Italian restorers have brought to light unique, bright, multicolored marble decorations that even contemporary Romans never got to admire.
The marbles crafted in a technique known as opus sectile, were designed to decorate the floor and walls of an ancient Roman palace more than 1,600 years ago. However, the roof of the palace collapsed during construction and the mosaics remained buried for centuries.
"Not even the owner of the palace was able to see this wonder," said Francesco Rutelli, Italy's minister for cultural heritage.
Whatever caused the roof to collapse 1,600 years ago is unknown, but the accident actually ensured the works' preservation. By covering the decorated floors and walls for centuries, the marble was protected.
Visitors at Rome's Museo dell'Alto Medioevo (Museum of the High Middle Ages) are able to admire the newly restored spendid decorations in a room which recreates the original hall of the palace. The floor and three walls out of four are covered by the marbles.
The marbles represent the only example of an almost totally restored, Roman version of opus sectile.
The art form, which translates to "cut work," is created by fitting together cut pieces of marble of different colors. The pieces are fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.
While the works on display in Rome have been reassembled according to the ancient Roman style, the opus sectile art form first originated in Egypt and Asia Minor.
"It was similar to mosaic, but more highly valued and clearly seen as more indicative of luxury. It required numerous large pieces of fine and varied marbles, rather than small tesserae, which could be made from scrap material," said Katherine Dunbabin, professor of classics at McMaster University in Canada and author of the book "Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World."
Dating to the 4th century AD, the fully recovered opus sectile was supposed to enrich one of the main halls of an aristocratic palace facing the sea at Porta Marina, near Ostia, not far from Rome.
The remains of the building, with thousands of opus sectile fragments and pieces of the collapsed blue glass paste ceiling, were first unearthed in 1959. For five decades restorers worked at piecing together the marble puzzle.
"The result is splendid. The marbles are alone worth the journey to Rome," Rutelli said.
While the floor features decorations of octagons, circles and star-shaped drawings, the walls are dominated by scenes of animals fighting, flowers and geometrical motifs. Two human figures are also depicted.
"Most likely, one is the young owner of the house," said Maria Stella Arena, the museum's director. "The other, represented with a halo, could be either a classical image of Jesus or a highly esteemed philosopher."
According to Dunbabin, the marbles exhibit unusually fine workmanship, with the individual pieces cut to the precise shape and fitted carefully together.
"This is certainly the most complete example of sectile decoration, on both walls and floor, that we have. Other surviving pieces tend to be smaller, or out of context," said Dunbabin.