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 The research has led to a number of unpublished findings which will soon be made available both in specialist journals (but in Green Open Access) and on this website.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)

Giovanni Francesco Abela and the catacombs of Malta: new book!

This book is one of the latest outcomes of our research project. This book offers a new vision of the role played by Giovanni Francesco Abela, the father of Maltese historiography, in the rediscovery of Christian antiquities in Malta and in the
development of private antiquarian collection in early-Baroque times.
It also contributes to the definition of his international figure as European scholar, deals with the museological content of his masterpiece Della Descrittione di Malta, and offers the transcription of many archival texts about Abela’s life and work.

In the following articles we will address some of the topics discussed in this book, stay tuned! In the meantime, here you are the table of contents!

Chiara Cecalupo, Giovanni Francesco Abela. Work, private collection and birth of Christian archaeology in Malta. Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 2020

This book is on sale here. Regular price €12,00.