The study and dissemination of an iconography: banquet scenes from the catacombs of Rome to the facsimile catacombs of the nineteenth century
In general, the text traces the discovery and the history of two important banquet scenes from the Roman catacombs (from the Catacombs of Callixtus and from the Catacombs of Priscilla). It focuses on the fortune of these scenes in Europe. this fortune developed in their reproductions found in various churches and chapels up to the middle of the 20th century. This overview helps in understanding how the study and reproduction of a single iconography can contribute to a general reconstruction of the development of the discipline of early Christian art history.
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)
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.
On the 2, 3 and 4 of March 2022 we celebrate the XXVIII AISCOM (Italian Association for the Study and Conservation of Mosaics) congress. The congress can be followed on the facebook page of the association.
In the poster sessionwe present a small study on some mosaics of the Verano Cemetery -the monumental cemetery of Rome. These mosaics are dated between 1926 and 1933 and are clear reproduction of the iconographic themes typical of the early Christian churches and the catacombs of Rome.
On the 22nd of February 2022 the scientific community celebrates the second centenary of the birth of Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894), one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Christian archaeology. He was Scriptor and then head of the Vatican Library, first secretary of the Commission of Sacred Archaeology, established by Pius IX in 1852, creator and curator of the Museo Pio Cristiano Lateranense founded in 1854. He is remembered also as founder and editor of the first specialist journal in the field, the Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana (still existing today as Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana). He began the publication of the critical edition of all the early Christian inscriptions of Rome (ICVR) and was the author of the Roma Sotterranea Cristiana, an in-depth study of the main Roman catacombs (especially the catacombs of San Callisto) drawn up following his own important discoveries.
To celebrate the event, the Vatican State issued a special stamp where de Rossi is portayed with the ruins of the Hypogeum of the Flavi in the catacombs of Domitilla.
The project LIT! owns very much to de Rossi’s work. He was the one who created the first fac-simile catacombs in 1867 for the Universal Exhibition in Paris. We are therefore very happy to share the brand new article about the topic. Enjoy!
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.
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!
Many European pilgrims visited the Roman catacombs during the Jubilee period of 1450. Some of them left stories about them, and among them the most interesting is “Ye solace of Pilgrimes” by the Augustinian John Capgrave (considered lost until the 20th century).
Capgrave arrived in Rome probably from 1449 for the general chapter of the order and stayed there for a long time. Between 1449 and 1452 he wrote his work, considered to this day the highest point of pilgrim travel literature of the English Middle Ages, a true model for pilgrim books for visitors from northern Europe for the following jubilee years. The work is structured in three parts. The first part consists of 24 chapters. Capgrave enriched the treatment of each topic with many quotations from past authors and especially with many legends and hearsay, but also with what he saw himself. Chapter VII deals with “How in Rome there are many cemeteries”. It is in fact a valuable snapshot of the knowledge of Christian cemeteries held by fifteenth-century pilgrims:
«In Rome, are called cemeteries not only the places where the dead are buried, but also those where the saints lived. I say this not because I want people to believe that no one was buried there, but to show that they also served other purposes. In Latin, cimiterium means nothing other than walking over the bodies of the dead, and you should know that the cemeteries in Rome are great underground vaults and tunnels where the saints once lived. Now, however, they are desolate places, because there is a horrible darkness and people no longer frequent them. The only exception is the cemetery of Callisto. Since in the second book we will deal with the spiritual treasures to be found in the cemeteries, in this chapter we will merely enumerate them, even though they are now abandoned. The cemetery of Calepodius is at San Pancrazio in Trastevere. The cemetery of Agatha is near the title with the same name, and so are the cemeteries of Orso and San Felice. The cemetery of Callisto is the most famous, and is near the catacombs, under the church of San Sebastiano. The cemetery of Pretestato is located between Porta Appia and San Apollinare. The cemetery of Concordiano stands outside Porta Latina. The cemetery called inter duos lauros is near St. Helen. The cemetery ad ursum pileatum some books say is near Santa Sabina, but at a crossroads near San Giuliano I found written on a tombstone that the place where Santa Bibiana is located was once called ad ursum pilleatum. The cemetery in Agro Verano is in San Lorenzo fuori le mura. The cemetery of Priscilla stands by the same title. The cemetery of Trasone is near San Saturnino. The cemetery of Santa Felicita is near the same title. The cemetery of Pontian is near the cemetery of Callistus. The cemetery of Hermes and Domitilla and the cemetery of Cyriacus were on the road leading to St Paul’s and called Via Ostiense. Now, however, these cemeteries are mostly abandoned and unknown, not only to pilgrims, but also to those who have lived there all their lives».
