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Letizia Pitigliani. “A Rare Look at the Jewish Catacombs of Rome.” Biblical Archaeology Review 6, 3 (1980).

The older section of the Villa Torlonia catacombs

No one seems to know why it is so difficult to see the Jewish catacombs of Rome. But it is.

The 1929 Concordat between the Italian Fascist government and the Vatican gave the Vatican control over all the catacombs of Italy—Christian, Jewish, and pagan.

A recent report in Commentary magazine described the process of gaining access to the Jewish catacombs: “A series of formal requests must first be lodged with the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology … [Officials] make it a point to warn visitors of all the problems involved … There are no signs [at the site] indicating their existence.”(a)

Summing up the practical obstacles, two well-informed observers conclude, “Access to the Jewish catacombs has been difficult for scholars as well as laymen, particularly during the last 50 years.”(b)

I can attest that getting permission to enter the Jewish catacombs is a complicated process. I was, however, fortunate in having the help of my father, Professor Fausto Pitigliani, who had been president of Rome’s Jewish community for five years and founded the Jewish Museum there. I also had assistance from the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, and from Father Umberto Fasola, the Barnabite priest who was in charge of all catacombs and who discovered in 1975 an entire tract of the Jewish catacombs of Villa Torlonia. I had to obtain papers both from the Vatican and from the city of Rome. Umberto Fasola supplied the required Vatican permit and after a few days I received an official permit from the alderman in charge of antiquities for the Office of the Municipality of Rome.

It was a family visit and included my father, my 16-year-old son Alexander (who took many of the pictures that accompany this article) and my rather terrified 12-year-old daughter Fifi. We visited the two sites of known extant Jewish catacombs in Rome: the Villa Torlonia catacombs and the Via Appia Randanini catacombs.

Recently I learned that, since our visit, the Villa Torlonia catacombs have become completely inaccessible, sealed off, with earth dumped into their sunken entranceways. The explanation given is that in this manner the catacombs will be protected while plans for their future are worked out.

Before describing our visits, a word about the Jewish catacombs: The first Jewish catacombs in Rome were discovered in 1602 by Antonio Bosio, a young Maltese drawn by a spirit of adventure to wander below the surface of Rome. He became so absorbed in this world, virtually unknown until then, that he spent the rest of his life exploring underground Rome. Thereafter, six other Roman Jewish catacombs were discovered. But only two are now still preserved—those we visited. The one discovered by Bosio—at Trastevere—was demolished in the 1930’s to make room for a railroad station. A similar fate befell the Jewish catacombs of Monteverde, which were the subject of elaborate studies in the early 1900’s and gave us inscriptions which identify the 13 synagogues of ancient Rome. The Jewish catacombs of Via Labicana as well as those of Via San Sebastiano—adjacent to the famous St. Sebastian Christian catacombs where all the tourist buses stop—have also vanished forever.

It has been estimated that the known Jewish catacombs of Rome originally contained the graves of over 100,000 Jews buried there between the second and fourth centuries A.D. This is not surprising since historians estimate that ten percent of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were Jews.

The loculi (singular: loculus), or burial alcoves in which they were buried, were carved from walls sunk in the volcanic soil of Rome. The soil consists of mixed strata of tufa and pozzolana, two types of limestone which can be easily excavated. Both Roman and Jewish law prohibited burial within town limits, and the catacombs were dug in what was then the open country.

On our visit to the catacombs of Villa Torlonia we were accompanied by Father Fasola, his clerical garb topped with a long, black “catacomb smock.” The entrance to the Villa Torlonia catacombs is directly below the stables of the Villa Torlonia, a squat, colonnaded building where Benito Mussolini once lived. It was a March day, cold, with a fine, spring drizzle: the new shoots of spring were shining emerald green against the muted rose and ochre of the ancient brickwork. We descended a flight of stone steps to an open space housing a narrow sarcophagus and an even narrower iron door which swung open to reveal another flight of steps disappearing into the gloom below. Once inside the catacombs, it was warm and damp, with an earthy mustiness. When our eyes became accustomed to the lantern light, we saw that we were in a fairly wide passageway roughly hewn into the rock, part of a maze of corridors. This was the “superiore”—the upper-level catacomb. The more ancient ones, below, date from the second century A.D. The two Villa Torlonia catacombs run parallel and have two separate entrances. They are alongside an ancient roadway which branched off the Via Nomentana, but the two catacombs are totally separate from one another and were built in different times.

