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Some of our greatest archaeological finds have happened by accident, revealing wonders from the past. Such a thing could also happen in the Middle Ages, such as when the perfectly preserved body of a girl was discovered along the Via Appia just outside of Rome. The discovery took place in April of 1485.
The best account of this event comes from a letter written by Bartolomeo Fonzio, who was a Renaissance scholar and professor of literature at the University of Florence. He wrote to a friend in Florence:
To explain the whole matter in order: some workmen were digging out the foundation of tombs in search of marble on the Via Appia six miles out of Rome. They had destroyed an arch faced with brick on all sides some ten feet down when they came across a marble box. Opening it up, they found a corpse lying on its face, covered by a layer of fragrant bark two inches thick; all of the inside of the casket was likewise smeared with the same fragrant mixture like some sort of plaster. When this sweet smelling bark was removed, the girl’s face (to begin at the top) was rather pale and as if she had been buried that very day. Her hair, long and dark and firmly fixed to the scalp, was gathered in a knot and divided into twin tresses in girlish manner, all covered by a hairnet of silk interwoven with gold.
Then there appeared small ears, a short forehead, dark eyebrows, the eyes beneath shapely and bright. The nose was still intact, and so soft that if it was pressed by a finger it would flex and yield. The lips were a pale red, the teeth snow-white and small, the tongue from the roof of the mouth all scarlet. The cheeks, chin, and throat – you’d think they belonged to a living person. The arms hung down from the shoulders entire, and would followed wherever you led them. The hands were stretched out, the fingers rounded and tapering with translucent nails, and so firmly fixed that they could not be torn from the joints. Her breast, stomach and belly were equally broad, and appeared white when the fragrant bark was taken away. The nape of her neck, her back and buttocks retained their position and shape and graceful appearance. The beauty of her hips, thighs, shins, and feet likewise gave the impression of a living person.
“In short,” he added, “this girl who had lived when Rome was in its prime seemed as shapely as she was noble.”
Bartolomeo Fonzio also added his own drawing of the girl to the letter:
Several other writers gave details of this discovery. Daniele da San Sebastiano wrote another letter explaining that the sweet smelling bark that covered the girl was made up of “myrrh, frankincense, aloe, and other priceless drugs”, and added she looked “so lovely, so pleasing, so attractive, that, although the girl had certainly been dead fifteen hundred years, she appeared to have been laid to rest that very day.”
Various reports added that tens of thousands of people came out from Rome to see the body – for a couple of days it was the trending topic in the city. Some even arrived to paint a portrait of her. Two days after the body was found, the Roman authorities ordered it be brought back to the city, “amid vast throngs of people”, where it was again put on display. Another writer noted, “One would think there is some great indulgence and remission of sins to be gained by climbing that hill, so great is the crowd, especially of women, attracted by the sight.”
The name of this girl, however, would continue to remain a mystery, as any inscriptions from this site had long since disappeared. One rumour that was spread around was that this was the body of Cicero’s daughter Tulliola. Another said that had an inscription had been found, saying ‘Here lies Julia Prisca Secunda. She lived twenty-six years and one month. She has committed no fault, except to die.’ Everyone did agree that this girl must have been famous and wealthy. In his diary, Antonio di Vaseli, who also saw and marvelled at the body, explained she “must be an illustrious one, because none but a noble and wealthy person could afford to be buried in such a costly sarcophagus thus filled with precious ointments.”
Another mystery is what happened to the body after she was taken to Rome? Some reports suggest that Pope Innocent VIII, perhaps displeased at all the attention this corpse was getting, ordered the caused the city officials to secretly take the body away and bury outside the city walls. Another version explains the body was just dumped into the Tiber River.
However, for a few days this accidental find was the talk of the Romans, and perhaps kindled feelings about how ancient Rome was like, and questions about who this girl must have been. Bartolomeo Fonzio explained, “I only wish I could do justice in words to the beauty and attractiveness of the cadaver, which would seem amazing to posterity and quite incredible were it not that it was witnessed by the entire city.”