A surprise discovery under a medieval Italian town square
Found among the well-preserved remains of a Roman villa inhabited until the 1st century A.D. was a cubiculum, or bedroom, decorated with frescoes and an intricate geometric mosaic.
(Courtesy Soprintendenza Archeologica dell’Umbria)
On September 26, 1997, a strong earthquake shook the central Italian town of Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis. The quake damaged dozens of medieval buildings and shattered into tens of thousands of pieces the frescoes that covered the walls and ceiling of the Basilica of St. Francis. These include thirteenth-century frescoes by the greatest early Renaissance masters—Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, and Pietro Lorenzetti. (After five years and millions of dollars, the frescoes were restored to as close to their original condition as possible.) But just half a mile from the Basilica, untouched by the earthquake, lay other beautiful frescoes that once covered the walls of a first-century A.D. Roman villa.
Four years after the earthquake, authorities began to stabilize and modernize some of Assisi’s oldest structures. They decided that one of these buildings, the seventeenth-century Palazzo Giampè, which houses the town’s court, would get an elevator. This required engineers to dig deep down to the building’s foundations. But work stopped almost immediately. Only 20 inches below the entrance, builders had begun to find pieces of stucco of a kind that is often found decorating ancient Roman column capitals. “Right away we had to start a real excavation,” says Maria Laura Manca of the Archaeological Superintendent’s office in Umbria, who supervised the dig. Soon the archaeologists had uncovered three 14- to 15-foot-tall columns that formed the peristyle (a colonnaded space with a central garden) of a very large house. “We had not ever expected a discovery of this kind,” says Manca. “We were astounded.”