Peter and Paul are attracting new interest in Rome. A multimedia museum, based on a decade of research, restoration work and recent archaeological findings, has been opened in what was once their prison. It stands in the Roman Forum near the end of the route ancient armies took to celebrate victories. Captured enemies were displayed during the march and then dropped off at the prison now called the Mamertine. It was a few steps from the Roman Curia building, seat of the Senate, and the Tribunal, where the prisoners would be tried. Imprisonment ceased with the trial. After that, prisoners would be put to death, sold as slaves or released.

The museum displays archaeological findings such as stone structures, skeletons, pottery and mineralised seeds of lemons, figs, vines and olives from votive offerings made before the Christian era. The first building, dating from about the 7th century BC, was around a well which was probably a sacred site. Above it, in the next century, a prison was built to hold political prisoners, either locals or foreigners, considered enemies of Rome.

In the Middle Ages the prison was transformed into a church. In the 16th century the Carpenters’ Confraternity was allowed to build a still extant church, St Joseph of the Carpenters, above the prison. After the recent restoration, some frescoes of the 9th- to 13th-century church can still be deciphered, though they are faded and fragmentary. The most striking is that of Christ with his arm around the shoulders of Peter, who is smiling at him. I have never seen another image of Christ and Peter in which they are so fraternal. Peter has white hair, a moustache and a beard, as in the earliest image of him held in the Vatican Museum.

There are also fragments of Madonna of Mercy frescoes in which lay people are sheltered within the cape which she holds wide. These frescoes date from the 11th century, which makes them the world’s oldest such images.

Plaques in the museum list many other prisoners who were allegedly held there, including leaders of various resistance movements against the all-conquering Romans such as Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls. According to a plaque, Christian martyrs other than Peter and Paul were held there, including St Lawrence, who was burnt to death because he would not disclose the whereabouts of the wealth the Church used for the poor.

St Peter is said to have baptised his guardians, Processo and Martiniano, who, as a result, were beheaded and are considered martyrs. There is a tradition that the chains which bound Peter are preserved under the main altar of the Church of St Peter in Chains, which is not far from the Forum.

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