Biodeterioration of Roman hypogea: the case study of the Catacombs of SS. Marcellino and Pietro (Rome, Italy)

  • Laura BrunoEmail author
  • Lorenza Rugnini
  • Valeria Spizzichino
  • Luisa Caneve
  • Antonella Canini
  • Neil Thomas William Ellwood
Original Article


No information exists on phototrophs growing on the stone surfaces of the Catacombs of SS. Marcellino and Pietro (the site was only recently opened to the public in 2014). Therefore, it was decided to characterise the microbial communities and to compare them with those of the other previously studied catacombs. Moreover, a new non-invasive strategy to reduce the phototrophic growth was tested. Phototrophic microorganisms were investigated under light and confocal laser scanning microscopes from samples collected non-invasively in situ. Tests were carried out to determine the effect of the application of two essential oils (from L. angustifolia and T. vulgaris) on biofilm photosynthetic activity. Laser-induced fluorescence (LIF) and reflectance measurements in the visible range have been used to evaluate respectively, any chemical modification and discolouration on a frescoed stone that may occur after the application of the essential oils. At all the concentrations of essential oils, there was a quasi-immediate, large reduction in photosynthetic activity of the biofilms. At 10% essential oil concentration, there was no detectable photosynthetic activity after 15 min. At 1%, there was a need for two applications and after 5-day activity was undetectable. No effect of the essential oils on the substrate surface properties or colour modification of the fresco has been observed with the LIF prototype. Cyanobacterial typical of Roman catacombs were present in the sites investigated. Innovative and non-destructive strategies, involving the application of a combination of two essential oils, have been successfully tested and developed to prevent biodeterioration of these sites.


Biodeterioration Phototrophic biofilms Cyanobacteria Essential oils Laser-induced fluorescence 



The authors thank the ‘Pontificia Commissione of Archeologia Sacra’ for the permission to investigate the Catacombs of SS. Marcellino and Pietro and the centre ‘CMA-P Albertano’ for the use of the CLSM.


The work was partially funded by the project ADAMO in the frame of DTC (Technological District for Cultural Heritage) Lazio Det.reg. G08622.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research involving human participants and/or animals

No humans or animals were used in this work.

Informed consent



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Copyright information

© Università degli studi di Milano 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratory of Biology of Algae, Department of BiologyUniversity of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’RomeItaly
  2. 2.ENEA—Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, FSN-TECFIS-DIM Diagnostic and Metrology Laboratory, Research Centre of FrascatiFrascatiItaly
  3. 3.Laboratory of Botany, Department of BiologyUniversity of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’RomeItaly
  4. 4.Department of ScienceUniversity of Roma TreRomeItaly

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