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Bill Thayer

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A Very Old Cave With Carved Walls

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This unprepossessing small dark hole in the side of a hill is easy to pass by, yet it conceals one of the more mysterious ancient monuments of central Italy.

Actually, it isn't easy to pass by, at least not once you've got this far; since to see it, you had to be looking for it in the first place, know more or less where it was, walk the road out of Pitigliano, keep your eyes peeled for a wooden arrow, clamber down the embankment and follow a path thru a bit of brush and brambles.

Once there, you can take it all in almost in a single glance: there's headroom, but more than three people is a tight fit. Understanding it is another matter.

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Stepping inside (the walking stick provides scale): this view from the entrance shows a bit more than half what there is to see.

In the scant literature commonly available on this out‑of-the‑way monument, it is almost always referred to as a paleochristian "oratory" or "tempietto", the latter, mind you, just being the Italian word for a small temple or shrine. Adduced in evidence of its antiquity is the statement that the walls include a Latin inscription dated — in Arabic numerals yet! — to the year 397, in the following form: "Christi Resurrectioº Anno 113, 29 Martias".

Oboy-oboy-oboy what a mess. The guidebook "Le Città del Tufo nella Valle del Fiora", by Giovanni De Feo, does well to add (pp108‑110) that since the first otherwise known occurrence of Arabic numerals is placed in about the 9c A.D., this inscription would drive that back about 500 years, and that there is much quarrelling about it. The book does not, however, go on to say, as it should, that 113 "of the Resurrection of Christ" would put us not in 397 but around A.D. 145; and that dates are not known to have been calculated with reference to Christ until the time of Dionysus Exiguus in the early 6c. More to the point, two of us stood in this little cave for maybe twenty minutes combing the walls for any sign of such an inscription, and saw none.

To be fair, this isn't necessarily as bad as I've made it look. Leaving aside the Arabic numerals, some of this can be cleared up or accounted for.

First, the date. 397‑113 = 284; and if 284 looks familiar to you, it should. The year A.D. 284 marks the beginning of the Diocletian Era, a system of dating introduced by the emperor of that name and used by the earlier Church Fathers; something has gotten garbled here and the Resurrection of Christ has been substituted for the emperor Diocletian.

Next, the existence of the inscription. Just because I failed to see such a thing in 1998 does not mean someone might not have seen it fifty or five hundred years ago; antiquarians have been roaming the countryside doing this kind of thing since the Renaissance, and water, plant roots, or vandalism (including other graffiti) must surely have done a great deal of damage.

Graffiti; this one, by the way, came closest to . . . MARTI. . .  but no cigar: immediately preceded by a C but no other line before it, and followed by a bit of a line that shouldn't be there — and the style of the lettering is clearly quite modern.

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A closeup of a bit of the cave wall shows pockets behind the surface where water can and does pool — I saw moisture, and notice the mini-stalactites — and towards the bottom of the photo, the flaking and spalling that result:

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On balance, though, I still don't believe a word of it.

What's more, I don't have to. Every indication is that this cave was carved sometime in the first five or six hundred years after Christ, and to judge from the primitively abstract rendering of the acanthus leaves of a Corinthian capital you see here, rather later than earlier, thus probably in Christian times: whether this was a Christian monument or not is — well, lurking in all this there's a doctoral thesis for someone.

As a layman, I have the luxury of calling this a tomb rather than a shrine or temple of any kind, and not making up my mind about the rest. So, "a tomb of the Late antique period" it is, and we step back out into the fresh air.

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Close-up of the capital
next to the central niche.

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Page updated: 9 Mar 03