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Letter from Rome

Secrets of the Catacombs

A subterranean necropolis offers archaeologists a rare glimpse of the city’s early Jewish community

January/February 2024

Rome Menorah FrescoGiovanni Torlonia, an Italian noble who had followed his family into the banking business, began to renovate and upgrade his sprawling estate just beyond Rome’s Aurelian Walls on the Via Nomentana, an ancient road leading north out of the city, in 1919. Since Torlonia’s great-grandfather had acquired the land in 1796, the estate had become host to a combination of stunning architectural constructions and at times bizarre attempts to capture the wonders of the past. The centerpiece was the Casino Nobile, a white mansion that stood at the top of a grand staircase and featured a neoclassical portico with a triangular roof framing a terracotta bas-relief. In addition to a large ballroom lined with mirrors and lit by chandeliers, the mansion was decorated with hundreds of antiquities, including Greek and Roman statues and vases, some acquired from archaeological digs the family had funded during the nineteenth century. Disappointed that the estate itself had yielded no ruins, Giovanni’s grandfather, Alessandro, had commissioned a range of facsimiles to dot the landscape, including Egyptian obelisks, a basilica, a dilapidated Temple of Saturn, and a miniature Roman Forum with fallen columns. Giovanni carried on the tradition, installing an Etruscan-style tomb in the mansion’s basement. Many of these structures still stand on the estate, which is now a public park.


Rome MapWhile digging to build a new stable as part of the 1919 renovations, workers discovered a catacomb, with mazes of passageways whose walls were filled with niches for the dead. From the second through fifth century A.D., catacombs were a common approach to burial in Rome. Rapidly advancing urban development in the early twentieth century led to the discovery of many ancient catacombs, while others had been unearthed as early as the Middle Ages. These underground necropolises emerged as popular targets for grave robbers, explorers, and, eventually, archaeologists. To date, more than 60 catacombs, amounting to hundreds of miles of passages, have been identified beneath the city.


But the catacomb at Villa Torlonia stands out, and has since its discovery. When archaeologists first entered the underground complex, they were struck by the numerous depictions of menorahs—candelabras with seven branches—on the wall and ceiling frescoes and grave markers. This was a clear sign that this catacomb was Jewish, unlike most of the others in the city. Villa Torlonia was the sixth, and so far the last, Jewish catacomb to be found in Rome and is one of just two accessible today. The other is Vigna Randanini, which was discovered in 1859 and is located on the Appian Way, a major ancient road that is home to several Christian catacombs as well. Three others also identified during the nineteenth century were later reburied and lost. The first Jewish catacomb to be discovered, in the early seventeenth century, was located in the Monteverde neighborhood. Scholars studied it and recorded many of its inscriptions, but it was buried by a landslide in the early twentieth century.



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