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Preening powers of Pisa line up for fresco

Hundreds of people in Pisa have leapt at the chance to be immortalised in the first major fresco to be painted in Italy for more than two centuries.

The 1,700sqft painting will tell the story of Ranierus, Pisa's patron saint, in eight enormous scenes across an entire wall of the Church of San Vito, in the city centre.

In the best Renaissance tradition, Luca Battini, the 37-year-old artist, invited 100 prominent Pisans to represent leading figures in the fresco.

He then held public castings to find 150 extras, all of whom will appear life-size in the work.

"I told some people to go away three or four times, but they kept coming back humbly,'' said the artist. "The whole city feels very strongly about St Ranierus and there is a huge pressure. Everyone has their own opinion on how the fresco should be painted.''

It has been common practice for centuries to insert rich and famous patrons into frescoes. In one of Italy's most celebrated examples, in 1461, Benozzo Gozzoli painted Cosimo Medici and his son Lorenzo "The Magnificent'' into his fresco of the 'Magi' in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence.

Monsignor Alessandro Plotti, Pisa's archbishop, who came up with the idea, will make an appearance, alongside an Englishman, Brother Matthew Festing, the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Malta.

The city's mayor, its local MP, and the editor of La Nazione, a national newspaper, are all taking part as are two Pisan fencing champions, Salvatore Sanzo and Simone Vanni, who took the team gold at the Athens Olympics.

"You could say there were politics involved,'' said Mr Battini. "Sometimes I promoted unknowns into big roles ahead of the more famous people.''

Massimo Baistrocchi, the Italian ambassador to Nigeria, declared at one point that he would not take part if his figure was depicted merely standing among a large crowd. He will now appear among a group of wise men in a scene depicting the conversion to Christianity of Ranierus.

Poverty

Mr Battini was forced to advertise repeatedly for someone to model the figure of the saint, who was born into Pisan nobility in 1117 before vowing poverty and journeying to the Holy Land. Eventually he settled on Roberto Farnesi, a Pisan actor who appeared in a smouldering series of Barilla pasta advertisements.

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Not everyone involved objected to the artist's casting decisions. Riccardo Buscemi, a banker and county councillor who was chosen to play a monk, said: "Lots of my friends told me I should be upset, that I should have been cast as a knight instead. However, I was just pleased to be a part of it.''

The work was commissioned by the Friends of Pisa's Monuments and Museums, which has raised €200,000 so far. The painting is intended to be a twin for an enormous 14th century fresco of Ranierus that was destroyed in the Second World War and is being restored. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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