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.

The LIT! project at AISCOM

On the 2, 3 and 4 of March 2022 we celebrate the XXVIII AISCOM (Italian Association for the Study and Conservation of Mosaics) congress.
The congress can be followed on the facebook page of the association.

In the poster session we present a small study on some mosaics of the Verano Cemetery -the monumental cemetery of Rome. These mosaics are dated between 1926 and 1933 and are clear reproduction of the iconographic themes typical of the early Christian churches and the catacombs of Rome.

The poster can be read here (english summary available): http://www.aiscom.it/xxviii-colloquio/poster-7/

The complete poster will be available on this website next week.

February 2022: the month of Giovanni Battista de Rossi

On the 22nd of February 2022 the scientific community celebrates the second centenary of the birth of Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894), one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Christian archaeology. He was Scriptor and then head of the Vatican Library, first secretary of the Commission of Sacred Archaeology, established by Pius IX in 1852, creator and curator of the Museo Pio Cristiano Lateranense founded in 1854. He is remembered also as founder and editor of the first specialist journal in the field, the Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana (still existing today as Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana). He began the publication of the critical edition of all the early Christian inscriptions of Rome (ICVR) and was the author of the Roma Sotterranea Cristiana, an in-depth study of the main Roman catacombs (especially the catacombs of San Callisto) drawn up following his own important discoveries.

To celebrate the event, the Vatican State issued a special stamp where de Rossi is portayed with the ruins of the Hypogeum of the Flavi in the catacombs of Domitilla.

The project LIT! owns very much to de Rossi’s work. He was the one who created the first fac-simile catacombs in 1867 for the Universal Exhibition in Paris. We are therefore very happy to share the brand new article about the topic. Enjoy!

C. Cecalupo, GIOVANNI BATTISTA E MICHELE STEFANO DE ROSSI ALL’ESPOSIZIONE UNIVERSALE DI PARIGI (1867), in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana, 97, 2021,2, pp. 319-347.

Psss, hey! Universidad Carlos III will soon celebrate de Rossi with a special exhibition. Stay tuned…

Postcards of the Roman catacombs by Pio Luzzietti

As earlier pointted out here, the postcards with pictures of the catacombs of Rome are enjoyable sources to understand the cultural impact of Roman catacombs in European culture in late 19th century.

This time, we will present three postcards issued by the famous Roman antiquarian library founded by Pio Luzzietti. The Libreria Antiquaria Pio Luzzietti had a very rich collection of historical prints and was very active in selling antique books and prints and publishing antique catalogues from about 1890 to 1930.

The founder Pio Luzzietti (1869-1927) was among the best known collectors and booksellers in Rome. He certainly had an interest in Christian archaeology, considering that he had acquired important libraries on the subject, such as Mariano Armellini’s and Enrico Stevenson’s. The bookshop was located in Via dei Crociferi 16, then in Piazza dei Crociferi 4 and finally – from 1906 – in Piazza d’Aracoeli 16-17.

The bookshop was a meeting place for Italian and foreign politicians and scholars. It is also known that the bookshop supplied prints and rare books to important institutions such as the Prints Cabinet in Rome and the museum of Castello Sforzesco.

Among all the prints, it is possible to find some postcards with scenes from the catacombs, dating before the year 1906. The language used is obviously the international one, French. But, unlike other postcards from the same period, the images printed on these catacombs are not taken from Giovanni Battista de Rossi’s Roma Sotterranea Cristiana. They are in fact artistic collages of real photographs of the underground architecture and paintings.

From this we understand that Luzzietti had original photographic material at his disposal, perhaps from libraries he had acquired.

Four postcards of the Roman catacombs by Ernesto Richter

The postcards with vedute of the catacombs of Rome published by Ernesto Richter are among the most important visual sources for the history of Roman catacombs. They were published between the end on the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

Ernesto Richter was a Roman publisher set in Via dei Serpenti 170. He was specialised in images of Rome, works of art in Roman museums, views of the Roman monuments and Roman suburbium. These images were taken by various photographers and published as postcards.

Among his work there were many postcards and illustrations of Roman catacombs, especially the most known and visited ones. Actually, the Richter postcards became usual souvenirs for travelers. as testified by all the views of the catacombs of St Callisto and St Sebastiano published by this editor.

Here are four postcards of these two catacombs. Enjoy!