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History From Antiquity Until the Year 847 A.D.

General view of the atrium and the church
The church of Santa Maria Antiqua, placed along the north western slope of the Palatine hill, was inserted into an already existing, vast building complex from the time of Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). It may have served as a monumental vestibule for the imperial palaces, connected by a covered ramp still existing today.


Plan of Santa Maria Antiqua and connected archaeological structures: A) Atrium; B) Presbytery; C) Apse; D) Chapel of Theodotus; E) Chapel of Medical Saints; F) Central Nave; G) Left Nave; H) Right Nave; I) Temple of Augustus; L) Ramp to the Palatine Hill; M) Oratory of the XL Martyrs The disposition of the pre-existing building lent itself readily to an adaptation for this new function. The atrium court was transformed into three naves, and the spacious innermost chamber became the presbyterySpace reserved for the clergy in Christian churches, situated in the central part of the church, behind the altar, which only at a later stage was completed with an apseSemicylindrical niche in the back wall of the presbytery covered by a semidome, cut into the Roman walls behind.

Santa Maria Antiqua was consecrated in the 6th century A.D. and was then decorated for over three centuries with extensive wall painting schemes. A great deal of these paintings are still preserved (more than 250 square meters) and represent a unique document of the development of early medieval art in Rome and elsewhere. Wall paintings from the same period exist in the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, an adjacent building, which is part of the same church complex.

The only fragment of painting from the time of the foundation of the church is part of the famous palimpsestTerm normally used to indicate ancient manuscripts on parchment in which a new writing was superimposed onto the old one, which had previously been scraped off. In this case it stands for the presence of different superimposed layers of painting from different periods, which are visible contemporaneously due to the partial loss of one or more of them on the wall to the right of the apse, where six painted schemes from various periods are superimposed. The first layer of painting, representing an enthroned Virgin adored by angels is dated to the middle of the 6th century.

Partial view of the presbytery with the palimpsest wall in the centre Detail of the palimpsest wall

The main mural painting campaigns were carried out:

at the time of Pope Martin I (649-653). During this period the walls of the presbytery and many areas of the central nave were decorated.

Pope Martin I died in exile and was martyrized because he opposed himself to Emperor Costante II of Constantinople.

The south-western pillar before restoration Panel, before restoration, representing Solomone and the Maccabei

by Pope John VII (705-707), a pope with a deep affection for this church since he had been raised on the Palatine Hill being the son of the keeper of the imperial palaces, who ordered the re-decoration of the presbytery and the addition of new wall paintings in the Chapel of Medical Saints and in many other parts of the monument.

The north-west corner of the Chapel of Medical Saints before restorationA panel, before restoration, representing five oriental saints

during the pontificate of Pope Zaccarias (741-752), when the Chapel of Theodotus was decorated. The chapel takes its current name from its donor, a Roman nobleman, who as ambassador of the Pope, established the first contacts with the court of the Franks, the future allies in the political detachment from the Byzantine Empire.

Partial view of the Chapel of Theodotus before restoration The end wall is dominated by the niche containing a monumental Crucifixion

under Pope Paul I (757-767) who ordered the last re-decoration of the apse and the execution of extensive painting schemes on the side walls of the two lateral naves.

The long wall of the left nave Detail of the central part of the left nave wall

Many of the painted plasters are characterised by a high binder (lime) ratio and by the presence of vegetable fibres (wheat straw or husk) in the mix. This particular composition, rather unusual for Rome, confirms the Byzantine tradition or even the Eastern provenance of several workshops involved in the decoration of the church.

Besides the early medieval plasters, the monument preserves extended residues of the bedding mortarMortar used for the adhesion of marble slabs and/or mosaics
for a decoration in Opus SectileDecoration composed of thin, polychrome marble slabs which form an inlay work and a mosaic decoration as well as other plasters, in part showing remains of a painted decoration which document the pagan period.

The latest paintings are from the time of Pope Hadrian I (772-95). During an earthquake in the year 847, portions of masonry collapsed from the Palatine Hill and destroyed the church. It was not reconstructed but a new church was founded in part of the Temple of Venus and Roma as Santa Maria Nova. Only the atrium continued to be used for some time, as chapel of St. Anthony.

Panel with paintings from the time of Pope Adrian I This detail represents the Holy Virgin enthroned in between saints

East wall of the atrium with fragments of wall painting