Tag Archives: Italian cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #79: the Archaeological Site at Ancient Pompeii

Tomb outside the walls of Pompeii

Ancient Pompeii
Pompei Scavi
Via Villa dei Misteri 2
Pompeii, Italy
Porta Marina Superiore ticket phone +39 081 8575348/9
Buried: August 24, 79 AD
Size: 165 acres
Number of interments: unknown, but estimated at 2000
Open: April 1 to October 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Last admission is at 6 p.m. November 1 to March 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last admission is at 3:30 p.m.
Closed: January 1, May 1, and December 25

During the Roman Empire, the Law of the Twelve Tables forbade burial or cremation inside Roman towns. Without embalming, bodies needed to be taken care of quickly. Notable or wealthy families might be granted space to build their tombs right outside the city walls. The poorer or less important you were, the farther your survivors had to carry your body to have it cremated.

From the ramparts looking out over the maze of buildings excavated from the volcanic debris, dead Pompeii seems enormous. Some villas have red tile roofs — modern restoration work — but most remain mere walls. In the background stands the murderer, Vesuvius, a little more than five miles away.

In 1748, almost 1700 years after the Roman city of Pompeii was wiped from the map, the discovery of the first tombs outside its walls on the old road to Noceria gave the world of glimpse of Roman mortuary customs.

The mausoleums look like square or rectangular boxes, built of simple bricks or volcanic stone, some faced with remnants of marble. Michael Grant’s Cities of Vesuvius reports that “The interiors of the tombs [had been] magnificently painted; and one of these edifices, closed by a single pivoted slab of marble made to present the illusion of a double door, contained extensive funeral furniture, including several urns and lamps, a gold seal ring, a miniature terracotta altar, two wine jars, and bottles of scent.” Of course, all the tombs have long since been looted of their expensive contents.

Barchilla’s tomb

One of the grandest Pompeian tombs is a large drum-shaped building with a modern marble plaque that remembers Barchilla. Although weeds sprouted from its roof when I visited — and parts of its stonework have been replaced with anachronistic stone and cement — the mausoleum stood in magnificent solemn stolidity.

Other tombs take the form of small temples with round or square pillars holding up their roofs. High overhead lurk shadowy figures, larger-than-life portrait sculptures of people whose ashes had reposed below. Unlike the Renaissance sculptures of saints guarding their tombs in Rome, these statues might actually have been carved from life.

The discovery of the tombs at Pompeii altered grave ornamentation throughout the Western world. After archaeologists excavated urns in the tombs (where they’d held sacramental water used to wash the corpses or ashes from cremations), stone carvers engraved urns on headstones that can still be found throughout Europe and the United States.

I was surprised to discover that the external necropolises (there are two at Pompeii) did not contain all the dead of the ancient city.

Pompeii had been a market town, home to 20,000. In 62 AD, a small earthquake caused damage to the city still being repaired seventeen years later, but the mountain appeared to go back to sleep. What Pompeians didn’t know was that the quake hadn’t eased the volcano’s internal pressure. Instead, gasses built up until they blew off the mountain’s crown. Rocks flew from the volcano, raining down to crush the city five miles away. Constant tremors flung down roofs and walls on people who’d just sat down to lunch. Most survivors grabbed what they could and fled.

Others, who remembered the previous earthquake, gathered provisions and hunkered down in their wine cellars to wait out the eruption. Some, like the priests of the Temple of Isis, spent too long collecting up their treasures. Everyone who did not flee died in the city. More than 1500 bodies have been found. Others are still being discovered. At this point, 20% of the buried city has yet to be excavated.

Vintage postcard of two bodies cast in plaster at Pompeii

Together in Pompeii speaks of the numbers of skeletons recovered in various places around the city. The soft parts of the buried bodies dissolved over the centuries, leaving bones inside people-shaped cavities in the volcanic ash and debris. One of the later archaeologists guessed that he could fill the holes with plaster and see the shapes of people long gone.