It was hard to believe that we were seeing a segment of catacombs that is five-and-a-half miles long. We could see the long rectangular loculi carved in the walls at varying heights. Bodies had once been laid to rest here. Some loculi were sealed with slabs of stone, some with terra cotta tiles, some with lime-covered bricks; many were open and empty. In some we found bits of bone or a skull, or shreds of a linen shroud. The walls of the loculi were still stained dark with myrrh and aloe used to anoint the dead. Here and there along the walls, we saw small commemorative stone markers, mostly marble, crudely engraved with a few lines in Greek or Latin, but not, as I had expected, in Hebrew. There were occasional Jewish symbols of the lulav, or palm frond, and etrog(c) or citron, as well as seven-branched menorahs and sacred Torah scrolls. Occasionally we saw an axe, which is a symbol of life cut short, and is still found in the Jewish cemeteries of Rome.

The messages in the inscriptions were timeless and simple and usually preceded by the Greek words “ETHNADE KEITE EN EIRENE”—“here lies in peace.” The names were Latin, but also included occasional Biblical names and many references to synagogues and the position of the deceased in the social structure of the synagogue, such as a gerusiarch(d) or elder. Some inscriptions referred to professions: “Here lies Pegaianos, the scribe, who loved the law.” In one instance I saw a crudely etched sailboat—perhaps the man had been a merchant or a sailor. But most of the epitaphs were very similar to modern day ones, such as “Here lies Julia, beloved mother.” There seemed to be no special tombs for exceptional people.

The ceilings were high, compared to the narrow passageways. Occasionally a menorah was painted on the ceiling. In one place, the ceiling formed a Gothic-like, pointed arch—although the earliest catacombs antedate Gothic art by almost 1000 years. A segment of the ceiling was dotted with a myriad of stalactites.(e)

At one point we were shown a small room which was closed off. Through the gate we could see on the floor earthenware pots with lids, probably, Father Fasola explained, used for the ritual washing of the dead. There were also terra cotta oil lamps, some with Jewish symbols on them.

Over the years, the bulk of the contents of the Villa Torlonia catacombs has been taken to the Vatican Museum. Five years ago, 130 tombstones were assembled in a handsome display in the “Sala Giudaica,” which was set up in a new exhibition hall; a wooden barrier barred the display from public view. The museum director, Dr. Daltrop, claims that these tombstones do not interest the general public. I have heard complaints from highly qualified scholars and art historians from the U.S. and Israel, who tried to see this display, but whose requests were turned down. When we tried to see the exhibit we were told Dr. Daltrop was away and would not be back for several weeks, so it was impossible to get the required permit.

Much of the gold glassware for which the Jews of Rome were famous was originally found in these catacombs. The bottoms of these glasses were painted in gold and other colors and a second very thin layer of glass was spread over the painting. The Jewish gold glass bears inscriptions like “drink and live” in Greek or Latin. Occasionally, platters of glass used for the Sabbath meal were found. This glass was probably included with the burial because the departed had used it for religious celebration at home in his lifetime. In 1977, the Metropolitan Museum in New York exhibited a notable example of gold glass depicting the Ark of the Law, which contains six Torah scrolls and is flanked by two lions representing the kings of Judah. Below are two menorahs and other liturgical objects—the whole very reminiscent of the Torlonia catacomb wall paintings.

The Torlonia catacombs also contained a number of carved stone fragments which seem to be pieces of sarcophagi stuck at random into the walls as decoration. In one place, I saw an ox pulling a cart; in another, a swimming frog; in yet another, a putto, or cherub; in another, a dolphin, and so on. Some of the stone sarcophagi we saw were intact, others were in broken sections. The most famous of these Jewish sarcophagi, was found at Vigna Randanini and is now at the Museo delle Terme in Rome. It shows chunky angels and putti bearing the earth’s fruits, stamping on grapes and holding aloft a circle with the seven-branched menorah inside. None of the sarcophagi I saw in the Torlonia catacombs was this elaborate.

The frescoes painted on the whitewashed walls were strikingly colorful and vibrant. Two low-vaulted rooms of the Villa Torlonia catacombs contained paintings which were both decorative and religious in content. In one fresco roughly sketched, fringed curtains with a red and turquoise checkerboard design hung next to seven-branched menorahs and a peacock or bird of paradise. The most well-preserved fresco depicted a crudely painted Torah shrine (the Ark of the Law), its sacred scrolls flanked by the etrog, or citron; the shofar, or ram’s hoary; the lulav, a cluster of palm, myrtle, and willow branches; and a long-necked oil jar, a beaker and basin.

