Past, present and future of the museum of the Roman-Christian Necropolis of Tarragona

Over the past two months, news that Tarragona will receive seven millions for the restoration of the Early Christian Necropolis museum has brought this unique museum back into the local and national news. More on the news here.

It seems a happy coincidence that this news arrived precisely during the period of investigation I am conducting on this museum. It is not only the most interesting case of a museum of early Christian antiquities in Spain, but also one of the very few surviving examples of 1920s museum settings in Europe.

The museum was created and managed by the discoverer of the necropolis of Tarragona, Monsignor Joan Serra i Vilarò. Its contruction begun in late 1929 with the approval of the national government, and it was inaugurated in October 1930. It is a building in neo-classical style, built above part of the necropolis. The innovation of this museum lied in its being on-site, keeping the find close to the excavation site and preventing them from being taken to the national main museums, far from Tarragona. In this, as well as in the continuous publication of excavation results, Serra i Vilaró was a true pioneer.

The collection was displayed in three rooms. In the basement, a part of the necropolis was visible, then amphorae, some sarcophagi and other materials were arranged. On the first floor, a long corridor surrounded the central hall. The corridor was used as a gallery and the main decorated sarcophagi and some of the funerary mosaics found in the necropolis were displayed there.

The central hall is certainly the most interesting. Its layout is very reminiscent of the Roman museums of the time (in particular the lapidary galleries of the Vatican Museums): all the epigraphs found in the necropolis, including the smallest fragments, are arranged on the central part of the walls. In the centre of the room, several wooden showcases held the smaller finds from the tombs.

The museum and its layout were very similar to many other archaeological museums in the Mediterranean (an example can be seen here). But its uniqueness today lies in the fact that it has never been modified: the life of the museum after the turmoil of the civil war of 1938-39 (in which the museum was emptied and the collection temporary evacuated) was very quiet and the layout was never radically changed. In the last 30 years, on the contrary, it has been closed and abandoned, despite the modernisation of the necropolis. For many years now, public access has been prohibited for security reasons.
However, this has allowed the interior rooms to be preserved exactly as they were.

So what can we expect from the new incoming funds? That it will be possible to maintain as much of the original layout as possible, so that 21st-century visitors can live and understand the original experience of 1930s.

Conference at the Museu Biblìc!

On 14 July, I presented some of the results of my research stay in Tarragona (as Conex-Plus secondment) during the conference “La arqueología cristiana en Tarragona a principios del siglo XX. Descubrimientos, estudios, museos y la relación con Roma” at the Museu Biblìc.

Many people attended this talk on the cultural and museographic relationship between Rome and Tarragona in the early 20th century. Thank you Tarragona for such a heartfelt participation!

New outcome from the project LIT!

In the last issue of the online Journal of Art Historiography (Number 26, June 2022) the is the most recent output of the Project LIT!

The study and dissemination of an iconography: banquet scenes from the catacombs of Rome to the facsimile catacombs of the nineteenth century

In general, the text traces the discovery and the history of two important banquet scenes from the Roman catacombs (from the Catacombs of Callixtus and from the Catacombs of Priscilla). It focuses on the fortune of these scenes in Europe. this fortune developed in their reproductions found in various churches and chapels up to the middle of the 20th century. This overview helps in understanding how the study and reproduction of a single iconography can contribute to a general reconstruction of the development of the discipline of early Christian art history.

The whole article can be read here: https://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/cecalupo.pdf

While the issue is fully available at: https://arthistoriography.wordpress.com/26-jun22/


An incredible museum for an incredible Christian cemetery: the paleo-Christian Necropolis of Tarragona

The Catalan city of Tarragona is one of the central places for the history of Christian archaeology in Europe and for the history of museums of Christian antiquities.

The early Christian Necropolis of Tarragona (3rd-5th centuries AD) is one of the most important and extensive necropolis of the Christian ancient world, with more than 2,000 documented burials of many different types. The necropolis stretched around a very important martyr centre, the funerary basilica where the remains of the three most important local martyrs rested: the bishop Fructuosus, and his deacons, Augurius and Eulogius. The three saints were burned alive in the arena of the amphitheatre of Tarraco in the year 259 AD.

Their remains were collected and buried in the outer area on the banks of the River Francolí. There, at the beginning of the 5th century, a basilica dedicated to the memory of the saints was built in the area of their tombs. In this same period, another basilica up northern was built and this area became an important Christian centre until the 7th century.

Current exhibition on site of the most important findings

But what interests us the most is the incredible musealisation of the area made in 1929-30. The necropolis was accidentally discovered in 1923, and in 1926 Monsignor Joan Serra i Vilaró took the lead of the excavations. He was an archaeologist who was well known for his documental rigour and for his desire to preserve and disseminate the remains. So in 1930 he opened a museum to explain the Early Christian Necropolis of Tarragona, which is, so far as we know, the first monographic museum in Spain dedicated only to Christian archaeology.

The museum and the necropolis today

We have many old photographs of the museum and it is still preserved, although not open to visitors. It was conseived with features very typical of early 20th century museology. The building, in classical style, had a perimeter corridor where the gracious stone sarcophagi were displayed. The central hall had display cases in the centre and thousands of epigraphs on the walls: this was the most important epigraphic display in the Italian style on the Iberian peninsula. In addition, it was constructed in such a way that the visitable underground hall could serve to preserve parts of the necropolis.

We are going to dig deeper in the history of this incredible museum in the following weeks. Stay tuned!

The central room of the museum in 1930s

LIT! @ 2022 MSCAA Conference

On March 26th, the project LIT! was presented during the online Poster Session 6 (Humanities and SPR) at the 2022 Marie Curie Alumni Association Annual Conference. The conference was held in Lisbon and online in hybrid mode.

