Publio Pomponio Corneliano and his family constructed the hypogeum of Santa Maria in Stelle in the early third century A.D. Originally a Roman aqueduct and sanctuary dedicated to water nymphs, the subterranean monumental complex has served a variety of purposes over the centuries. During the fourth and fifth centuries, early Christians used the devotional space to study the catechism. Around the turn of the fifth century, extensive frescoes depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament were painted along the walls. The underground chamber served as a sheltered meeting place throughout the eighth and ninth centuries for the devout in the age of the Lombards and Carolingians. After the town church was severely damaged by earthquakes around 1100, the hypogeum was used temporarily for religious services for the local community. The monumental complex regained popularity at the end of the sixteenth century as a site for plenary indulgences. Two centuries later, it was declared suitable for mass by the Bishop of Verona. The hypogeum is currently owned and administered by the Parish of Santa Maria in Stelle along with the Archaeological Superintendent of Veneto.
1996 and 2006 World Monuments Watch
Although the hypogeum never suffered any significant architectural losses, its remarkable decorative program has been extensively damaged by centuries of lime deposits and biological growth. The deterioration of the murals has been exacerbated by increased water infiltration caused by altercations to the small parish church above the monumental complex. Inappropriate conservation materials used during a 1960s restoration project have had a continued negative effect on the valuable fifth-century frescoes, but the institutions responsible for the hypogeum have lacked funding for its regular maintenance and care. After placing the hypogeum on the 1996 World Monuments Watch, WMF began a four-year comprehensive diagnostic survey of the frescoes. Following the extensive conditions report and analysis, a 12-month microclimate survey was conducted to assess the humidity conditions of the air and wall surfaces in the vaults. A series of conservation tests established guidelines for future restoration and maintenance of the murals. The historically and architecturally significant site was relisted on the 2006 Watch to emphasize that more work was necessary to ensure its survival.
Despite periods of partial obscurity, the hypogeum of Santa Maria in Stelle was never abandoned and continues to be a central feature of local religious and social life in Verona. The former reservoir contains the only Paleo-Christian frescoes in northern Italy; these extraordinary paintings are comparable only to those of the underground dwellings in Rome. The World Monuments Fund study outlined simple environmental control measures and drainage system improvements, which, along with a proper maintenance plan, could extend the life of the precious murals by centuries. At the present, access to the hypogeum is extremely limited. A restoration program could make the site more accessible to tourists, economically benefiting the entire locality and allowing the site to be enjoyed by visitors and scholars alike.