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.

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

Vintage pictures from Valkenburg

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 further information about the complex and other official pictures: Museum Romeinse Katakomben

Report

One of the aims of this website is also to keep an eye on other projects and research on the history of collections of Christian archaeology in Europe.

In this case we would like to point out the call for contribution to the website of the project God’s Collections by Crispin Paine and Jessica Hughes.

The project God’s Collections studies how and why collections have developed and lived inside places of worship of all traditions and chronology: check it out here.

Given the proximity of the themes of this work to the LIT! project, we hope to be able to undertake a future collaboration soon!

For the call for contribution see here.

(Church of San Salvatore – Museum of the Complesso di Santa Giulia – Brescia, Italy)