Layers of Time

Today I checked on progress in conserving the rare surviving murals at Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum. I was received by murals conservator Werner Schmid and architect Giuseppe Morganti, director for monuments conservation for the Forum.

It is always a pleasure to view ongoing work here since new details relative to Rome's long history are constantly coming to light. The reasons for this are that the building has had so many changes over its 2,000-year history and that this location in Rome's most famous of all public spaces was overlooked by excavators until the turn of the 20th century.

Located at the foot of the Palatine Hill, the first buildings here were built during the reign of the Emperor Domitian in the 1st century A.D. They were part of a vestibule and ramp that led to the palatial complex where most emperors resided. After the empire's fall, the structure's looming walls vaults were adapted to become a Christian church in the mid-6th century. The church's importance is evidenced by its wall murals having been embellished at least four times since.

A subsequent period of abandonment resulted in the complete burial of Santa Maria Antiqua until it was fully excavated by the peripatetic archaeologist and botanist Giacomo Boni, director of the Forum's excavations from 1898 until his death in 1925. Rare for his day, Boni saw the art-historical significance of the cycles of Christian paintings in the church and prepared the place as a destination in the Forum where the history of early Christian art could be observed.

The paintings on view are amazing, the most extraordinary being those depicting what some art historians term a “perennial Hellenism” in a Byzantine style that is readily noticed in the facial expressions of saints and others. My favorites are the depiction of the donor who paid for the painting of one of the side chapels in the 8th century. His name was Theodotus and a condition of his gift was that he be depicted three times somewhere on the room's painted walls. Finding them today is kind of a scavenger hunt, but he's there in three places. Thankfully WMF's wonderful financial supporters of this project, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Preserve Our Heritage, do not demand such evidence of their generosity. The opening of this site to the public in 2011 should be a sensation.