2015 November Roman catacombs

Roma Subterranea Novissima



This month we will look at Roma Subterranea Novissima by Paolo Aringhi (See Fig. 1), a text detailing the interiors of the catacombs beneath the city of Rome, key structures in the religious and architectural history of the city. Aringhi’s text, published in 1651 in Rome, was a Latin edition of an earlier book written by the famed Antonio Bosio, one of the first people to extensively explore these mysterious underground tombs.


Fig.1 Title Page

Fig. 1 – Title Page of Roma Subterranea Novissima Part I by Paolo Aringhi




The catacombs of Rome are a fascinating feature of the ancient city, whose purpose has been misinterpreted and often exaggerated throughout the centuries. Catacombs are not unique to Rome but are often seen as synonymous with the city itself, drawing many thousands of visitors every year. They consist of an underground network of chambers, several hundred kilometres in length that were built outside the original city boundaries (See Fig. 2). These catacombs were burial spaces for Christians and Jews, all of whom chose to inhumate, or bury, their dead. It is not known why these people chose to go build underground burial chambers, some suggest it could be for privacy purposes or due to a lack of space for non-Roman inhumations.


Fig. 2 Map of Rome

Fig. 2 – Map of Rome showing city walls




Types of Tomb

Catacombs appear to have been made to order, as space was at a premium within the chambers. There are several different types of tombs within the catacombs, for example, the loculus was the smallest size, consisting of a rectangular opening dug out for a single corpse. The loculus opening was covered with bricks, terracotta tiles or a marble slab and sealed with plaster. Often, the walls of loculi are covered in frescoes, as can be seen three catacombs in particular, the Catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla and Callixtus (as discussed below). Loculi were the simplest form of tomb, but other higher status examples have also been discovered, for example the arcosolium, a lengthwise wall opening similar to a sarcophagus with an arch cut out above it created to hold at least two bodies. The cubiculum (See Fig. 3) was a small private tomb with several openings cut into the walls of the room to house multiple bodies. Within the catacomb complexes many hundreds of inscriptions have been discovered, many of which provide us with the deceased person’s name.




Fig. 3 Cubiculum

Fig. 3 – A cubiculum illustration from the Marcellinus and Petri catacomb complex



Catacombs of Callixtus

It is believed that the catacombs were established in the middle of the second century AD, with the Catacomb of Callixtus considered one of the earliest. It encompasses both an overground and underground cemetery complex. The catacombs reach a depth of 20 metres underground and has four levels of chambers. They were named after Callixtus, a deacon of Pope Zephyrinus who eventually became Pope himself between c.217 to 222 AD. In the early third century AD, this catacomb housed the remains of several bishops, thus becoming the first official cemetery of the Church of Rome. Some of the names of these bishops remain via Greek inscriptions found within the catacombs. It is believed that the underground complex grew in order to accommodate individuals who wanted to be buried near these early martyrs. The Callixtus catacombs have remained well preserved, with wall frescoes still in existence depicting Old and New Testament cycles, as well as geometric designs and garden scenes.



Decline and Rediscovery

The Christian and Jewish catacombs of underground Rome were used until the fifth century AD, when they eventually were abandoned. Many myths grew up around their use during this time, for example, that they were used as a hiding place for persecuted Christians. The catacombs were used for many centuries after the Edict of Milan (promoting tolerance of Christians) was passed, so they did not need a place to flee to. During this period when they were no longer actively in use, there were still visitors (such as Petrarch), but the so-called ‘rediscovery’ of the catacombs occurred between the sixteenth century AD, beginning with the accidental discovery of a catacomb at the Via Salaria in 1578. This was a time of systematic exploration and study of the structures, generally from the perspective of early Christian religion.


Antonio Bosio

A key figure during this period was the so-called ‘Columbus of the Catacombs’, Antonio Bosio (1575 – 1629). He was the first to actually explore the structures and document what he found, without carrying out excavations. He brought an illustrator along, referred to as ‘Toccafondo’ and both of the men left graffiti on the walls of the tombs. His text Roma Sotteranea was written in Italian and published after his death. The text was primarily concerned with the value of the catacombs as evidence of the early Christians in Rome. It was not widely disseminated or read until Aringhi published the Latin edition of it. This translation attracted readers from all over Britain and Europe. He called his augmented text Roma Subterranea Novissima (See Fig. 4). These two related texts were often owned as a pair by later scholars, for example the noted architect Sir Christopher Wren had a copy of Aringhi and Bosio. It is clear that Aringhi took his own ideas and beliefs into his translation, as he augmented the text and provided a strong anti-Semitic and Counter-Reformation tone that had not been part of Bosio’s voice.



