LIT! at the 27th EAA Annual Meeting

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!

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

Catacomb studies in Open Research Europe!

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!

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.

How’s the LIT! Project going: update

It is now six months since the Conex-Plus project “LIT! Living in the catacombs! Reception of catacomb art in European culture and architecture between the 19th and 20th century” started at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid.


The first part of the project was obviously dedicated to the start of the action and to the preliminary bibliographical study (identified as Work Package 2). The first three months, in fact, were dedicated to the bibliographical investigation and collection of all edited materials (from the late 19th century to the present). Every publication regarding the topic has been collected, in particular those related to the copies of the catacombs paintings set up in 1852 in the Lateran Christian Museum in Rome. This can be seen as the starting point of the artistic trend the project investigates.
This research phase created the basis for the more detailed studies in the following months.


In fact, two months ago we moved on to the phase of analytical study of the individual cases (identified as Work Package 3). This involves collecting and analysing the already known cases and identified buildings. Given the period and the restrictions on mobility, the archival research has been concentrated in reduced periods of time, and documents has been read online aas well, while on-person surveys and documentation of the buildings have been postponed to the coming months.


For now, the main case that was analyses is the facsimile catacomb, which had been sent to the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris by Pope Pius IX. The research has led to a number of unpublished findings which will soon be made available both in specialist journals (but in Green Open Access) and on this website.


The next case to study is the museum of Tusculum (Solin -Croatia), set up by the great Dalmatian archaeologist Frane Bulic in 1898, decorated in catacomb and Pompeian style. The political and cultural implications of this operation are manifold, and the links with other European scholars of the time very stimulating. Similarly, working in an unfamiliar linguistic context has allowed us to make contact with local scholars who will certainly participate in the publication of the results. This, too, will thus create an important network of international contacts.

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)

Connection with European collegues

One of the strengths of the Conex-Plus LIT! project is its remarkable internationality, which allows the phenomenon of facsimile catacombs to be studied on a European scale. This study, which began only five months ago, has already made possible to establish connections with scholars from other countries.


In particular, during the preliminary study of the Memory Room at the Tusculum Museum in Solin (Croatia), we came into contact with Ana Vrdoljak, the restorer who was responsible for the reconstruction of the original catacomb environment in 1896.
While we wait to publish new information about Tusculum, we are happy to share Ana’s website and the page where she presents her work in Solin!


Her webpage can be found here:

THE FACSIMILE RECONSTRUCTION OF THE WALL AND CEILING PAINTINGS by Ana Vrdoljak, Conservator NKF-n

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:

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.

Three historical plans of a famous Maltese catacomb

The rediscovery of Christian catacombs in the Mediterranean can also be a visual story. It is not always possible to find maps and plans of Christian cemeteries, especially dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries: this means that existing plans assume great importance for us. In this small post we propose three plans (from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries) of one of Malta’s main catacombs, the cemetery of Abbatja tad-Dejr.

The catacomb of Abbatja tad-Dejr is a famous and unfortunate Christian cemetery located in the suburbs of Rabat. It consisted of several hypogea, and was revitalised in the Middle Ages by the establishment of a cult centre used for a long time, at least until late 16th century.

Today, the site is rarely accessible and is only partially preserved. However, visitors can see there important expressions of Maltese catacomb art: monumental baldacchino-tombs, carved and painted arcosolia and ceilings decorated with geometric themes.

The plan of this cemetery is the first to be drawn in the history of Maltese Christian archaeology. It appears in fact, very schematically, in the masterpiece of Giovanni Francesco Abela, the first explorer of the Maltese catacombs, the Della descrittione di Malta isola nel mare Siciliano (Malta 1647), on page 48.

The entire volume can be read here.

Both the plan published by Abela became the most famous visual description of Christian sites of Malta in Europe. A reproduction of that image can also be found in Marcantonio Boldetti’s Osservazioni sopra i cimiteri de’santi martiri ed antichi christiani di Roma (Rome 1720, page 633), that is the main work on Mediterranean Christian cemeteries of the 17th century.

The full volume can be read here.

Antonio Annetto Caruana’s more extensive investigations at the end of the 19th century allowed this important Maltese author to offer a beautiful monochrome watercolour plan, of both archaeological and artistic value.

The full volume can be read here.

And today? Today the cemetery is largely unchanged, as can be seen in the 1986 plan published in Mario Buhagiar, Late Roman and Byzantine catacombs and related burial places in the Maltese islands (Oxford 1986, page 203).

What the visitor can walk through today is, therefore, the same site seen in the early 17th century by Abela.

For more information and visits, you can contact Heritage Malta.

For a basic bibliography on the cemetery: M. Buhagiar, The Christianisation of Malta. Catacombs, cult centres and churches in Malta to 1530, Oxford 2007 (BAR Int. Series, 1674)