• Image about Roberto Nini

He stumbled upon an underground Benedictine chapel that had been buried and forgotten for several hundred years. The discovery - and the secrets it held - would alter the course of his life forever.
Photographs by Mario Mazziol

ROBERTO NINI was 20 years old when he tumbled through a hole and into the twelfth century. The year was 1979, and the setting was Narni, Italy: Nini and five friends were humoring an old man who had told them there were treasures on the other side of a hole that had opened in an ancient wall next to his garden plot. Nini and his friends dug with their hands until the dirt gave way - and then they fell through the wall.

At first Nini thought he was in a cave - that is, until his eyes adjusted to the light and he saw what remained of the religious paintings on a stone wall above an altar.

It turned out that the old man was right. There was a treasure of sorts on the other side of the wall: an underground Benedictine chapel that had lain buried for centuries. That night, Nini and his friends returned to the site - this time carrying sledgehammers. They had noticed an arched door that had been bricked up, and they wanted to tear it down; there was a better chance that no one would hear them in the dead of night. The adjacent church had been abandoned for 200 years. They would be alone.

Only later did Nini find that the rooms that lay beyond that bricked-up door had been used as a prison cell and torture chamber during the Roman Inquisition. The cell, which was barely nine feet across, was covered in graffiti - code words and pictures that had been scratched into the wall.

"The Da Vinci Code was nothing compared with this," he tells me. "This was real."