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

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.

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!

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)

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

As is often mentioned on this site, the importance of visual sources (signatures, drawings, maps, watercolour copies of ancient paintings) in the history of the discovery of Christian catacombs is incredible.
These sources assume greater weight especially for the initial centuries in the history of Christian archaeology, before the advent of photography.


Among the most famous scholars who proceeded massively to copy the paintings of the catacombs they saw in their explorations is the Andalusian Alonso Chacón (1540-1599).

Chacòn can certainly be considered an important ‘chronicler’ of the state of catacomb paintings in the period in which the scholar lived in Rome (1567-1599).This rich heritage of early Christian iconography can be found in the manuscripts of the Vatican Library Vat. lat. 5409. This work, which has never been published, contains precious drawings of catacomb paintings commissioned by the Dominican to several artists and referable to the pictorial apparatuses of the cemetery of via Anapo and the catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla and the complexes of the via Appia.

From an artistic point of view, the watercolour copies of the paintings commissioned by Chacón do not reflect the original style of the paintings, as they are totally executed in a strongly Baroque style. Even the scenes are sometimes misrepresented.
In spite of these objective limitations, Chacón’s drawings remain a fundamental archaeological testimony (also for their descriptions and captions), as well as an absolutely enjoyable artistic work.

The Vat. lat 5409 manuscript is fully available in digital format on the Vatican Library website, on this page, which we highlight because of the usefulness of having such sources available digitally worldwide.