ROME, Jan. 9, 2016 – One of the ever-present 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.
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 when the cave-in of an underground passage 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 Christianity. 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 legendary Greek heroes like Achilles, Orpheus, Paris and Hercules.
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.
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 artwork to be in remarkably good condition.
Porta Maggiore is accessed by a door that is hidden from the street by a mesh fence. The basilica itself is completely invisible to the outside world, but when trains rumble overhead, they remind visitors that we live in a different 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, and the humidity must constantly range between 87 percent and 92 percent.
Stucco begins to dry out below 87 percent humidity, causing it to crack. Says 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.it or by calling +39 06 399 677 00.
To say that Rome is a city in ruins is a compliment. It is part of Rome’s heritage, character and personality. But the Romans wouldn’t have it any other way.
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About the author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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