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

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.

Gods’ Collections: The Catacombs in Rome

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 cemeteries here. To learn more about Gods’ Collections, please visit this page.

(@PCAS)

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)

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.