Rome’s Jewish catacombs open – briefly – to the public
Lovers of Jewish heritage have another reason to visit the Eternal City this spring. Thanks to an initiative by Italian culture minister Dario Franceschini marking Pope Francis’s Jubilee Year of Mercy, the most impressive of Rome’s six ancient Jewish catacombs will be open to visitors on the first Sunday of each month, for at least May and June. The catacombs are part of an array of 20 sacred sites itineraries across the city being touted in Le Vie del Giubileo, or Jubilee Cultural Routes.
Other programs of Jewish interest include guided tours to the first century synagogue in the port of Ostia Antica, the Giancarlo Spizzichino Archives that documents Rome’s Jewish community from the 16th century until the present, the Jewish Museum and Great Synagogue, the Arch of Titus, the Colosseum, and the former Ghetto.
But it’s the guided tours to the Catacombs of Vigna Randanini (Randanini Vineyard) which have garnered media attention since it is otherwise difficult to visit the site.
Judaism, like Mithraism, Christianity and the worship of Isis, was one of the Eastern religions that attracted acolytes and converts in classical Rome. It is estimated that 10 percent of the Roman Empire practiced the faith, which enjoyed the status of a religio licita (a permitted or state-approved religion). Ancient Rome may have had 50,000 Jews and their followers. Between the second and fourth centuries CE, the capital’s burgeoning Jewish community commissioned a series of catacombs to offer a final resting place for its members. Similar to the catacombs of Beit Shearim, these cities of the dead were distinct from the pagan crematoria and burial grounds.
Of Rome's six known ancient Jewish catacombs, four collapsed or were built upon in the last centuries. Monteverde, near the ancient Via Portuensis, was discovered in 1602 and explored again between 1740 and 1745. Vigna Cimarra was discovered in 1866 but all traces of it have been lost. The Catacomb of Via Labicana, in the vicinity of Porta Maggiore, was discovered in 1882 and similarly has not been preserved. The Catacomb on the Via Appia Pignatelli, discovered in 1885, is small and not easily accessible today.
The fifth – on the grounds of Villa Torlonia on the Via Nomentana, now a city park, where Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini lived for 20 years – is relatively small, and can accommodate only about 10 people at a time. Unlike Rome’s more than 40 Christian catacombs that are visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists annually, the Villa Torlonia site is open to private tours and small groups. To get a ticket / permit, one must apply in person at Rome’s superintendency of archaeology.
It is the sixth site, the Randanini Vineyard, which is now drawing the crowds. Discovered in 1859 beneath the vineyard of privately-owned villa between the second and third mile of the ancient road leading south from Rome known as Via Appia Antica, the catacomb tunnels extend down to a depth of between five to 16 meters. The labyrinth stretches for nearly 18,500 square meters. Inside one finds exceptionally finely preserved painted cubicula, either family or group ‘private chapels’, many of which are richly decorated with frescoes of Judaic motifs including menorahs, lulavs and etrogs, peacocks and pomegranates symbolizing fertility, the circumcision knife, and the Ark of the Covenant.
Like Rome’s 40 Christian catacombs, the Randanini Vineyard similarly consists of main tunnels placed at different levels, frequently as many as four or five, one upon the other, and they cross several times on the same level. The main tunnels, about one meter wide and three to four meters high, are themselves connected by smaller tunnels whose walls contain horizontal graves or burial niches (loculi) in which the corpses were placed.
These burial spaces are like narrow berths in a train sleeper car. Carved in the soft tufa stone, they are stacked one atop the other. There are as well arcosolia –arched recesses used as a place of entombment. The niches were covered with inscribed marble tombstone slabs detailing the Roman Jews buried there. Judging from the inscriptions, they prayed mainly in Greek and spoke in Latin. Few knew Hebrew. Many were ordinary people, artisans or merchants, but there also were bankers, magistrates, actors and other professionals.
Many of the inscriptions now reside in the Vatican's Capitoline Museums and storerooms, or the Museo Nazionale Romano. Other material found in this catacomb is preserved in Berlin’s Altes Museum, the Jewish Museum in New York, and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. When the Vatican took charge of the Jewish catacombs after their discovery more than 150 years ago, the modern Italian state was not yet created. The 19th-century risorgimento(Rising Again) movement for Italian unification culminated in the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Rome itself was captured and made the capital in 1870. The Vatican was the only organization with the means to excavate and preserve the catacombs. Finalizing the Vatican’s standing as an independent state, in 1929 Mussolini signed the Lateran Pacts. The treaty gave the Holy See control of all Rome’s Jewish and Christian catacombs.
The Jubilee Cultural Routes’s tour “1,000 Religions in Rome. From the Ancient Times Until Today” includes contemporary Rome’s Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist places of worship, as well as ancient Jewish sites. These include the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus erected to honor the general who captured Jerusalem in 70 CE and destroyed Herod’s Temple. As documented in Louis Feldman’s article, “Financing the Colosseum,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2001, the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus seized the half-shekel coins, gold and other artifacts from the Jerusalem cult center, and used the looted wealth to pay for the construction of the Colosseum, which was dedicated in 79.
Jewish slaves didn’t build the Pyramids in Egypt. But 20,000 toiled constructing the 50,000-seat Colosseum.
Jubilee Cultural Routes visitors today can see a hidden inscription there that records that the construction of the huge entertainment center was financed by the spoils of war plundered from Judea. In the bowels of the Colosseum is a faded fresco. While the picture is unrecognizable, the inscription “Gerusalemme” is clearly legible – testament to the booty of precious metal and Jewish slaves which Vespasian and Titus used to pay for the building of their ultimate monument to the glory of imperial Rome.
Rome’s community of Jewish freemen and slaves found their final resting place in the nearby catacombs, decorated with a seven-branched menorah – symbol of their hope to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple.
For information see leviedelgiubileo.it
Photos courtesy Le Vie del Giubileo