Sunday, May 1, 2016

Santa Maria Antiqua

Today's photos:

1-6. Various frescoes in the medieval church of Santa Maria Antiqua.

7-9. Views of the Roman Forum from the imperial ramp.

In sixth-century Rome when Christianity had by then supplanted the pagan Roman empire, a church was built in the Roman Forum on the slopes of the Palatine hill: Santa Maria nel Foro Romano. The church had a relatively short life (by Rome standards!) because it was completely buried by the rubble from a major earthquake in the year 847.

A curiosity

This natural disaster had a positive side to it because, as happened in Pompeii when the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. buried the city in ash, preserving many ancient frescoes, the earthquake of 847 had the side effect of saving many of the medieval frescoes in this church.

Leo IV (848-855) had the church re-built after the earthquake, but on the opposite side of the Forum, naming it Santa Maria Nova (the new Santa Maria), a dedication later changed to Santa Francesca Romana, as we know it today. The original church, now buried, thus became known as Santa Maria Antiqua (the old Santa Maria).

No attempt was made to recover the original church which was all but forgotten for over a thousand years. It was re-discovered and partially restored in 1900 by the archaeologist Giacomo Boni. Serious renovations began again in the 1980s, and finally, in 2015, after thirty years in which it was closed to the public, it was re-opened to visitors.

The extraordinary frescoes of the apse and on the walls have caused art historians to call this church the Medieval Sistine Chapel. Most of the frescoes are from the time of Martin I (649-655) and John VII (705-707). They truly represent a unique example of the first millennium of Christianity.

A curiosity

The original church was built into what remained of the vestibule of the palace of the emperor Domitian (81-96) at the top of the Palatine hill. A covered ramp had also been built leading from the palace down to the vestibule at the bottom of the hill, thus giving the emperor direct and private access to the Roman Forum.

This “imperial ramp”, as it is called, was re-discovered along with the church in 1900. It, too, has been restored and opened to the public so that visitors can now climb to about half way up the hill from where there are spectacular views of the Forum. The ramp was large enough so that the emperor could descend on horseback or even riding in a carriage! Plans are underway to restore the upper half of the ramp so that it will be possible to arrive all the way to Domitian's palace at the top of the Palatine.


DeLisa Brown-Guc said...

Great photos -- I was told by a mutual friend to be on the lookout for this post, and it has whetted my appetite to see the frescoes on my next visit. Thank you!

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