A luxurious ancient pagan tomb located in a necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica has been reopened to the public after a year of restoration.
Catholic News Service reports the Vatican has completed the restoration of the largest and most luxurious mausoleum in the vast necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Mausoleum of the Valerii displays some of the most ornate decoration among the 22 family mausoleums in the ancient underground cemetery.
“We had wanted to restore it for a long time, but we didn’t have the money. Now we’re extremely happy” the funding came through and the year long restoration has been completed, said Maria Cristina Stella, an official at the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office responsible for the basilica’s upkeep.
The $300,000 project was funded by the Rome based Foundation for Music and Sacred Art, the Italian branch of Mercedes-Benz, and other sponsors.
The Vatican necropolis includes the burial grounds where St Peter’s tomb has been venerated since early Christian times.
The Valerii mausoleum was built sometime after 160 by Gaius Valerius Herma – a wealthy, highly educated Roman slave who had bought his freedom. He built the site for his family and his freed slaves and their descendents.
Like many other pagan tombs in the necropolis, the sarcophagi were later “recycled” by Christians who buried their loved ones and added inscriptions referring to Christ.
The cemetery had been used until the fourth century when the emperor Constantine had workmen fill in the open-air necropolis with dirt in order to lay the foundation for building a basilica above St. Peter’s tomb. The airless, lightless atmosphere actually had helped preserve much of the artwork and statuary.
Restorers for the Valerii mausoleum used hand held lasers, tiny drills, scalpels, sponges and plain water to remove mineral salts, other encrustations and dirt, and they injected special glues to reinforce crumbling plaster walls.
They pieced together broken plaster or marble fragments back onto statuary tucked into niches lining the mausoleum walls.
The second century subterranean burial ground is two levels below the basilica floor, and St. Peter’s tomb is directly under the basilica’s main altar.
The cemetery was excavated for the first time in the 1930’s and 40’s, revealing a double row of mausoleums and niches decorated with paintings, stucco and mosaics, along with a section of simpler graves.
The Vatican has spent the past decade repairing and restoring the tombs, labyrinthine lanes and funerary artwork using state-of-the-art techniques, as well as setting up a complete conservation system that controls the climate of the necropolis.