Friday, January 15, 2016

Ancient basilica now open to the public in Rome

Gateway to Porta Maggiore on the outskirts of Rome, an ancient basilica discovered 100 years ago  (wikipedia)
ROME For lovers of history, Italy’s capital is a living outdoor museum  Rome captures the imagination with its massive monuments like the Colossuem, the Forum, the Pantheon, the Vatican and, even, the Victor Emmanuelle Monument.

One of the everpresent problems with construction projects in cities like Rome, Athens and Jerusalem occurs when excavations begin and the builders bump into a new layer of ancient history.

Porta Maggiore was built by a Roman cult  (wikipedia)
Such was the case in 1917 in the outskirts of Rome during the construction of a railway line between Rome and Cassino. That’s when a secret pagan basilica was accidentally discovered following the cave in of an underground passage that unearthed a hidden chamber filled with stucco reliefs of gods, winged cherubs and pygmies.

Originally built by a wealthy Roman family, who belonged to a little-known called Neopythagoreanism, the subterranean basilica predates Chrisitianity. As might be deduced from the name, the cult was based upon the writings of the Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato.

Situated directly beneath the rail line at street level, the 40-foot basilica is the only one of its kind in the world. Since its discovery nearly a century ago, Porta Maggiore, as it is now called, has been lovingly cleaned and preserved to the point where it can be viewed by the public, even though the restoration process continues.

Excavated from tufa volcanic rock, Porta Maggiore consists of three naves lined by six rock pillars and an apse. Carved reliefs of centaurs, griffins and satyrs adorn the arched walls along with depictions of classical lengendary Greek heroes like Achilles, Orpheus, Paris and Hercules.
Porta Maggiore was sealed off by the Emperor Claudius and only rediscovered in 1917  (wikipedia)
According to the director of the site, Dr. Giovanna Bandini, “There were lots of cults worshipped at the time and the empire was in general fairly tolerant towards them. But this one was seen as a threat because it discounted the idea of the emperor as a divine mediator between mortals and the gods.”

In the first century A.D. getting the emperor angry was not a good thing to do. The Statilius family, which was responsible for the building, was accused of practicing black magic and other illicit rituals by Agrippina, the mother of Emperor Nero. A senate investigation took place and, though Titus Statilius Taurus continued to proclaim his innocence, his pleas fell upon deaf ears.

With no hope remaining, Titus Statilius Taurus committed suicide in 53 A.D.
Artist's rendering of what Porta Maggiore might have appeared centuries ago  (wikipedia)
Following Taurus’ death, the basilica fell into disrepair and was eventually sealed up by the Emperor Claudius before being forgotten about for centuries.

Tufa rock is relatively easy to excavate, which is also one of the reasons why Rome has an abundance of catacombs beneath the city.

For the restoration process, scaffolding was built to allow access to the arched ceiling, which is covered with various stucco renderings. Some of the reliefs were decayed, but all things considered, restorers found the condition of the artwork to be in remarkably good condition.

Porta Maggiore is accessed by a door which hidden from the street by a mesh fence. The basilica itself is completely invisible to the outside world, but when trains rumble over- head, the illusion can be broken as a reminder that we still live in a contemporary world.

A depiction of Medusa’s head guards the entrance with the lower parts of the walls painted in deep ox-blood red colors featuring wild birds and women dressed in togas.

Special care is taken to control temperature and humidity to preserve the artwork. The temperature must not rise above 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit while the humidity must constantly range between 87% and 92%.

Stucco begins to dry out below 87% humidity causing it to crack. Says Dr. Bandini, “This place is unique in the Roman world in terms of its architecture and design. It was a precursor to the basilicas built during the Christian era, centuries later.”

Visitors are now welcome, but space is limited. Arrangements for a tour can be made at www.coopculture.itor by calling +39 06 399 677 00

Rome is a timeline of history and civilization. So to say that Rome is a city in ruins is a compliment of the highest order.