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Laser Technology Uncovers 1,600-year-old Frescoes

an article in the 30 May 2017 edition of The Daily Mail
by Harry Petit





The catacombs of Domitilla, close to the Appian Way, have been restored using laser technology to remove centuries of grime and dirt that had rendered them invisibile.

The renovated areas include frescoes from both pagan mythology and Christian faith, revealing how wealthy Romans moved away from their pagan beliefs toward the religion of Christ around the fourth century AD.

The Domitilla catacombs, named after a member of the Roman family that had commissioned the burial grounds, are the largest in Rome.

They stretch over 12 kilometres (7.4 miles) and descend four levels with 26,250 tombs, dating from the second to the fifth centuries.

The intricately painted frescoes decorate the ceilings of two crypts, which were both unveiled on Tuesday after decades of delays to renovations.

They depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments, including Noah and his Ark and Jesus's feeding of the 5,000 with bread and fishes.

There are also peacocks shown in the paintings -- a pagan sign of the afterlife.

At the centre of the ceiling fresco is an image of Christ with two men either side of him, believed to be either Saint Peter and Saint Paul or Saint Nerius and Saint Achilleus.

The crypts were built for merchants who were part of the intricate and highly organized imperial grain trade.

The frescoes detail how grain was transported on boats to the ancient Roman port of Ostia from the Mediterranean.

It was then transferred to smaller vessels which took it up the Tiber River to warehouses in the centre of the imperial capital.

At the time every Roman was entitled to a daily bread ration and so the trading and import of grain was a state monopoly regulated by high-ranking officials.

As a result some imperial functionaries grew rich on the grain trade and production of bread, earning them luxurious tombs.

For centuries the intricate frescoes that adorned the catacomb's ceilings were covered with a thick layer of algae, calcium deposits and smoke stains from oil lamps.

Laser instruments were used to carefully peel away the grime, leaving the paintings beneath unharmed.

The new area also includes a small museum displaying statues, parts of sarcophagi and other artefacts from the tombs.

dei Fornai (bakers) cubicle

Walking past the dei Fornai cubicle

dei Fornai cubicle ceiling

'These tombs represent the roots of our deepest identity, the roots of Rome and of Christianity,' Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the pontifical commission, said at a news conference this week.

The first area, which was restored without the use of laser, dates back to the third century and still has many references to pagan art.

Paintings of grape vines adorn the vaults of the passages, and cupids are used for the smaller tombs, most likely belonging to children.

Many of the crypts have frescoes that seem blotted out.  In fact, they were stripped by 'ripping' when catacombs were looted and frescoes cut out and removed as trophies in the Middle Ages.

This ancient form of art theft can be found in a museum in Catania (Sicily), which displays examples that were originally brought to the island by a nobleman to decorate his home.

This area also includes two biblical scenes, Daniel and the lions, and Noah with his ark, as well as a number of frescoes depicting Christ and the Apostles.

A detail of the restored dei Fornia cubicle ceiling 

These works show the difficult path the Romans walked on the way to their new faith,' said Monsignor Giovanni Carru of the Pontifical Commisssion of Sacred Art.

Final touches still have to be put on the museum, which the organisers hope to open to the public by the end of June (2017).

It will be several months longer before the restored areas are opened.

In the meantime, the rest of the vast archaeological site is open to visitors throughout the summer.

Monk gazes at fresco scenes of the Old and New Testaments

Left side shows area restored without the use of lasers 

Example of crypts stripped of its frescoes by looters 

Walking through a crypt 

Fresco showing how grain was transported on boats

Another room of the dei Fornai (bakers) cubicle 


After the fall of the Roman Empire, the catacombs were gradually abandoned and forgotten.  They were rediscovered in the 16th century by an amateur archaeologist, Antonio Bosio, who celebrated his find by daubing his name all over the frescoes in thick charcoal writing.

"He's regarded as the Christopher Columbus of the catacombs -- he discovered them all,"  said Barbara Mazzei, archaeologist with the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology.

It is a myth that Christians buried their dead in secrecy, the academic said.  The reason they dug the catacombs was to accommodate thousands of dead bodies, while only paying tax on the surface area of the land.  In the Saint Domitilla Catacombs, the Christians dug down to a depth of 100 feet.

Corpses were wrapped in simple white sheets and placed in rectagular niches carved into the tunnel walls, with the spaces closed off with marble slabs.