Miracle that Turin shroud escaped fire, says cardinal


MYSTERY still surrounds the origins of the fire which almost destroyed the Turin Shroud early on Saturday morning.

Although the Shroud, one of the most revered relics in the Catholic world, was rescued from the baroque Guarini Chapel where it has been housed since 1694, the fire did severe damage to Turin's Renaissance Cathedral and to a section of the adjoining Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace).

Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini said the shroud - a yellowing piece of cloth imprinted with the image of a man's body traditionally - believed to be that of Christ after the Crucifixion - had been saved by "a miracle". Protagonist in the miracle was Mr Mario Trematore, one of 150 fireman involving 35 fire teams brought in to fight the blaze.

Fighting his way through dense smoke and intense heat and using a pickaxe, Mr Trematore hacked his way through the reinforced, bullet proof glass security container in which the shroud was housed. As the wooden casket containing the shroud was carried out of the chapel into the Royal Palace square, thousands of waiting bystanders applauded.

The shroud was then taken to the private residence of Cardinal Saldarini, who has direct responsibility for it, before being moved to a secret location.

Experts sifting through the aftermath of the blaze yesterday morning could offer no definitive explanation. There are three possible causes - temporary electrical arrangements made for a dinner in the Royal Palace on Friday night for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the ongoing restoration work on Turin Cathedral, or arson.

Given that fires which destroyed the Fenice Opera house in Venice (1996) and the Petroselli theatre in Bari (1991) are still under investigation, foul play cannot be ruled out. Organised crime may have been linked to both those previous fires and, for the time being, Turin investigators cannot exclude a possible Mafia involvement.

The deputy prime minister, Mr Walter Veltroni, yesterday gave a government commitment to help with restoration.

In Sarajevo, Pope John Paul let it be known that he will honour the firemen who saved the shroud.

While the Pope and the Italian government offered immediate help and solidarity, some Italian intellectuals were critical of the conditions in which the shroud, the Guarini Chapel and much of Italy's immense artistic patrimony continues to be maintained.

"There was no anti incendiary system in the Guarini Chapel, there were no sensors capable of detecting the smoke, there wasn't even a night watchman. That's the way things work in Italy, you do some restoration work but leave everything in a state of almost total abandon," the art historian Mr, Federico Zeri said.

"We've got to decide, we've got to call in somebody, foreigners, whoever. Let's give up and admit that we Italians simply aren't able to look after our own patrimony. Let's put a tender out on Italy, foreigners will certainly be able to do better than this," the writer Mr Carlo Fruttero said.