Vatican Opens Hidden Underground Roman Necropolis to the Public

For the first time, the Vatican Museums network in Italy will grant direct public access to an ancient underground burial site beneath the city through a new designated entrance. Debuting last Friday, November 17, guided tours of the Necropolis of Via Triumphalis on weekends offer visitors the chance to see well-preserved Ancient Roman burials dating between the 1st and 4th century CE.

Ancient Roman hygiene laws prevented cremations and burials within the city. The experience of the newly accessible passage, titled “Life and Death in the Rome of the Caesars,” begins at the Santa Rosa gate at Piazza Risorgimento and channels southward of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Hill. According to Vatican Museums Director Barbara Jatta’s statement to the Vatican News, it was found in an exceptional state of preservation due to a landslide that likely occurred during the 4th century, and was once only open to scholars and researchers.

The center of the necropolis was first uncovered in the late 1950s during excavations for the Vatican Autoparco. In 2003, a burial section named Santa Rosa was excavated during the development of an underground parking lot. Sections of the necropolis have been available for public view since early 2014, but the new entrance from Piazza Risorgimento is unprecedented.

Necropoli della via triumphalis mosaico con dioniso e satiro tra eroti vendemmianti 230 250 ca. 02
One of several detailed mosaics within the necropolis (photo by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons)

The arrangement of human remains across sloped terraces makes up only a fraction of the cultural information stored beneath the city — the necropolis is rife with artistic depictions of ancient life and traditions as well as funerary objects that have evolved over centuries. As the necropolis is considered a lower-to-middle-class burial site, the deceased span the demographics of enslaved people, freed people, and artisans of Rome, with those on the wealthier end having been memorialized with ornate marble altars, sarcophagi, mausoleums, and arcosoliums (arched cells with a recess).

The earlier burials range from terracotta urns filled with cremated remains to skeletons most likely wrapped in fabrics that have since decayed along with the organic matter. Thought to be typical of only wealthier burial sites, the entire necropolis is decorated with detailed mosaics, statues, bas-reliefs, frescoes, and inscriptions that immortalized the individual histories of the deceased. Leonardo Di Blasi, an expert in the Vatican Museum’s Ancient Greek and Roman section, talked to Euronews about the tomb of a man named Alcimo, whose grave inscription states that he was a scenographer and custodian for a Pompeiian theater. Due to the high infant mortality rate at the time, many tombs belong to infants and children under five.

Visitors interested in viewing the Necropolis of Via Triumphalis, either on its own through the Santa Rosa entrance gate or in conjunction with a greater tour of the Vatican Museums, can make reservations online.

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