One art historian has described it as "the Sistine chapel of the Middle Ages". Rome's superintendent of archaeology, Francesco Prosperetti, pronounced it "unique, not just among the hundreds of churches in Rome but also in the whole of Italy". And if you need another reason to visit the newly unveiled church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, consider this: having opened just a few weeks ago, it is scheduled to close again at the end of October.
In a city overloaded with churches, what makes Santa Maria Antiqua special? Partly it is the fact that this 6th-century church was buried in an earthquake in 847CE. Rome has other churches that are just as old, but most of them have undergone repeated renovations, particularly during the baroque and Counter-Reformation eras. Only Santa Maria Antiqua shows us what churches looked like in the 9th century.
Certainly the church interior is stunning. From what remains, it is evident that every inch of this church was once decorated with layers of sumptuous Byzantine frescoes, executed by the most talented painters of the era. Although many of them have sustained some degree of damage, they are still gorgeous works of art.
Along one wall, a sweeping mural depicts Christ and the fathers of the church while above, colourful panels illustrate episodes from the lives of Noah and of Joseph. Columns and niches feature images of figures such as John the Baptist, while a sweet-faced Virgin Mary has one of the places of honour.
Perhaps the most mesmerising images are those in the chapels to either side of the altar. The chapel on the right was dedicated to the medical saints, early Christians who worked to convince unbelievers of the curative powers of prayer. The effectiveness of their skills is indicated by the surgeon's boxes they hold.
To the left of the altar is the chapel of Theodotus, named for the wealthy layman who paid for its extravagant decorations. The fresco cycle tells the grisly story of two martyrs, the young Quiricus and his mother Julitta, who are depicted undergoing various torments including being flogged, being boiled, having their tongues ripped out, being pierced by nails and crushed under stones.
The frescoes in both chapels are brought to life thanks to a series of digital projections – a first for Rome – which reveal how vivid the original images would have appeared, along with a narration that explains many of the significant details.
One of the most interesting things about the church is its location in the Roman Forum. (Entrance to the church is free with the Forum ticket.) Like many other structures in the Middle Ages, the church was built into an ancient ruin: in this case, part of a palace complex built by Emperor Domitian to link the Forum, Rome's civic centre, with the emperor's residence on the Palatine Hill.
Earlier emperors had also tried to linking the two. One of Domitian's predecessors, Caligula – notorious for being slightly unhinged – built a tunnel through which he could emerge into the temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum. Apparently he enjoyed appearing between the statues of the twin gods and having people worship him.
The later complex built by Domitian linked the two areas via an immense ramp. This is the Forum's other new attraction, having opened to the public late last year. Entered through the Forum, its scale is imposing. The ramp originally consisted of seven switchbacks – only four remain – with soaring ceilings that allowed the emperor to descend on horseback.
During the centuries that these ruins lay concealed beneath the rubble, another late medieval church was built on the same site. In 1900, when archaeologists determined that an older church lay beneath, they deliberately destroyed the existing church in order to dig down. Although Santa Maria Antiqua was discovered and documented over a century ago, the €2.7 million restoration – financed by the Italian government and the World Monuments Fund – only began 15 years ago.
Santa Maria Antiqua will be open to visitors over the northern summer, closing on October 30. So get in now to see this fascinating slice of history before it once again disappears from view.
High speed trains connect the major cities in Italy and beyond; the trip from Florence to Rome, for instance, takes just 90 minutes. Contact Rail Europe to organise train passes and reservations (compulsory on high speed services) before departure. See raileurope.com.au
Aldrovandi Villa Borghese is a five-star hotel in a tranquil setting, with an outdoor swimming pool and a spa. A free shuttle service connects to the Spanish Steps every 30 minutes. Rates start from €300 per night including breakfast. See aldrovandi.com
Ute Junker travelled with the support of Rail Europe and Hotel Aldrovandi.