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Restored Roman Catacombs Reveal Stunning Frescoes

Centuries of grime have been removed from two chambers of the Domitilia catacombs, exposing images of fourth-century Rome

(Pontifical Commission of Sacred Art )
smithsonian.com

The Domitilla catacombs are the largest underground burial chambers in Rome, housing 26,250 burials in a seven-odd mile stretch underneath the metropolis. While the area is a historian's dream, for centuries much of the information the catacombs offer on early Christianity has been obscured by layers of soot, algae and chalk. Now, reports Daniela Petroff at the Associated Press, two chambers of the catacombs have been restored, revealing the underlying frescoes and graffiti for the first time in centuries.

Petroff reports that the chambers' restored frescoes hearken back to Rome’s pagan roots and early Biblical influences. There are grapevines and cupids, as well as depictions of Noah and his ark, Daniel and the lions and Christ and his apostles.

Elisabetta Povoledo at The New York Times reports that workers used lasers to strip the crusty deposits off the frescoes "millimeter by millimeter." That painstaking work paid off—researchers were able to date the restored images to the second half of the fourth century.

“These works show the difficult path the Romans walked on the way to their new faith,” Giovanni Carru, of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Art, tells Petroff.

Sarah Bond at Forbes reports that the frescoes also shed light on every day life in ancient Rome from the grain and baking trades. Bread was incredibly important in the Roman empire and artwork discovered illustrate the many people employed in making sure grain made it to the imperial city.

Researchers discovered a piece of trivia as well among the art. One of the restored frescoes includes the name Antonio Bosio. The Italian scholar rediscovered the catacombs under Rome in 1593, and at some point decided to scrawl his name in big black letters above Christ and his disciples, reports Povoledo.

A museum that includes artifacts from Romes catacombs is currently being completed and the restored chambers themselves will be open to the public later this summer. Povoledo reports that the restoration of the catacombs will continue since there are dozens of similar chambers waiting for the layers of grime to be peeled back.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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