Vividly colored medieval fresco found in Aventine church

A medieval fresco has been rediscovered behind a wall in the Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexis in Rome. It is an excellent state of preservation, the colors of its original polychrome paint still vividly saturated. The fresco dates to the mid-12th century and depicts two holy figures believed to be Saint Alexis and Christ the Pilgrim in the top section and an angel in front of a be-columned structure on the bottom. It is three feet wide and 13 feet high. There may be more of it, possibly a section at large as the one visible now, hidden by the wall.

The fresco was found by art historian Claudia Viggiani who spent years hunting it down. Her quest began when she found a 1965 letter from an official of Rome’s public works to the Lazio monuments superintendency mentioning a fresco “in excellent condition” had been found during consolidation work on a bell tower. The letter did not note the name of the church. Viggiani doggedly pursued the case until she located the church on the Aventine and the fresco in the interspace behind a small door.

Restorer Susanna Sarmati has been working to stabilize the fresco since its discovery.

Dating back to the mid-12th century, the painting has a polychrome frame that restorer Sarmati said was of “exceptional sophistication” and that it is difficult to “find ones that are so complete”. She pointed at the original brushstrokes on the wall, which can still be distinguished. Though other medieval frescoes exist in Rome, “their state of conservation despite restoration, is mediocre. This one, however,” she said, “which was never touched is almost perfect.”

In the medieval church, the fresco was prominently located on the counter-facade. Its significance lived on even as the church was extensively rebuilt: it was walled in, but not destroyed or painted over. It’s likely that the part of the fresco with the saint’s face remained visible through a crack on the nave.