May 31: An important day in the history of Christian archaeology

In the annals of the pontificate of Gregory XIII (1572-1585), we read of the discovery -on the 31st of May 1578– of the anonymous catacomb in the Via Anapo, then identified with the cemetery of Priscilla:

Around the same time, outside Porta Salaria, in the excavation of the Pozzolana, the famous Cimiterio di Priscilla, lost since the time of the Goths, was unexpectedly found surrounded by various burials of the Holy Martyrs with inscriptions in different languages. The Pope sent Cardinal Savelli, his Vicar, to certify everything, and many others went there to see the antiquity. Among other things considered worthy of the memory by the French Ambassador Luigi Castegnero, and Marc Antonio Moretto, both men of great learning, was the sepulchre of Leonidas, Father of Origen, deceased more than one thousand three hundred years ago, was recognised“. (Vatican Library, Vat. lat. 12214, Annali di Gregorio XIII, libro VII, tomo II, f. 66).

Even we cannot speak of a true discovery of Christian antiquities (see here for more information), the historical and social importance of this event lies in the fact that it reawakened interest in Christian antiquities among large sections of the population: the crowd in the Vineyard was so large that Pope Gregory XIII was forced to close the gates. Equally important is the influence of this discovery on the scholars of the time, that generation of scholars who found themselves moving from theory to practical knowledge of Christian cemeteries in a very short space of time.
It is to some of them (in particular the Spaniard Alfoncso Chacón – see here) that we owe the copies of the paintings in the catacomb of via Anapo, which are now unfortunately lost.

Drawing of the paintings from Via Anapo by A. Chacòn: Vatican Library, Vat. lat. 5409: https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.5409

Basic bibliography

  • J. G. Deckers, G. Mietke, A. Weiland, Die Katakombe“Anonima di via Anapo”  Repertorium der Malereien , Città del Vaticano 1991.
  • V. Fiocchi Nicolai, Storia e topografia della catacomba anonima di via Anapo, in J. G. Deckers, G. Mietke, A. Weiland, Die Katakombe“Anonima di via Anapo”  Repertorium der Malereien , Città del Vaticano 1991, pp. 1-23.
  • M. Ghilardi, Le catacombe di Roma dal Medioevo alla Roma sotterranea di Antonio Bosio, in Studi Romani, 40, 2001, pp. 27–56.
  • C. Cecalupo, Gregorio XIII e la nascita dell’archeologia cristiana: dal cantiere di San Pietro alla riscoperta delle catacombe, in V. Balzarotti, B. Hermanin (eds.), Gregorio XIII. Arte dei moderni e immagini venerabili nei cantieri della nuova ecclesia, Rome, forthcoming.

Visual sources for catacombs explorations in the 16th century – pt. II

In order to continue on analysing the topic of visual sources for the exploration of the Roman catacombs in the 16th century, we present today the manuscript G6, kept in the Vallicelliana Library in Rome.

This is an archival unit of extraordinary importance, which remains unpublished to this day. It consists of 25 sheets, mostly drawn on both sides, and contains late 16th- and early 17th-century copies of some of the paintings in the catacombs of Rome (in particular from those of Domitilla and the Appian Way district), intended for reproduction in Antonio Bosio’s Roma Sotterranea. In addition to these, there are some sheets added later at the time of binding, but evidently of property of Bosio and his editor Giovanni Severano: among these, there is a pen sketch of the full decoration of the so-called niche of the Virgin in the Catacomb of Priscilla, with notes by Severano, discussed here.

(From C. Cecalupo, Giovanni Severano da Sanseverino prete dell’Oratorio e le catacombe romane, in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana, 95, 2019)

These reproductions in watercolour of some of the paintings of the catacombs were evidently commissioned by Bosio to derive copper basis for the engravings, with the aim of illustrating his Roma Sotterranea. Its structure is not easy to understand and little can be said about the identity of the artists/copyists, who evidently worked in the catacombs without the direct supervision of Bosio. Among the authors, the famous copyists of Bosio are currently considered plausible, Giovanni Angelo Santini (better known as Toccafondo) and Sante Avanzini (for the both of them, more information can be found here).

(From M. Ghilardi, I copisti della Roma sotterranea nel primo Seicento. Nuovi dati da ricerche d’archivio, in ATTI DELLA PONTIFICIA ACCADEMIA ROMANA DI ARCHEOLOGIA (SERIE III) RENDICONTI, LXXXVII, 2015)

Textual sources for the rediscovery of the catacombs – pt. I

In the process of historical reconstruction of the discoveries of the Roman catacombs between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the available sources are many and of very different types.

It is actually very convenient to know some alternative textual sources which are useful for a correct historical reconstruction of the events. Among these are obviously newspapers, which report the news ‘in real time’ and with exact dates. In the contemporary press, one can find various references to the discoveries of the catacombs, especially in Rome, accompanied by numerous social and cultural information.

The Diario Ordinario -also known as “Chracas” after the family that printed it, and from 1808 as Diario di Roma- was a periodical newsletter printed in Rome from 1716 to 1848. It was published weekly or bi-weekly, usually on Saturdays. The first part of each issue contained all the main news of the city of Rome, especially concerning papal engagements; the second part offered news from correspondents in the main European cities.

The Diario Ordinario is full of detailed information about events in the city of Rome, and it is not uncommon to find references to discoveries made in the catacombs. In particular, it is very useful for tracing extractions of bodies or relics and similar events with both historical-archaeological and religious implications.

Such an interesting and useful source is actually long in consultation. The complete series is available to scholars in the Sala Stampati of the Vatican Library and, recently, in a new online version on the website of the Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome, at this link.

Here is a small sample of how information about the catacombs of Rome can be found in a volume of the Diario Ordinario: