"I almost had a heart attack," said pensioner Tarcisio De Paolis, recalling his shock on discovering faithful copies of some of Raphael's most famous frescoes in his bedroom.
De Paolis came across the paintings after deciding to add a bathroom in the apartment, which partly extends into an abandoned medieval tower that was thought to have been part of a military fort in Civitavecchia, a port west of Rome.
When De Paolis began removing plaster from the wall in the apartment, "First I came across Saint Peter's sword, then his hand and arm," he said.
Bit by bit, De Paolis uncovered copies of the frescoes in Raphael's Room of Heliodorus at the Vatican Museums, thought to have been painted by a contemporary student of the Renaissance master, Ugo da Scarpi, best known for his wood carvings.
The Room of Heliodorus is one of four frescoed chambers by Raphael and his disciples, commissioned for the private apartments of Pope Julius II in the Apostolic Palace, now part of the Vatican Museums, next to the Sistine Chapel.
Some 50 square metres (500 square feet) survive of the copies, badly damaged but clearly distinguishable in places.
They are slightly smaller than the original frescoes painted in the early 16th century depicting the heavenly protection believed to be accorded by Jesus Christ to the Roman Catholic Church.
The work is "absolutely extraordinary", Nicole Dacos, a professor emeritus of art history at the University of Brussels and a Raphael expert, told AFP. "We know of no other case like this."
As to who may have commissioned the work, she said: "You have to imagine a military official, a local lord who went back and forth between Rome and Civitavecchia, which was the port of the pope's fleet."
The discovery of the hidden treasure was tumultuous for De Paolis and his wife Teresa.
"We thought we would lose our home," said De Paolis, a 64-year-old retired policeman, as Teresa nodded beside him.
The couple wondered how could they go on sleeping surrounded by a 500-year-old work of art that is probably worth a fortune.
As it turns out, they continued sleeping in the room for nearly four decades after making the discovery in 1972.
The couple contacted the culture ministry, which sent a team of experts, but then failed to follow up properly.
"They came with their scalpels to scratch the walls, then left and never came back," Tarcisio De Paolis said.
"At first I was patient, but then one day I got angry. I put back the drywall and when the next expert came..." he broke off, making a rude Italian gesture for "get lost".
"We got used to the (art) being here," Teresa De Paolis said. "I have had no trouble sleeping, but sometimes I had surges of adrenaline."
Thirty-seven years later, retired journalist Alvaro Ranzoni is working tirelessly to see that the paintings finally receive the attention they deserve.
"This place should become a sort of museum," Dacos said.
The De Paolises said they would be happy to give up their apartment if the paintings were restored for public viewing - and if they were offered a "little house" in return.
By a strange coincidence, the couple received as a wedding present in 1965 a decorative plate painted with a scene from the Room of Heliodorus.Reuse content