Thursday, June 15, 2017

Burning off the Crust: New Laser Treatment Used to Clean Frescoes in Rome’s Largest 1600-year-old Catacomb Complex

Ancient Origins

Formerly blacked-out frescoes and ancient graffiti in some of Italy’s largest catacombs have been revealed using laser and scanner technology. Restorers, employed by the Vatican, have unveiled frescoes from the time of ancient Rome, depicting some of the most famous Bible stories alongside pagan images - all representing the life to come.

 The Catacombs of St. Domitilla house about 150,000 tombs in an underground maze in Rome. The paintings have been covered in grime, dust and smoke since the Roman Empire still ruled much of the world. The remarkable restoration has been carried out by the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology.

17th Century Discovery
The project has revealed paintings that had been covered for centuries, and also graffiti of the Maltese lawyer, Antonio Bosio, who rediscovered them in the 17th century. Antonio Bosio thought all the tombs were of martyrs, but they only included the tombs of the martyrs Nereus and Achilleus. Bosio wrote his name on some of the paintings in charcoal.

 Bosio was called the Christopher Columbus of the Catacombs, says a story about the underground networks on’s article says of the frescoes:
Pagan symbolism, such as depictions of the four seasons or a peacock representing the afterlife, together with biblical scenes are integrated without contradiction, [Barbara] Mazzei said. The unifying motif is salvation and the deliverance from death as is underlined by the varied depictions of Noah in his ark welcoming back the dove, Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac, Jonah and the whale, and the multiplication of the fishes and loaves, she said.

The whale spits out Jonah in a fresco unveiled this week in the huge Roman Christian Catacombs of St. Domitilla. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

Lifting The Black Veil
Ms. Mazzei is the director of renovation project. She said the catacombs have 70 burial chambers, called cubicula, but her team restored just 10 of them. She told The Telegraph:

 ‘When we started work, you couldn’t see anything – it was totally black. Different wavelengths and chromatic selection enabled us to burn away the black disfiguration without touching the colors beneath. Until recently, we weren’t able to carry out this sort of restoration – if we had done it manually we would have risked destroying the frescoes.’

A tunnel showing some of the crypts built into the walls of the Catacombs of St. Domitilla (Dennis Jarvis/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The modern technology used to restore the catacomb’s paintings is better than using conventional methods because they could have been damaged in the process and taken years. The team intends to restore more of the crypts in the underground warrens.

These are Rome’s oldest underground burial sites and were in use from the 2nd century AD until the 9th century. Then they were abandoned. The remains of the 150,000 people are buried in 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) of tunnels or rooms on four levels. The renovations were in the larger rooms, the burial sites for the rich and elite, says an article about the project on IFL Science.

Decorated for Bakers
This renovation work was carried out on the tombs of some of the city’s ancient bakers, says CatholicPhilly. They got rich with a state-supported trade of wheat and bread-baking that benefited people because Rome gave everyone a daily ration.

Bernardino Bertocci attended the unveiling this week to signify that bakers were and still are a vital part of Roman life. Bread, of course, is one of the most important Christian symbols as Jesus broke bread with his disciples during the Last Supper the night before he was beaten, scourged and crucified.

Top image: In this fresco, Jesus is shown seated on a throne with his disciples at hand. The painting is in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome, which have been newly restored. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

By Mark Miller

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