The second part of the book deals with the churches of Rome and the spiritual treasures they contain. It describes, in 65 chapters, the main basilicas and all the stationary churches. Chapter III (‘Della chiesa di San Sebastiano, in cui Capgrave’) describes his visit to the cemetery galleries beneath the church, thus providing valuable information on how a pilgrim in 1450 visited the cemetery of St Sebastian.
«The church of St Sebastian is two miles from St Paul’s and more than a mile outside the walls of Rome […]. The cemetery of Callistus is under the church; it is a cave or an underground excavation, made in a ground that seems neither stone nor earth, but something between the two, and has a red colour. There are many caves enclosed with stones, and one is said to have been St Peter’s chapel. Only if you have a torch in your hand can you see anything, because it is very deep underground. In fact, going down one side of the church there are thirty-two steps. And I think there are as many steps to the other side, where the angel served mass to St Gregory. The cemetery is so long that if one does not linger in the chapels, but goes straight ahead, by the time he has said “Miserere mei Deus” four times he will have walked through it. Forty-six popes were buried here, and each of them has given great indulgence to the place; Saint Cecilia was also buried here, and there is still her monument artfully carved in white marble. […] The cemetery was built by Pope Calixtus, and it is said that he did it for two reasons: one is so that the leaders or popes of the Church could dwell here safe from the danger of tyrants, because it was necessary for them to live longer in order to be able to give confirmation to the neophytes; the other is that he wished to bury there the martyrs who died for the love of Christ, and since this could not be done freely, he consecrated this secret place. Next to the church is a large shelter which they call catacomb [now referring to the triclia of St Sebastian]. Catacomb is a strange term, since it is not found in Latin books and no grammarian mentions this compound word. The common people say that cata, pronounced as it is written, means above, or all, and cumbo or cumbas means low or deep. The word therefore sounds like all low, or all deep, for the shelter is very deep underground. At one time it was a great dungeon, and to enter it one descends twenty-eight steps. Some say that this place was the waste dump of the butchers who lived in the area. In fact you can still see many walls of large buildings that were once the slaughterhouses of Rome. It is said that Peter and Paul were thrown here out of contempt, and this account is partly true and partly not, for that this place was a slaughterhouse is true, and that they were thrown here out of contempt by those who killed them is not true. Therefore we will tell the truth about this story. […]. Contradictions like this are always found in the chronicles, but since it does not touch the articles of faith, everyone can choose the version he wants».
Bibliography: Ye Solace of Pilgrimes : a description of Rome, circa A.D. 1450. Capgrave, John, O.E.S.A; Mills, C. A; Bannister, Henry Marriott. British and American archaeological society of Rome. New York 1911.
Some research related to the LIT! project has been published in the blog of the wonderful Gods’ Collection project, run by Crispin Paine and Jessica Hughes.
Gods’ Collection aims to collect cases where art collections have developed within places of worship around the world and over the centuries. So this was for me an opportunity (for which I am truly grateful!) to present the ways in which Roman catacombs have been used to display archaeological collections between the 19th and the 20th centuries.
The feeling is that the use of the catacombs as exhibition sites is closely linked to the idea of creating facsimile catacombs for the dissemination of Christian archaeology in Europe. Indeed, very similar exhibition styles are proposed in both phenomena, and both are based on the concept of reconstructing the hypogeal environments in their entirety in order to offer complete experiences to visitors and scholars, at the cost of recreating non-authentic settings.
It is possible to read The Catacombs in Rome. Collecting and displaying in the first Christian cemeterieshere. To learn more about Gods’ Collections, please visit this page.
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!