Copies of the catacomb paintings

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The collections of the Pius Christian Museum encompass 34 copies of ancient paintings that are principally dedicated to the decoration of the Roman suburban catacombs. The painting copies are made with tempera or oil on canvas applied on a canvas sustainment that is mounted on wooden frames.

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At times, they could reach monumental sizes. Moreover, they were made during the 19th century by specialized copyists, who were accustomed to entering the uncomfortable underground spaces to copy from the legitimate antique paintings, with torches as their only source of light. This was the only way to enable the general public and scholars to be part of this artistic heritage that would daily emerge from the archeological exploring from the underground cemeteries. Without them, these paintings would have been inaccessible to the public.

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The one-of-a-kind copies of the catacomb paintings are connected to the first developments of Christian archeology seen as a scientific discipline thanks to the work of the Jesuit Father Giuseppe Marchi and of his brilliant pupil, Giovanni Battista de Rossi. When Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) requested the creation of a «Christian Museum» in the Lateran Palace to Fr. Marchi, Marchi decided to commission copies of the catacomb paintings from the famous painter Carlo Ruspi and other specialists, as Silvestro Bossi. The Pius Christian Museum, named after its creator, was launched in 1854, with a section purposefully dedicated to the grand “fac-simile” of the catacomb frescoes. Unfortunately, when the archeological collections of the Lateran Museum were moved to the Vatican in 1963, the painted copies did not find space within the new set-up and ended up in storage. Here, they were essentially forgotten until the rediscovery and the appreciation occurred with the restoration project. Of the latter, some phases have already been concluded.

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Indeed, in the past years, the renewed awareness regarding these precious documents led to the recovery of the large paintings, currently exhibited in the Pius Christian Museum. A fourth painting, of large dimensions, is located in the Painting Restoration Laboratory of the Vatican Museums. The success of these first initiatives encouraged the beginning of a collective restoration project of the copies from the 1800’s, in order to give back to the Museums and to its visitors a patrimony of great aesthetic and documentary value.

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In particular, thank to the contribution of the California Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums it was possible to complete the restoration in 2014 and 2015: disinfestations, clearing and securing of the 34 painting reproductions. Moreover, the support of the Patrons allowed the restoration of a group of five paintings that had drawn attention to certain urgent conservation needs. Along with these, there were also missing parts, tears and detachments of the paint layer, seen as a cause of its preservative status, as well as the deteriorated phenomenon connected to the deformation of the wooden frameworks.