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!
Many European pilgrims visited the Roman catacombs during the Jubilee period of 1450. Some of them left stories about them, and among them the most interesting is “Ye solace of Pilgrimes” by the Augustinian John Capgrave (considered lost until the 20th century).
Capgrave arrived in Rome probably from 1449 for the general chapter of the order and stayed there for a long time. Between 1449 and 1452 he wrote his work, considered to this day the highest point of pilgrim travel literature of the English Middle Ages, a true model for pilgrim books for visitors from northern Europe for the following jubilee years. The work is structured in three parts. The first part consists of 24 chapters. Capgrave enriched the treatment of each topic with many quotations from past authors and especially with many legends and hearsay, but also with what he saw himself. Chapter VII deals with “How in Rome there are many cemeteries”. It is in fact a valuable snapshot of the knowledge of Christian cemeteries held by fifteenth-century pilgrims:
«In Rome, are called cemeteries not only the places where the dead are buried, but also those where the saints lived. I say this not because I want people to believe that no one was buried there, but to show that they also served other purposes. In Latin, cimiterium means nothing other than walking over the bodies of the dead, and you should know that the cemeteries in Rome are great underground vaults and tunnels where the saints once lived. Now, however, they are desolate places, because there is a horrible darkness and people no longer frequent them. The only exception is the cemetery of Callisto. Since in the second book we will deal with the spiritual treasures to be found in the cemeteries, in this chapter we will merely enumerate them, even though they are now abandoned. The cemetery of Calepodius is at San Pancrazio in Trastevere. The cemetery of Agatha is near the title with the same name, and so are the cemeteries of Orso and San Felice. The cemetery of Callisto is the most famous, and is near the catacombs, under the church of San Sebastiano. The cemetery of Pretestato is located between Porta Appia and San Apollinare. The cemetery of Concordiano stands outside Porta Latina. The cemetery called inter duos lauros is near St. Helen. The cemetery ad ursum pileatum some books say is near Santa Sabina, but at a crossroads near San Giuliano I found written on a tombstone that the place where Santa Bibiana is located was once called ad ursum pilleatum. The cemetery in Agro Verano is in San Lorenzo fuori le mura. The cemetery of Priscilla stands by the same title. The cemetery of Trasone is near San Saturnino. The cemetery of Santa Felicita is near the same title. The cemetery of Pontian is near the cemetery of Callistus. The cemetery of Hermes and Domitilla and the cemetery of Cyriacus were on the road leading to St Paul’s and called Via Ostiense. Now, however, these cemeteries are mostly abandoned and unknown, not only to pilgrims, but also to those who have lived there all their lives».
The second part of the book deals with the churches of Rome and the spiritual treasures they contain. It describes, in 65 chapters, the main basilicas and all the stationary churches. Chapter III (‘Della chiesa di San Sebastiano, in cui Capgrave’) describes his visit to the cemetery galleries beneath the church, thus providing valuable information on how a pilgrim in 1450 visited the cemetery of St Sebastian.
«The church of St Sebastian is two miles from St Paul’s and more than a mile outside the walls of Rome […]. The cemetery of Callistus is under the church; it is a cave or an underground excavation, made in a ground that seems neither stone nor earth, but something between the two, and has a red colour. There are many caves enclosed with stones, and one is said to have been St Peter’s chapel. Only if you have a torch in your hand can you see anything, because it is very deep underground. In fact, going down one side of the church there are thirty-two steps. And I think there are as many steps to the other side, where the angel served mass to St Gregory. The cemetery is so long that if one does not linger in the chapels, but goes straight ahead, by the time he has said “Miserere mei Deus” four times he will have walked through it. Forty-six popes were buried here, and each of them has given great indulgence to the place; Saint Cecilia was also buried here, and there is still her monument artfully carved in white marble. […] The cemetery was built by Pope Calixtus, and it is said that he did it for two reasons: one is so that the leaders or popes of the Church could dwell here safe from the danger of tyrants, because it was necessary for them to live longer in order to be able to give confirmation to the neophytes; the other is that he wished to bury there the martyrs who died for the love of Christ, and since this could not be done freely, he consecrated this secret place. Next to the church is a large shelter which they call catacomb [now referring to the triclia of St Sebastian]. Catacomb is a strange term, since it is not found in Latin books and no grammarian mentions this compound word. The common people say that cata, pronounced as it is written, means above, or all, and cumbo or cumbas means low or deep. The word therefore sounds like all low, or all deep, for the shelter is very deep underground. At one time it was a great dungeon, and to enter it one descends twenty-eight steps. Some say that this place was the waste dump of the butchers who lived in the area. In fact you can still see many walls of large buildings that were once the slaughterhouses of Rome. It is said that Peter and Paul were thrown here out of contempt, and this account is partly true and partly not, for that this place was a slaughterhouse is true, and that they were thrown here out of contempt by those who killed them is not true. Therefore we will tell the truth about this story. […]. Contradictions like this are always found in the chronicles, but since it does not touch the articles of faith, everyone can choose the version he wants».
