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Tuesday 4 May

Yesterday's visit of the Vatican Necropolis did start slowly; we were broken into two groups of roughly ten each, Marco's and Jona's:a I was with Jona, we left second after a fair amount of Italian milling; and then Fr. Coan's tour started with a long background exposition — nothing new to me, and I was itching to get into the actual necropolis rather than stand in a small beige-painted vestibule with a few, if very large, tombstones of medieval bishops: but an intro is appropriate, of course —1

(I'm already omitting part of the milling: for about five minutes while the Ufficio Scavi got organized, my little group parked ourselves in the Campo Santo Teutonico — a place I could have photographed had I had with me my camera but of course, quite properly, Jona'd told me to check it in, since bulky and I couldn't photograph the necropolis anyway — a tiny cemetery, not as big as the footprint of my house in Chicago, the tombs of expat Germans packed into a garden of shrubs and flower pots, even more densely than the old part of the Cimitero Acattolico.)


[image ALT: A view of a small gravel alley stretching to the background, where a large crucifix on a pedestal conceals one of several large buildings. The alley is set in a luxuriant garden with tall trees of many different kinds. It is a view of the cemetery of the church of S. Maria a Campo Santo Teutonico in Vatican City.]

Photograph © Bill Turner, by kind permission.

Anyhow, once we got into the actual necropolis, the tour became fascinating. What I'd expected was a scholarly tour, probably conducted in Dutch, by an archaeologist thru the pagan necropolis; what I got was a layman's tour, in English, by a priest thru pretty much everything, and though Fr. Coan is a layman (archaeologically speaking) he'd read all the basic stuff, was very clear, and — for me, always three-dimensionally challenged, this was very useful — repeatedly pointed out where we were in the maze: where the hills and the main altar were, and often some other pertinent thing we'd seen or would see.

On the other hand, Jona'd led me to expect a neutral presentation in which the archaeological finds would be set forth and we'd form our own conclusions (or not); policy seems to be changing, however, and now apparently most or maybe all the tours (150 people per day max) are being conducted by priests, who can be expected to follow, and persuade visitors of, the Catholic claim that this is indeed the tomb, and we have now found the bones, of Peter. Now, based on my limited reading of a few years ago, starting with Walsh and then digging up and slogging thru in my then weak Italian a volume of Guarducci, I'm 98% certain myself that yes, those are the bones of St. Peter; but I would have preferred the neutral approach. Still, it would be quite unreasonable of me to fault my hosts for telling their own story on their own property the way they see fit; and I myself generally summarize the findings in a similarly affirmative way.

The most constantly impressive thing down there is how small everything is: I've never been an attentive reader when it comes to precise dates or to measurements, so I'd formed an idea of everything about two to four times as big as it really is. The source of it is probably the "Via Cornelia", the main "street" of this little section of tombs. It's not a meter wide, could not therefore ever haveº accommodated vehicle traffic — I wouldn't even want to bicycle it — and the walls of all the tombs come right up to the "street", another term which is too much, even: it's a passageway between tombs.

The tombs themselves are pretty standard, if of course beautifully preserved — I can't remember seeing a nearly intact ordinary Roman tomb anywhere, with everything except its roof (them that had 'em); at least one still has its inscription in place over the door: IN AGRO P etc. (poor lighting — quite understandable because of environmental concerns — and the relatively fast pace of the tour, so I never read clearly the full inscription; Fr. Coan told me that though visitors may not bring cameras, we're welcome to bring flashlights — an extremely useful tip if I ever go do there again). The percorso has been remarkably well set up, which in view of the extremely difficult conditions and the conflicting requirements of various interest groups — archaeologists, the church, lay visitors — is even more remarkable: the tombs are for the most part glassed in, and possibly temperature-controlled (although I don't remember seeing any telltale equipment), the tour route is everywhere safe and almost convenient, and all the key points can be seen from it and under adequate lighting (my cavil about lighting is only about minor items).

There's only one thing down there that, as presently seen, is beautiful, but it's a gem: the Christ-Helios mosaic. It's tiny! I'd thought the ceiling of a room the size of a small bedroom, but it's not much larger than this open notebook.b It's also much better work than I thought, a very handsome piece of fine-tessera mosaic, golden ground, green leaves, nothing naïve about it. The wall paintings in this tiny room haven't survived as well, but are still readable and must have been quite attractive when new.

That was all I was expecting to see, and if I understood Jona right, that was pretty much all they saw thru 1995; but now the Ufficio Scavi is under new management, and the general public has been given much closer access to the tomb of Peter: I was amazed, very happy, and ultimately quite moved, to see the rest — which again was smaller than I'd thought. We saw not only much, I think, of what can be seen of the altar of Calixtus II, but the dexter column of the Constantinian shrine, which seems to have been little more than a niche, a very slender, awkwardly proportioned and not too pleasing stone almost shuttle-shaped because of the exaggerated entasis.

