace, which contains valuable 18th and 19th century furniture and art, sustained extensive damage. The glass wall separating the cathedral and chapel was shattered. The altar, designed by the famous artist Bertola, sustained less damage than originally anticipated. Fortunately, it appears that the scaffolding in place for the renovation of the dome acted to protect the altar from flames and falling debris. However, the chapel seemed to sustain the most serious damage, with two thirds of its marble coating damaged by the heat. It is unclear how much structural damage occured to the building, but reports noted that the stone itself was damaged in places. The cathedral itself received little serious fire or structural damage, but water and smoke damage was evident.

The fire also reached the upper floor of the Royal Palace, where a tower collapsed in flames. Just shortly before the blaze was discovered, an affair attended by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini had just ended.

”I was struck by the tragic events in Turin last night that seriously damaged places that are dear to the nation’s cultural heritage,” Dini said in a message to Turin mayor Valentino Castellani, noting his ”relief” that the shroud was saved. The corridor that links the church with the west wing of the Royal Palace burned throughout the night. It was in this same area of the palace that part of the 1978 examination took place. First cost estimates of the damages to the various structures was in the tens of billions of liras and many more billions for the destroyed furniture and art in the Royal Palace.

The west wing in 1978

In the above photograph, taken in 1978, the Shroud is brought from the Chapel (through the doorway at right) into the west wing of the Royal Palace and down a long hallway to the rooms in which the examination took place. It is unknown at this moment if the actual rooms used by STURP in 1978 were damaged, but the area shown in the photo above (#4 on map below) was definitely destroyed. Reports say that the entire floor in this area is gone.

Map of Cathedral

    Key To Map

  1. Front entrance of Cathedral
  2. Temporary location of Shroud since February 24, 1993
  3. Altar inside Guarini Chapel where Shroud is normally stored
  4. Hallway into west wing of Royal Palace (this area burned throughout the night)
  5. Swiss Hall, where U.N. Secretary-General affair was held
  6. The 1978 examination took place in rooms at this end of the hallway

The Aftermath

In an effort to provide the highest degree of protection and security for the Shroud and to allow for a thorough examination of the cloth for any new water or smoke damage, the cloth was moved on Saturday to a monastery near Turin, although the exact location has not been disclosed. Only once before in its 420 year residence in Turin has the cloth left the city, and that occurred during World War II, when it was also moved to a monastery to protect it from possible damage from Allied bombing.

The Turin Chief of Police has formed a special commission to investigate the fire and determine its origin and a number of theories are being examined. Among them are the possibility that the chafing dishes set up in the “Swiss Hall” to heat the food for the U.N. Secretary-General’s affair, overloaded the palace circuits and caused a short circuit leading to the fire. Another report stated that a burnt cigarette end was found that might have started the blaze. Turin officials also intend to investigate the restoration work to ensure it was being done according to safety regulations. Saturday, experts from Turin and Rome were taking samples from the wreckage for further analysis. The site was off-limits to all except investigators, although personnel from the fine arts service inspected the dome to see if it was stable.

Mario Trematore

Heroic Fireman Mario Trematore:
“God gave me the strength to break the glass”

On Sunday it was announced that the Pope planned to confer a Papal Honor on the firemen who risked their lives and heroically effected the rescue of the Shroud. Cardinal Saldarini said a mass of thanksgiving on Sunday, in the Sanctuary of Consolata, the most ancient in Turin. The following is the text of his official press release:

The fire which broke out during the night in Chapel of Guarini, next to the Cathedral of Turin, has damaged all the structure and the ornaments of the Chapel itself, but – thanks to God – the reliquary of the Sindon has not been damaged in any way. The building of the Cathedral itself has been entirely saved from the flames, while unfortunately the most serious damage is to be found in the Chapel and in the contiguous building of the Royal Palace. Here, I wish to extend my heartfelt thanks to all those who, starting with the firemen, the Civil Authorities, soldiers and police, did everything in their power during this emergency. The reliquary with the Shroud, immediately removed from the Cathedral, is being kept in a safe place.

This serious episode has happened during the time in which our Church is preparing, in the anticipation of the Great Jubilee of the Third Millenium, for the solemn ostension of the Sindon, in the month of April 1998. The destructive fire, the very serious material damage to a monument of faith and Art, represents however, for all of us Turinese – and for all the world that in these hours – have looked at Turin, a test, an appeal, a Grace. A test of our faith and, also of our capacity as believers and as citizens, attached to those treasures which are out at the roots of our culture and of our combined way of life. Those flames are also an appeal: a precise appeal to the responsibility which we all have, to defend and protect the religious, artistic and historic heritage so closely linked to all our experience as a Church and City. Why did it happen? In today’s Gospel Jesus told us “Don’t be afraid”, something that He can say and that we can hear Him say to us when something terrible happens. The Cathedral, and the Sindon of which I am guardian, have been touched by disaster and saved. It is the way worthy of the measure of God when he says “Don’t be afraid”. Now we are really assured that he walks on the water, climbs on our boat and leads us to the shore. In faith I give thanks for this sign.

+ Giovanni Card. Saldarini
Pontifical Custodian of the Holy Shroud
Turin, April 12th, 1997

Rebuilding the Chapel

With the ashes of the fire barely cool, plans have already been set into motion on many levels to fund and complete repairs to the damaged Chapel, Royal Palace and Cathedral. Regional leaders, meeting in an emergency session on Saturday, earmarked ten billion lire (5.9 million dollars) to repair the damage caused by the fire. The European Parliament is expected to meet Tuesday in Brussels to decide how much it would set aside for the restoration effort. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Walter Veltroni, who also has a mandate for cultural affairs, said the government would also help out. Veltroni plans to meet with Turin authorities and firemen. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, saying he was “struck and sorrowful,” promised he would ask UNESCO to help Turin financially as well.

On another front, Giovanni Battista Judica Cordiglia, the official Shroud photographer in 1969 and 1973, has recently completed a video which will immediately be updated to include images of the fire. He has pledged to donate part of the profits from its sale for the reconstruction of the Chapel. More information about the video, including ordering information, will be posted on this website as soon as it becomes available.

In spite of this near tragedy, it seems that once again, the Shroud of Turin will endure. For anyone who knows its history, this is not a surprise. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Shroud has had previous “trials by fire”. The most significant was on December 4, 1532. While stored in the Sainte Chapelle in Chambery, the cloth itself was damaged when that cathedral also caught fire, causing such extreme heat that the silver casket or reliquary in which it was stored began to melt. When this was discovered, water was poured over the reliquary, quenching the fire, but not before hot, molten silver dropped onto the folded cloth inside, damaging it and causing the now familiar pattern of burns extending along both sides of the image. In 1534 these burn holes were repaired by the Poor Clare Nuns, who sewed patches into the largest holes and attached a full size backing cloth to the Shroud (known as the Holland Cloth) to strengthen it. Also apparent on the Shroud are four sets of four burn holes in an “L” shape. Historians generally agree these were not caused by the 1532 fire but by an earlier undocumented event. An illuminated Hungarian text from 1204, called the Pray Manuscript, includes an illustration of the Shroud and shows these unique burn holes.

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