Bibliography: Ye Solace of Pilgrimes : a description of Rome, circa A.D. 1450. Capgrave, John, O.E.S.A; Mills, C. A; Bannister, Henry Marriott. British and American archaeological society of Rome. New York 1911.
Some research related to the LIT! project has been published in the blog of the wonderful Gods’ Collection project, run by Crispin Paine and Jessica Hughes.
Gods’ Collection aims to collect cases where art collections have developed within places of worship around the world and over the centuries. So this was for me an opportunity (for which I am truly grateful!) to present the ways in which Roman catacombs have been used to display archaeological collections between the 19th and the 20th centuries.
The feeling is that the use of the catacombs as exhibition sites is closely linked to the idea of creating facsimile catacombs for the dissemination of Christian archaeology in Europe. Indeed, very similar exhibition styles are proposed in both phenomena, and both are based on the concept of reconstructing the hypogeal environments in their entirety in order to offer complete experiences to visitors and scholars, at the cost of recreating non-authentic settings.
It is possible to read The Catacombs in Rome. Collecting and displaying in the first Christian cemeterieshere. To learn more about Gods’ Collections, please visit this page.
On Friday 10 of September The Project LIT! was presented at the 27th Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists (officially in Kiel, but held online due to the current situation)
The presentation was included in Session #230, “Stories and Compassion: Material Culture, Memory, and Emotion”, organized by Liv Nilsson Stutz (Linnaeus Univeristy, Sweden) and Sarah Tarlow (University of Leicester, United Kingdom). The precious session explored theories of memory and emotion through archaeological case studies and analysis of material culture. All the presenteed studies explored the connections between materiality, emotion, and memory in the lived experience of the past and present.
My speech investigated the growing interest of European people in catacomb archaeology from the late 19th century and provided many old prints and pictures, archival texts and old articles, that offer clear evidence of the public response to some of the most important fac-simile catacombs build in Northern Europe. From these sources, it appeared that the incredible fascination of original Roman catacombs remained vivid in these “fake” monuments. They clearly contributed to the definition of the role that Christian antiquity had in Europe in creating emotional experience of archeological sites.
I truly hope that the proceedings of these session will be published somewhen!
Our CONEX-Plus project LIT! has been presented on the 27th Newsletter of the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA).
The MCAA is an international non-profit organization established and supported by the European Commission, but entirely run by volunteer members and with a bottom-up approach at its core.
This issue of June 2021 is dedicated to the making of a more inclusive research community. As the Editorial by Gian Maria Greco (MCAA Newsletter Editor-in-Chief) states, diversity and access are pivotal factors for the flourishing of the research endeavour. As a community of researchers, over the past few years the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) has been committed to increasing the accessibility of its communication products, services, and events.
The last section of the issue is dedicateed to out LIT! project (with a wonderful cartoon illustration!) and can be read on the online version: here. Thank you MCAA!
One of the most famous facsimile catacombs in Europe is the Museum of Roman Catacombs in Valkenburg (Netherlands). The complex is still highly visited today and is certainly an important piece in understanding the reception of early Christian antiquities in northern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.
The museum was commissioned by the rich textile industrialist Jan Diepen to the famous Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, and opened in 1910. The both of them visited extensively the catacombs of Rome and had close contacts with Papal authorities during the building of the facsimile monument.
This is one of the most important case that will be analysed by the LIT! project. So far, we managed to collect many postcards of the ’20s, some of which we share here. They are an important evidence of the paintings of the Valkemburg complex and the perfect way they copied those of the Roman catacombs (as visible in the original captions in Dutch). Enjoy!
For a few weeks now, everyone can surf on Open Research Europe, the European Union’s revolutionary open access platform, that allows researchers in the Horizon 2020 programme to publish their research in accordance with the FAIR principles (Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reuse) and without being subject to the often very long publishing times.
Once the article has passed the prepublication checks, the preprint version is published within 10 days, enabling immediate viewing and citation. Expert reviewers are selected and invited, and their reviews and names are published alongside the article, together with the authors’ responses and comments from registered users. Articles that pass peer review are sent to major indexing databases and repositories. More info here.
Some of the results of the LIT! project will be surely disseminated via Open Research Europe in the following months. For now, however, I would love to share two researches of similar topics already published on the portal.
It is therefore clear that the platform can be used as an important tool for studies in the history of Christian archaeology. We will keep on checking and disseminating future publications on this topic!