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Rome may be a mecca for Medieval art, but it isn’t every day that conservationists there discover a trove of long-lost frescoes dating to the 1240s. That’s what happened a few years ago in the Gothic Hall of Santi Quattro Coronati convent, after a restoration project funded by ARCUS began in 1996. This summer, for the first time ever, those artworks can be seen by the public.
The frescoes were created in the 13th century when Cardinal Stephano Conti, a nephew of Pope Innocent III, lived in the residence. What makes them especially unique is that they include uncommonly “profane” imagery for a religious institution. Instead of halos and angel wings, we see a cosmological diagram that includes the southern constellations, the signs of the Zodiac, agricultural life and seascapes. The Roman figure of Mitra, the Jewish King Solomon, and the Vices and Virtues appear, along with scenes of Cardinal Conti’s illustrious career.
According to a document released by ARCUS, these frescoes address “the limited nature of man in space and in time governed by the order of God, the difficulty of the course and the irreplaceable role of the Ecclesia [church] in directing and governing it.” They would have been a model for the next generation of artists, including Giotto, who painted the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. They also reveal how cardinals’ palaces were “places from which to launch very clear political messages.” (In the nearby St. Sylvester chapel, frescoes depict the church — Pope Silvester I — holding power over the state — Emperor Constantine I.)
To uncover them, conservationists working under the direction of art historian Andreina Draghi used scalpels to scrape away seven layers of paint and plaster, which some believe was first applied to cleanse the convent of disease during the Black Death. Though the project was first scheduled in 1989, it only began seven years later, after the Augustinian nuns living in the convent authorized it. And because they are a highly cloistered from the outside world, the Gothic Hall will only be open twice a month to visitors who sign up online.