New apprentice system breathes new life into St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica, the world's largest church, stands as a testament to breathtaking architecture and awe-inspiring sculptures. Behind the scenes, a new generation is being trained in the delicate art of preserving the ancient treasures through a revitalized apprentice system.
The new program aims to address the scarcity of skilled restorers and craftsmen, who play a crucial role in the restoration work required at the Basilica. According to director Assunta Di Sante, there is a noticeable shortage of experienced artisans, with the average age being over 60 years old.
"When they retire, we risk losing all of that know-how," Di Sante said.
Artisans known as "sampietrini," a name derived from the Basilica and its workshop, have been instrumental in upkeeping the grandeur of the Basilica for over five centuries. With two and a half acres of mosaics and five acres of polished marble, their craftsmanship has kept the Basilica standing and glistening.
Paolo Ballestra, a sampietrino, said the work can be hard and at times "monotonous and boring," especially at a time when manual craftsmanship is going out of fashion. But the young trainees have stepped up to the task.
"It's so satisfying to see what they've achieved in just six months and for the world to see it when they walk through St. Peter's," said Ballestra.
There is no cost for the students, and even room and board are covered, said director Di Sante.
Trainee Javiero Santiago Mandao, from Germany, said "it's wild" to work in the same place as iconic artists like Michelangelo and it comes with a great honor.
"I think you also have a responsibility. Before you, there were Michelangelo and Bernini ... and then you, me. It's crazy ... it's beautiful, it's marvelous," Mandao said.
For art history student Katerina Petta, the experience is incomparable. Being able to walk inside a chapel and examine frescoes with a UV light surpasses the mere study of slides, she said.
"Only here do you get to do something like that," she said.
While there is no guarantee of employment after the program, the teachers hope that some trainees will eventually carry the torch and become future stewards of St. Peter's Basilica.
"They're learning the value of working with their hands," said Di Sante. "Regardless of what they end up doing as adults, this is hugely important."
Chris Livesay is a CBS News foreign correspondent based in Rome.