Fig.4 Roma Subterranea

Fig.4 – Frontispiece with illustrations of people in the catacombs


Aringhi’s Roma Subterranea

Aringhi’s book, which Edward Worth saw fit to have in his collection, is a rich resource documenting this obscured underground world, some of which does not remain today. It contains detailed textual evidence, as well as incredible illustrations, which complement each other to provide the reader with a unique perspective on the catacombs. The work is spread across two significant volumes and split up into six separate books, three in each volume. Both volumes have illustrations and text. Volume I discusses the early Christian martyrs and their cemeteries, while Volume II appears to be more interested in iconography and artefacts. Within the indexes of both volumes, Aringhi refers to passages taken from Bosio’s work.



The work gives a broad outline of the catacombs, their interiors, decoration, associated artefacts and relevance to Christian religion. The use of illustrations to explain these physical structures is key to the book’s success, as words alone could not do them justice. Volume I contains multiple images of sarcophagi from cemeteries and catacombs around Rome. These are receptacles for human remains which are generally made of stone and displayed above ground. The illustrations show that the artist has an understanding of perspective and the ability to represent it accurately to give a feeling of depth (See Fig. 5). A single glance at this sarcophagus tells the viewer immediately that it is Christian in nature, as we see Adam and Eve and its location in Rome. The figures appear to be in high relief and intricately carved, but whether this is the artist’s interpretation of the physical sculpture is not certain.


Fig. 5 Sarcophagus

Fig. 5 – Sarcophagus from the Cemetery of Lucia Effossus


As well as these, the author chose to include other things associated with death and burial, such as artefacts and inscriptions. These are discussed in text and represented visually as well. Inscriptions are particularly poignant as they provide evidence of the deceased individual, perhaps their name or date of death, for example a dedication to a woman called Alexandra who was said to have ‘lived in peace for 55 years’. In terms of artefacts, Aringhi includes some beautiful Roman-style lamps with distinctly Christian imagery (See Fig. 6). Lamps were generally tear drop shaped with an opening at one end for oil to be poured in and a second opening for a wick. Within the dark damp environment of the catacombs, lamps would have been paramount to finding ones way around. The four depicted in this image display Christian iconography such as the Chi Ro (☧) character and a shepherd and his flock, which represents Christ and his followers.


Fig. 6 Lamps

Fig. 6 – Lamps from the catacombs with Christian iconography



The most fascinating features of this work, in my opinion, are the illustrations of the catacomb interiors, which combine architectural structures with iconography. The illustrator chose to create three dimensional images of the tombs first showing their decoration and highlighting significant features and following this on the next page with a flattened out representation of the room’s frescoes. These are found in Volume II. This would have taken a considerable amount of time to complete and indicates the illustrator’s supreme talent. The cubiculum’s structure (See Fig. 7) is a complex one with a domed ceiling and supporting columns. The artist has included a hint of the frescoes that survive on the ceiling, to give an impression of their location, but saves the detail for the following page. On this page (See Fig. 8), the artist portrays the frescoes themselves, in this case a beautifully rendered botanical illustration of curling vines held aloft by cherubs, surrounding a central roundel that encircles a lone shepherd and his flock. By considering both images together, the reader can get a real sense of what the catacomb looks like, although the perfectly depicted lines are probably exaggerated as these tombs were cut by hand from rock and would have been less defined.


Fig. 7 Dome and frescoes

Fig. 7 – Cubiculum secundum from the Via Latina cemetery complex showing architectural cut away and depiction of frescoes




Aringhi’s work, based on Bosio’s original text, are key resources in the history of the early Christians of Rome. It is rich in visual media, with illustrations accompanying vast swathes of text in order to provide a more in-depth understanding of these underground spaces. The two volumes represent a period in catacomb history when people were beginning to re-explore them again, after several centuries of minimal disturbance and are indicative of a time when writers were eager to strengthen the ties of the modern Roman Catholic Church to the early Christian martyrs.


Fig. 8 Inscriptions

Fig. 8 – Close up of fresco from Fig. 6 depicting curling vines and central shepherd


Text: Ms Ella Hassett, Library Assistant, The Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

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