And finally we saw the underlying tomb, more or less: the red wall — almost not red at all — the graffiti wall, which again, is tiny: a patch of greyish something about the size of a washbasin; and right next to it of course the retaining wall with its hole and the plastic boxes, only 2 of them visible in front, the others — including the mouse I suppose — behind and invisible.

In view of the war, and of course this very place's bad experiences with Moslem religious fanatics, now that I think of it it's surprising that there were no additional security measures — that I could see! — for our access to the tomb of Peter; the general checkpoint and metal detectors outside the basilica I guess covers the whole perimeter.

We exited thru an elaborately decorated small chapel, which looked recent although in a 17c style so maybe not: intricately stuccoed ceiling gold on blue, and a malachite altar with a window which may allow a view of the bones of Peter — I don't remember that Fr. Coan oriented us here — then some banal if ceiling-frescoed hallways encircling the Confessio (one place we did not go), and out thru the Grotte Vaticane, which combine Union Station of Washington DC with some very frigid monumental gisants of popes, plus all of a sudden crowds again — and soon we were in the open air, I'd retrieved my camera bag, and, their charges set loose on the landscape 'til 2 P.M., Jona and Marco and I had lunch at a very nearby cafeteria.

I'd already found out that the visit of the necropolis was not free and that Jona and Marco had paid my 10E ticket; I had the presence of mind to step in and pay lunch for all three of us (42E, and we didn't have much, but it was wholesome food — I had lasagne, pretty good, artichoke salad, a roll and a bottle of Gatorade — and we could process ourselves in and out of there at our own speed; much better than sitting down in a waitered restaurant, taking forever, and still not really eating anything worth remembering, yet at a much steeper price, like I did last time.

In fact we sat for a good half hour or more, talking about various things — Marco and maybe Jona too is leaving soon for Pakistan to do Alexander stuff and won't be back 'til May 29 — in the course of which one slip of one of them and I learned something appalling, that they'd only reserved 20 tickets, but with me — yet they knew months ago I'd be tagging along? — we were 21; that they absolutely could not cajole the Ufficio Scavi into giving them a 21st ticket; so Marco gave up his slot. I was (and still am) of course mortified, although he swears he's been down there three times already, plus, which is quite true, Holland is a darn sight more convenient to Rome than Chicago and they come down here often enough. Still.

We parted at 2 in piazza S. Pietro, they to shepherd their charges probably thru the museum (photography still permitted, I asked) because they'd originally planned the cupola, but the lines for the cupola were running one and a half hours! which they said was new, usually a few minutes; and me to walk back to my train at 4:16 P.M. at Termini, which I did by more or less my usual route — there are only so many ways you can get around in Rome, although now that, according to Jona, the Forum and Palatine are free and open on all sides, one can walk thru it from the Velabro saving that whole big detour: but this time I was nowhere near there, so via the Palazzo Farnese and the Pantheon, the Quirinal, the via XX Settembre. By good luck I finally found S. Carlo alle Quattro open, which I'd never seen: I'm not sure I like it that much, but it's an amazing space that really does fool the eye, and it has an equally small and to my mind prettier cloister right next to it and on the same principle. Also a stop at S. Maria della Vittoria, I even waited 6 minutes on the steps with a dozen others for the (punctual) 3:30 opening, this time I now have decent pictures.

Instead, let me show you what's over the door of a building on the via XXIV Maggio right across from the Presidential Palace. Two young American women were walking on by, oblivious to what was around them: 'twas only when they saw me photographing this beauty that they looked, and enjoyed. Folks, keep your eyes open!


[image ALT: A small and very narrow pediment, part of a stone door; the pediment itself is filled by a flattened view of the inside of a large sea-shell, but the main item in the photo is the corbel supporting the pediment, which depicts a hideous old hag, her hair composed of snakes, and with two baroque scalloped wings growing out of her back, but mostly a pair of very prominent withered breasts. It is an apotropaic sculpture over the door of a 17c building in the Via XXIV Maggio in Rome.]

That put me at Termini at about 3:50 with my train at 4:16. Like an idiot, I'd forgotten, a few days ago, to buy my Rome‑PSG ticket like I tell everybody to do; and sure enough the lines at Termini were 45 minutes long: I boarded my train and paid the extra 5E. Change in Foligno, change at PSG, home not even by the last train.


Note in the Diary:

1 immediately next, a room of very good, very important, Roman sarcophagi which I would dearly have loved to look at carefully rather than peer at from the doorway.


Later Notes for the Web:

a Marco Prins and Jona Lendering, the webmasters of Livius (a large scholarly site on ancient history, particularly of the Near East), to whom I owe not only this wonderful visit of the Vatican Necropolis — theirs not only the idea to invite me along, but the ticket logistics, too; all I did was show up — but also any photographs you like on this site, since Marco was directly responsible for my choice of digital camera for this trip: I'd read reviews and specifications until my head swam, but his careful recommendation of the Canon 300D, explaining just why it would be the right choice for the type of things I photograph, is what did it; and that camera has been a great joy, a 100% unqualified success.

Many thanks, guys!

b which measures about 20 × 32 cm (8ʺ × 12½ʺ).


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Page updated: 3 Sep 06