'Sistine Chapel of the Middle Ages' reopens to the public
A 1,500-year-old church that was buried under debris from an earthquake for more than a millennium has reopened to the public after a painstaking restoration of some of the world's earliest Christian art.
The sixth-century church of Santa Maria Antiqua is located in the ancient Roman Forum, at the bottom of the Palatine Hill, where Roman emperors lived for centuries in sumptuous in palaces.
It was buried under rubble by an earthquake in AD 847 and was only rediscovered in 1900 during archaeological excavations.
It has taken more than 30 years to restore its exquisite interior, which is decorated with multi-coloured frescoes of saints, martyrs, angels and emperors.
The project, which was funded by the Italian government and the World Monuments Fund, cost ¤2.7m.
"This church is the Sistine Chapel of the early Middle Ages," said Maria Andaloro, an art historian involved in the project.
"It collected the very best of figurative culture of the Christian world between Rome and Byzantium."
Being buried by the earthquake saved the church from being altered in later centuries, particularly during the counter-reformation, said Prof Andaloro.
Among the most significant frescoes is a depiction of the Virgin Mary with child - one of the oldest known Christian icons in the world. After the ninth century earthquake it was moved to another church in Rome but it has now been returned to Santa Maria Antiqua.
The church was built inside a vast complex of Roman buildings that were constructed in the first century AD under the rule of the Emperor Domitian.
"It is unique, not just among the hundreds of churches in Rome but also in the whole of Italy," said Francesco Prosperetti, Rome's superintendent of archaeology.
"It represents a forgotten period in the history of the Forum because of the earthquake that buried it."