This year’s theme was “Sustainability and the post-pandemic workplace”, and my contribution was titeled “Catacombs, facsimile copies and museums between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: How digital archives and open access amplify the post-pandemic workplace of a historian”.

It was a good occasion to reflect on how the archive and bibliographic work of historians has changed due to the pandemic. I had the possibility to briefly present my poster with a 3-min speech and two slides.

The poster will be shared here in the following days.

It was an inspiring experience, the whole event was truly thought-provoking and it was great to connect with MSCA peers from all over the word!

Exposition “Una postal de las catacumbas”: Press coverage

In this post we will share links and pictures of the international press echo of the exhibition

 Una postal de las catacumbas. Exposición de tarjetas postales artísticas de las catacumbas romanas de 1890

(18 March-1 April 2022; Library of Humanities, Communication and Documentation. Campus Getafe, Universidad Carlos III of Madrid).

Update in progress

Social Media

A postcard from the catacombs: new exposition at Universidad Carlos III

At the end of the 19th century, the catacombs were not just the object of archaeological research. From 1883 until 1930, the Trappist Fathers were entrusted with the care and management of the catacombs of Saint Callixtus. The community settled in the abbey built on the site of the catacombs and began to receive the numerous pilgrims and tourists who came to visit them.

Around 1890, their activities to promote the catacombs as a tourist and religious site began to develop considerably. In particular, they began to print valuable souvenirs with images of the frescoes of the catacombs in the Luigi Salomone lithography workshop: first, postcards, whose designs are attributed to the Roman painter Romeo Cavi, and then a booklet with images of the spaces and paintings of the catacombs and explanations of them. All the drawings on these objects are inspired by – and even copied from – the engravings and illustrations in the volumes of “Roma Sotterranea Cristiana” by Giovanni Battista de Rossi.

Many of these objects can now be seen in the exhibition: Una postal de las catacumbas. Exposición de tarjetas postales artísticas de las catacumbas romanas de 1890

From 18 March to 1 April 2022. Library of Humanities, Communication and Documentation. Campus Getafe, Universidad Carlos III of Madrid.

Organised by Chiara Cecalupo in the framework of the Conex-Plus project and in celebration of the second centenary of the birth of Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894).

Una postal de las catacumbas

Alois Riegl on facsimile copies in 1903

In 1902 Alois Riegl, the most important art historian from Austria, was appointed General Conservator of the Central Commission for the Research and Preservation of Artistic and Historical Monuments (Zentralkommission für die Erforschung und Erhaltung der Kunst- und historischen Denkmale) in Vienna. He was asked to prepare draft legislation for the protection of monuments, and thus he published “Der moderne Denkmalkultus, sein Wesen, seine Entstehung” (The modern cult of monuments: its character and origin).

This work is fundamental for studying the development of European understanding of ancient monuments in the early twentieth century.

In the chapter concerning the historical value of monuments, Riegl says something very intriguing about facsimile copies. This is a very interesting statement to outline the cultural phenomenon studied by the LIT! project:

“We must note that the cult of historical value, although it only grants a total documentary value to the original state of a monument, also admits a limited value of the copy, in the case that the original (“the document”) has been totally lost.
[…]
In view of the increasing development of art-technical means of reproduction, one can be confident that in the foreseeable future (especially after the discovery of absolutely convincing colour photography and its combination with facsimile copies) it will be possible to find as perfect replacements as possible for the documentary originals.”

More on Alois Riegl: https://arthistorians.info/riegla

Iconographic echoes of Roman catacombs and churches in some mosaics of the Verano (Rome): the LIT! project at AISCOM 2022

One week ago wee celebrate the XXVIII AISCOM (Italian Association for the Study and Conservation of Mosaics) congress, that is still availabe on the facebook page of the association.

We exposed a poster online some results of project LIT! concerning some mosaics of the Verano Cemetery, dated between 1926 and 1933, that reproduce iconographic themes typical of the early Christian churches and the catacombs of Rome.

The poster is available today here (extended english summary below)

  • English summary

The success of the iconographic repertoire of the early Christian Rome since the mid-19th century is notoriously wide-ranging and in Europe involves many aspects of the decorative arts, especially in places with a strong religious and Catholic vocation. These include the Verano cemetery in Rome, where the use of early Christian iconography between the 1920s and 1930s was extensive. This is visible in burial areas nn. 166, 80 and 81 – the focus of this poster – whose structure and decoration recall pagan tombs, arcosoli and catacomb gravestones. The Archivio Capitolino in Rome held some drawings (figg. 4-5) of their design phase by Vincenzo Fasolo, head of the Project Office of the Municipality of Rome. Fasolo spent his entire career as an architect in Rome, and in all his works, Romanity is recalled and repeated: he saw the history of architecture as the basis for any new architectural creations.

The construction of the burial niches in area 166 began in 1926 (fig. 1). Given the architectural uniformity of the complex, private clients were given free rein to decorate the lunettes with mosaics. These decorations are made in glass tesserae with iconographic models of early Christian inspiration, creatively reworked (fig. 2). Very similar is area 80, completed in 1933, in which the loculi are covered by a lunette decorated with mosaics. This decoration was already planned in the initial project, due to a general need to systematise the decorative choices of private individuals. Once area 80 ran out of space, in 1934 the Governorate financed the construction of area 81, with the same structure as n. 80. The decorative apparatus of both panels consists precisely of the glass mosaic on the lunettes (fig. 3), with the explicit choice of use a single type of decoration, giving harmony and an antiqued appearance to the structure: a Latin cross, an alpha and an omega, two green racemes terminating in a leaf and two doves, all on a gold background and all with a strong early Christian reference.