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FLORENCE, Italy (Reuters) - For lovers of Italian art, it's as close as you can come to ascending a stairway to heaven and looking angels in the eye.
For the first time after a major restoration, the scaffolding that has shrouded the 850 sq m (9,150 sq ft) of frescoes of the Capella Maggiore in Florence's famed Santa Croce Basilica will not be dismantled immediately.
Instead, for about a year, a small number of visitors will be able to don hard hats and clamber up the clanking steps to admire the 600-year-old frescos of Agnolo Gaddi, the last major "descendant" of the Giotto school, from close up.
"Climbing up the scaffolding and standing in precisely the same spot where the artist stood is a bit like traveling in a time machine," said Alberto Felici, one of the team that spent five years restoring the frescoes.
"You can re-live the emotions and the atmosphere that the painter experienced 600 years ago," he said, speaking some 30 m (90 ft) above the basilica's ground floor.
Since the next restoration may not take place for centuries, it is the chance of a lifetime to get within inches of a masterpiece that helped pave the way for the Renaissance.
In E.M. Forster's novel "A Room With a View," the young Lucy Honeychurch "wandered not unpleasantly about Santa Croce, which, though it is like a barn, has harvested many beautiful things inside its walls."
The rich harvest that Lucy Honeychurch and millions of real visitors could not see as they craned their necks is the wealth of details, some only a few centimeters (inches) large, that the $3.5 million restoration brought to light.
"There are things here like a fish in a stream or a bird that the artist knew would never be visible from the ground but that he put there anyway either out of a sense of perfection or personal amusement," said Felici.
Gaddi, who lived from 1350 to 1396 and painted the Capella Maggiore in the 1380s, had good genes. His father was Taddeo Gaddi, the major pupil of the Florentine master Giotto, whose work also adorns the walls of Santa Croce.
Agnolo Gaddi was Giotto's last stylistic descendant.
So it is with awe and reverence that restorers who worked on the project speak of the master, whose spirit seems to be at once before their eyes and looking over their shoulders.
"After 600 hundred years I approach the wall and still see things," said chief restorer Mariarosa Lanfranchi. "I see where he made an incision to make a halo, I see a color that he later corrected, I see a point of light," she said, speaking of Gaddi with the ease with which one talks of a neighbor.
"It still speaks to us and that is truly emotional."
Eight major scenes, each about seven meters wide and four meters high, illustrate the "Legend of the True Cross."
They start with the death of Adam and include Biblical characters such as his son Seth, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and conclude with the legend of how Saint Helen, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, found the "true cross," on which Jesus was believed to have been crucified.
Interspersed in six tall columns between the large scenes are 18 life-size frescoes of saints watched over by three pair of winged angels floating at the very top of the nave.
Amid the friezes and decorative bands there are also dozens of tiny faces, some as small as a few cm (inches), which restorers believe are those of ordinary people, including artist's assistants, work crews, and neighborhood characters.
"This is a sort of a treasure hunt. People can come on the scaffolding and look for hidden surprises," said Cecilia Frosinini, an art historian who headed the project.
The restoration, one of the most ambitious of its kind since the Sistine Chapel's Michelangelo frescoes were cleaned in 1994, was partly funded by Japanese businessman Tetsuya Kuroda.
After seeing a documentary on Italian art, Kuroda gave $1.6 million to the project and the sum was matched by the Opera di Santa Croce, the foundation that runs the church.
The injection of funds was welcome in a country that relies heavily on tourism and where economic crisis has led to drastic cuts in arts funding, something Frosinini said will hurt future generations if it continues.
The project was overseen by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Italy's premier restoration laboratory, and carried out in collaboration with Japan's Kanazawa University.
"This is the last major cycle of frescoes from the 1300s to undergo major restoration with today's techniques," said Cristina Acidini, arts superintendent of Florence. "Those in the 19th and 20th centuries were touch ups and cover-ups with techniques that did more harm than good."
Indeed, it was one of the most high-tech restorations ever. Every little bit of the frescos was photographed and digitized into a software program called Modus Operandi showing each detail in each phase of restoration.
The software allows any part of any scene to be viewed before, during and after the restoration or in overlapping phases. It can be viewed under natural light, artificial light or "raking light," which reveals miniscule surface distortions, undulations and imperfections.
The restoration included a sort of "Captain's Log." Each day, restorers left detailed notes of what they did, what they discovered, their expert reflections and personal feelings.
"Our mission was not only to facilitate the sharing of information of the restoration but to document it thoroughly so that future restorers will understand what was done here between 2006 and 2011," said Massimo Chimenti of Culturanuova, the company that created the Modus Operandi software.
With a click on the digital version, the chapel walls turn into a maze of red lines that map out "giornate," or work days. Since frescos are painted on fresh plaster, restorers can determine the borders of each day of work 600 years ago.
The digital rendition gives visitors a unique art experience. "This is better than a museum," said Frosinini. "At a museum, you see the final result. Here, you can appreciate the work in progress and see the painter's creative phase."
Acidini, the Florence arts superintendent, said the decision to leave the scaffolding up after completion was unprecedented and was easy to make because Santa Croce offers so much more.
Only a limited number of groups of about 20 people will be allowed on the scaffolding after making reservations online (www.santacroceopera.it) or at the church. Visits will start after Easter (April 22-25) and the price is not yet set.
The lucky few will be under strict supervision.
"Everything here is very, very delicate and, after all the time we spent restoring it, we have to be very careful that nothing will be touched or damaged," Frosinini said.
In 2012 the scaffolding will come down and the chapel will again be visible in its entire splendor from the ground up, just as it was for Lucy Honeychurch and millions of others.
The angels will still be floating at the top but the stairway to heaven will be gone.
(To see the official website of the restoration click here)
editing by Paul Taylor