A few days after our visit to Villa Torlonia, we went to the Vigna Randanini Jewish catacombs, which are situated near a fork in the Appian Way known as Via Appia Pignatelli. A taciturn caretaker, lantern in hand, served as our guide. We entered through a large iron door which swung open to reveal a sunken courtyard of pleasing proportions. The caretaker told us that parts of this courtyard had been excavated as recently as 1975 by the Vatican. The brick wall on the right was lined with arched niches which had held sarcophagi, only one of which still gleamed whitely inside. Along the ground on the left was a long strip of supporting masonry—a stylobate—with disc shapes at intervals impressed in it; the row of columns which the discs once held was long gone. Nearby, patches of the black and white mosaic floor survived. I wondered if we were standing in one of the 13 synagogues which are known to have existed in Imperial Rome. In the back wall of the courtyard was a door which led down a flight of stone steps into a large, subterranean room. The room was strewn with stone fragments. We entered the catacomb proper through another door on the rear wall. As at the Villa Torlonia, dank mustiness greeted us; there was the same earth floor, the same corridors hewn in the rock with a central hallway from which others led in different directions. At one point, I saw in the wall the outline of an arched doorway filled with an avalanche of dirt that had settled onto the floor in front of it. The caretaker said that this section of the catacombs had not been excavated.

Unlike the simple, almost crude, wall paintings of the Villa Torlonia, the ones we saw at Randanini were decorative and had a festive air. They seemed like the embellishments a Roman might have ordered for his summer villa. There is nothing solemn about the graceful, mythological figures, leaping dolphins and sea horses, flying birds, palm trees full of dates, and garlands of flowers. In fact, the pagan symbolism seemed to belie that these were indeed Jewish catacombs. For example, a ceiling was decorated with a large garlanded circle enclosing the figure of Victory, represented by a woman crowning a naked man with a wreath. Another ceiling depicted the figure of Fortune as a robed lady standing with a cornucopia in her arms. These decorations and the occasional appearance of the initials “D.M.”—“Dis Manibus,” “in the hands of the gods”—reflects how thoroughly some Roman Jews had assimilated Roman culture. Only the inscriptions and an occasional menorah attested that Jews were buried here. The heedless modern graffiti that scar these lovely walls are a reminder of the present.

For centuries, the Jewish catacombs of Rome—and elsewhere in Italy—have been neglected. In 1973, however, the Vatican started a maintenance program for the Villa Torlonia and the Via Appia Randanini catacombs. This holding operation should suffice until conclusion of the already lengthy renegotiation of the 1929 Concordat. It is expected that this new Concordat will give jurisdiction over the Jewish catacombs to the Italian Jewish community.

In the meantime, the World Jewish Congress has set up an Ancient Jewish Heritage Committee with headquarters in New York. This committee hopes to raise funds to safeguard, restore and eventually open to the public all the Jewish catacombs of Italy, including the recently discovered Judeo-Christian burial grounds at Venosa in Puglia, 80 miles north of Naples. Perhaps someday soon these ancient treasures will be easily accessible to all—to see, to study, and to learn.

World Jewish Congress Hopes to Preserve Jewish Catacombs
The Heritage Committee of the World Jewish Congress is leading efforts to preserve and restore the Jewish catacombs of Rome.
Heritage Committee Director Doris Brickner reports that the Union of Italian Jewish Communities has requested the establishment of an international body like the Heritage Committee that will help it meet its new responsibilities when and if administration of the Jewish catacombs is turned over to it. The new administration of the Jewish catacombs will be designated pursuant to ongoing negotiations between the Vatican and the Italian government.
The Heritage Committee is soliciting tax deductible contributions to support its efforts in connection with the catacombs and other threatened Jewish monuments throughout the world. Contributions may be sent to: The Heritage Committee, World Jewish Congress, 1 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016.

a. Michael Ledeen: “The Unknown Catacombs,” Commentary, September, 1977, p. 65.

b. Tullia Zevi and Sam Waagenaar: “The Jewish Catacombs of Rome: A Neglected Treasure of Our Past,” Hadassah Magazine, December, 1979, p. 38. (Tullia Zevi is Rome correspondent for the Jewish Chronicle of London, and Sam Waagenaar, a journalist residing in Rome, is author of The Ghetto on the Tiber, a history of the Jews of Rome.)

c. The lulav and etrog are used in rituals associated with the festival of Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles.

d. A gerusiarch is the head of an assembly of elders.

e. Stalactites are icicle-like formations of calcium carbonate that hang from the roofs or sides of caverns. They are produced when water seeps through limestone and partially dissolves the rock.

Posted in: Greco-Roman Period

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