Sunday, January 21, 2007

The re-discovery of the catacombs

By the 10th century the catacombs in Rome were practically abandoned. Holy relics were transferred to basilicas.

In the intervening centuries they remained forgotten until they were accidentally rediscovered in 1578 on the Via Salaria.

After that time, Antonio Bosio (c. 1575-76 – 1629) ("the Columbus of the Catacombs") spent decades exploring and researching them. His book on his researches, Roma Sotterranea (1632), was published after his death. The folio volume was brought out under the patronage of the Knights of Malta, edited by the Oratorian Severano, under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Barberini.

An unfortunate result of the publication was that with the locations known, the catacombs were scoured for anything that might prove of value on the market. Though much information on the condition of the catacombs and their inscriptions and frescoes in the early 17th century was preserved in Bosio's volume, much also was lost through the publication.

In April 1645, John Evelyn (October 31, 1620 – February 27, 1706), English writer, gardener and diarist, visited the catacombs while on a visit to Rome. His diary entry reads:

"11th April.1645
We therefore now took coach a little out of town, to visit the famous Roma Soterránea, being much like what we had seen at St. Sebastian's.

Here, in a corn-field, guided by two torches, we crept on our bellies into a little hole, about twenty paces, which delivered us into a large entry that led us into several streets, or alleys, a good depth in the bowels of the earth, a strange and fearful passage for divers miles, as Bosio has measured and described them in his book. We ever and anon came into pretty square rooms, that seemed to be chapels with altars, and some adorned with very ordinary ancient painting. Many skeletons and bodies are placed on the sides one above the other in degrees like shelves, whereof some are shut up with a coarse flat stone, having engraven on them Pro Christo, or a cross and palms, which are supposed to have been martyrs. Here, in all likelihood, were the meetings of the Primitive Christians during the persecutions, as Pliny the younger describes them.

As I was prying about, I found a glass phial, filled (as was conjectured) with dried blood, and two lachrymatories. Many of the bodies, or rather bones (for there appeared nothing else) lay so entire, as if placed by the art of the chirurgeon, but being only touched fell all to dust. Thus, after wandering two or three miles in this subterranean meander, we returned almost blind when we came into the daylight, and even choked by the smoke of the torches.

It is said that a French bishop and his retinue adventuring too far in these dens, their lights going out, were never heard of more."

Archeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) published the first extensive professional studies about catacombs. An idea of his importance can be seen in the entry on him in the Catholic Encyclopedia at

The catacombs have become an important monument of the early Christian church.


International Catacomb Society

Pontificio Istituto di Archelogia Cristiana

Le Catacombe di Priscilla

Roma sotterranea

The Christian Catacombs of Rome