The Roman Forum is probably one of the most dramatic and charming areas of Rome, especially at night, when its idyllic settings bring us back to ages past. In one of its most spectacular areas we find the ancient church of Santa Maria Antiqua, an early Christian church with rare Byzantine-style frescoes, it was thought to be lost in 847 because of an earthquake, another church, then demolished in 1900 was built upon it, the original building was found to be intact in the late 18th century. The most interesting fact is that the church has been closed down for intensive restoration since 1980 and only this year it was once again opened.
The church was built at the foot of the Palatine hill, where the temple of Augustus was located in an area that dates from the time of Domitian as an access to the Forum from the hill and where probably Pretorian guards were stationed.
When the Byzantines ruled over Rome in 552 they restored some of the original imperial palaces, as well as the ancient walls and aqueducts, they also used a sort of rectangular hall and the adjacent four sided-portico as a sort of Palatine chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Until then the churches built inside of the city walls had as a titulus the name of the original owners of the houses in which churches were founded, whereas new churches were founded outside the walls as sanctuaries located on the tombs of martyrs, such as San Callisto or San Sebastiano. The construction of a church on these spots was thought to "exorcise" the ghosts of paganism.
The church was continuously restored and embellished by popes, such as Martinus I, John VII, Zachary, Paul I and Adrian I. In 847 an earthquake made the surrounding buildings collapse on the church and Pope Leo IV transferred the titulus to Santa Maria Nova (now Basilica of Santa Francesca Romana). In 1617 a little church was built on the ruins of it by architect Onorio Longhi with the titulus of Santa Maria Liberatrice.
Excavations began in the 18th century and more precise ones occurred in the end of the 19th century when the original frescoes were discovered, this is when the Longhi church was demolished and the icons and titulus were moved to a church in Testaccio.
The original Roman building had a basilica-shaped plan, a rectangular hall divided in three aisles. A little apse was created in the thick wall and two chapels on the two sides of the sanctuary. The quadrangle used to be a vestibule and there are the remains of an impluvium from the time of Caligula and niches that used to host statues, on the left there is a a ramp that leads to the Palatine hill.
The church also hosts an incredible quantity of frescoes executed between the 6th and 9th century in the Byzantine stye. These works are very important, they include the first representation of an enthroned Madonna and they are also essential as a testimony of Byzantine art, because nothing of this sort survived in the east after the iconoclast crisis of 726.
In the left hand aisle there are two cycle of frescoes, in the top there are scenes from the old testament and on the bottom an enthroned Christ surrounded by saints, popes and martyrs.
Among the most interesting wall paintings there is a crucifixion in a chapel at the end of the aisle in which Christ's feet are not overlying. The Byzantine influence on this work is quite strong, especially because of the frontality and hierarchy of the proportions and symmetry of the figures, characteristics of a new visual language more easy to understand by the people.
Another beautiful fresco is the archangel Gabriel, known as the angelo bello, dating 565/578.