Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, August 3, 2018

The Catacombs in Torpignattara: Our Candidate for Best Catacombs in Rome

Rome has 500 catacombs.  About a dozen are regularly open to the public, and we've been to half of those.  One of us (guess who) claims re these almost 2000-year-old evocative burial grounds, "seen one, seen 'em all."  But our recent visit to the catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter (Santi Marcellino e Pietro) proved him wrong.

Easily reached by the "trenino" (little train) that runs from Stazione Termini (more directions at the end of this post), these lightly visited catacombs have a wealth of newly restored frescoes dating from about the 4th century on.  The story of the frescoes' restoration includes funding by Azerbaijan (you tell me!).

President of the Pontifical Council for Culture
and of the Pontifical Commission for
Sacred Archaeology, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi,
 hosts Dr. Mehriban Aliyeva, President of the
 Azerbaijani Heydar Alieyev Foundation in 2014
celebrating the Foundation's funding of the
laser technology restoration of the catacombs, 

New laser technology was used to remove the black gummy coating (from age, mold, candle smoke) and graffiti on the paintings.  The before and after photos are remarkable.

We were not allowed to take photos inside so these pictures (except at the end of the post) are not ours.
2006 excavations of 1,000 skeletons.

There are almost 90 decorated rooms in these 4.5 kilmoeters (3 miles) of burial niches on three levels well below ground.  We saw a dozen or more.  Over 20,000 bodies were once in this "cemetery," 1,000 of which were found only in 2006, with their togas still on.

An elaborately decorated room of likely a wealthy family.
These frescoes apparently document women participating in church rites, though we didn't see enough to draw that conclusion.  They include a painting of Jesus healing a "bleeding woman," the topic of which is of interest in church history.
Jesus healing the bleeding woman.

The frescoes are, of course, highly symbolic, and our tour guide (who spoke excellent English to the three of us on the tour that day) seemed to enjoy elaborating on the symbolism, which we attempted to interpret as well.

The new laser technology has been used on paintings in the more visited Catacombs of Domitila off the via Appia Antica, but those newly-restored paintings are not part of the tour as of 2018.

The mausoleum of St. Helena, undergoing restoration.
You enter the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter from the courtyard of the mausoleum of Helena, Constantine's mother, which is in the process of being restored.  When it is, this complex likely will attract more visitors.

One of the more informative aspects of the complex is the mausoleum's use of amphorae in its walls.  Amphorae, old vessels used to carry olive oil and other liquids, were thrown away once they were empty.  These old, often broken, ceramics then were sometimes used in the building of walls to lighten the load, because they were empty.  The wall, which basically was a tower, deteriorated over time, so that it now shows the amphorae inside.  A colloquial word in Italian for amphorae or jugs, is "pignatta."  The tower was known as the "tower of the jugs" or "Torpignattara," and so the neighborhood is named today.  That was a new one, even for our Roman friends.
The orange remains of the amphorae in the mausoleum's 'tower' from which Torpignattara gets its name.

Tours of the catacombs are available 5 times/day, every day except Thursday (much online information about the catacombs is woefully out of date), in English and Italian, and also via mp3 players in German, Spanish, and French. The regular price is 8 Euros, children under 7 free, reduced for children 7-18 and some others.  The Web site is sparse but clear and in English as well as Italian.  You can book via email (in English) online, and not much in advance.  We did it the day before we went.

Take the trenino or tram at the far end of via Giolitti next to Termini towards Centocelle, to the Berardi stop.  It's a short ride - about 10-15 minutes.  The catacombs are directly across the street.  A walk back towards the center along via Casalina will give you a feel for the heavily ethnic neighborhood of Torpignattara - and places to eat and drink.  You can catch the trenino back to Termini every few blocks.

And thanks to our friend Brian who told us about the recent restorations.


Unknown said...

Well for no obvious reason I found myself at 12:45 in the morning recalling a quite-some-number-of-years ago afternoon at the erstwhile Bennett-Graebner home on Chapin Parkway, and wondered what was up with them. Now I know.

All best.

Ted Sims

Dianne said...

Lo Zainetto Rosso is doing a tour of these on October 13, 2018. In English and Italian.

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Ted!! just saw your comment (no good excuse for that) - hope you see this. WRITE ME... same email as usual (but new home addresses... 2 after Chapin)... miss you! Dianne

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Diego - pls comment whenever you have an appropriate tour. Alla prossima! Dianne and Bill