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

LIT! @ 2022 MSCAA Conference

On March 26th, the project LIT! was presented during the online Poster Session 6 (Humanities and SPR) at the 2022 Marie Curie Alumni Association Annual Conference. The conference was held in Lisbon and online in hybrid mode.

This year’s theme was “Sustainability and the post-pandemic workplace”, and my contribution was titeled “Catacombs, facsimile copies and museums between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: How digital archives and open access amplify the post-pandemic workplace of a historian”.

It was a good occasion to reflect on how the archive and bibliographic work of historians has changed due to the pandemic. I had the possibility to briefly present my poster with a 3-min speech and two slides.

The poster will be shared here in the following days.

It was an inspiring experience, the whole event was truly thought-provoking and it was great to connect with MSCA peers from all over the word!

Exposition “Una postal de las catacumbas”: Press coverage

In this post we will share links and pictures of the international press echo of the exhibition

 Una postal de las catacumbas. Exposición de tarjetas postales artísticas de las catacumbas romanas de 1890

(18 March-1 April 2022; Library of Humanities, Communication and Documentation. Campus Getafe, Universidad Carlos III of Madrid).

Update in progress

Social Media

A postcard from the catacombs: new exposition at Universidad Carlos III

At the end of the 19th century, the catacombs were not just the object of archaeological research. From 1883 until 1930, the Trappist Fathers were entrusted with the care and management of the catacombs of Saint Callixtus. The community settled in the abbey built on the site of the catacombs and began to receive the numerous pilgrims and tourists who came to visit them.

Around 1890, their activities to promote the catacombs as a tourist and religious site began to develop considerably. In particular, they began to print valuable souvenirs with images of the frescoes of the catacombs in the Luigi Salomone lithography workshop: first, postcards, whose designs are attributed to the Roman painter Romeo Cavi, and then a booklet with images of the spaces and paintings of the catacombs and explanations of them. All the drawings on these objects are inspired by – and even copied from – the engravings and illustrations in the volumes of “Roma Sotterranea Cristiana” by Giovanni Battista de Rossi.

Many of these objects can now be seen in the exhibition: Una postal de las catacumbas. Exposición de tarjetas postales artísticas de las catacumbas romanas de 1890

From 18 March to 1 April 2022. Library of Humanities, Communication and Documentation. Campus Getafe, Universidad Carlos III of Madrid.

Organised by Chiara Cecalupo in the framework of the Conex-Plus project and in celebration of the second centenary of the birth of Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894).

Una postal de las catacumbas

Iconographic echoes of Roman catacombs and churches in some mosaics of the Verano (Rome): the LIT! project at AISCOM 2022

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)

  • English summary

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.

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)

Online talk: Revealing Christian Heritage

We are glad to announce that on September 29, 2021, h. 15-17.30 (CET), the project Conex Plus will host the following workshop:

Revealing Christian Heritage. Talks on the rediscovery of Christian archaeology between 1860 and 1930

September 29, 2021, h. 15-17.30 (CET)

online at https://eu.bbcollab.com/guest/7038e9bcf05448da9a7b92a4fe21e2b4

Everyone is invited to participate to the talk and the discussion!Feel free to comment this post for additional info!

LIT! Project in the 27th MCAA NEWSLETTER

Our CONEX-Plus project LIT! has been presented on the 27th Newsletter of the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA).

The MCAA is an international non-profit organization established and supported by the European Commission, but entirely run by volunteer members and with a bottom-up approach at its core.

This issue of June 2021 is dedicated to the making of a more inclusive research community. As the Editorial by Gian Maria Greco (MCAA Newsletter Editor-in-Chief) states, diversity and access are pivotal factors for the flourishing of the research endeavour. As a community of researchers, over the past few years the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) has been committed to increasing the accessibility of its communication products, services, and events. 

The last section of the issue is dedicateed to out LIT! project (with a wonderful cartoon illustration!) and can be read on the online version: here. Thank you MCAA!

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.