Over the ramparts from the road to Noceria, in the Garden of the Fugitives, stands a greenhouse that shelters plaster casts of bodies of dead Pompeians. A range of people lay crumpled under the glass. The lumpy figures are gray, as if modeled out of ashes. The rough surface of their skin looks like overlapping scales or the ruffled shape of feathers. The details of their clothes are smudged, but their gaping mouths show they’d struggled to pull in one more breath as the pyroclastic flow buried them.

Legs drawn up toward their torsos, they stretch their arms out as if the city wall could save them. Thirteen contorted figures are spaced pretty evenly, not laying atop each other, so it’s simple to distinguish between genders: the men were larger, with muscular legs. A mother reached toward her toddler. A man’s arm extended toward his wife.

Vintage postcard of Pompeiian victims and artifacts at the National Museum in Naples

I couldn’t get a good photo of the casts remaining at the death scenes in Pompeii, but my postcard collection contains several images of plaster casts displayed at the National Museum in Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli). Apparently, the casts are no longer made in Pompeii, because they destroy the delicate skeletons within.

As many as 2.5 million people pay their respects at the ruins of Pompeii each year.

Useful links:

The official website

Pompeii tourist information

After some buildings have collapsed, government funding will help preserve Pompeii

Information about the plaster casts

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Naples

Other Roman-era tombs on Cemetery Travel:

The Mausoleum of Augustus

The Pantheon

The Catacomb of St. Sebastian

A Scholarly Look at the Christian Catacombs of Rome

The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, InscriptionsThe Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this one up in a gift shop in Rome after visiting the Catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way. Now, after reading it, I want to go back to Rome and explore other underground cemeteries. Apparently, St. Sebastian’s was one of the earlier ones and others have beautiful mosaics or other decorations still in place. One even still has a saint’s bones in their original location. Sebastian’s catacombs have been thoroughly emptied over the years. Its namesake saint’s bones now lie in the basilica upstairs.

Rather than the tourist-friendly text I was hoping for, The Christian Catacombs of Rome is a scholarly work, full of terms like cubicula and arcosolia and phrases like “richly decorated with wall revetment in opus sectile.” (None of which my spell-check is liking.) Rather than the extensive bibliography of works in Italian, I would have prefered a glossary and a timeline. The book does include a removable map of 121 Early Christian Monuments in Rome and its Suburbs. Who knew there were so many?

I’m glad for the book’s extensive photo illustrations, capturing the murals, mosaics, and architectural details of the many Christian catacombs. The full-color pictures are much crisper than any tourist could capture. I wish, however, that the book was divided up so that it examined each of the more than 60 catacombs in order. I would like to be able to compare one to the next and know which are still open to visit.

A newer paperback edition is available from Amazon: The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian
View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian

Entry ticket for St. Sebastian’s catacombs

Catacombe di S. Sebastiano
Via Appia Antica, 136
00179 Rome, Italy
Telephone: 06 7850350
Founded: 1st century AD
Size: Nearly 7 miles of tunnels
Number of interments: none
Open: Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last entrance is at 4:30. Closed Sundays, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and from the third week or November until the third week of December.
Admission: Adults €8,00
Reduced ticket for children 6-12 and military personnel €5,00 Children under 6 and caretakers of the disabled are free.

Beyond the third mile marker on the old Appian Way stands a yellow church, the Basilica of St. Sebastian Outside the Walls. From the plaza, a door on your right leads to the Catacombe di San Sebastiano.

Buy your ticket at a window barred like an old train station. The lobby occupies a long low room full of fragments of marble and terracotta, many clamped tightly to the brown walls. Each item has a bird, a fish, or a lamb: symbols of Christianity to people who couldn’t read.

Guides of many languages lead tours of the catacombs, which you are not allowed to explore on your own. You’ll have to wait until there’s a large enough group that speaks your language before you begin.

The tour passes through only a fraction of the second of the four levels of the catacombs. The other levels are unlocked only to archaeologists blessed by the Pontificia Commissione di Archaeologia Sacra, a bureau of the Vatican.

You should know going in that there are no longer any bodies in the tunnels. Most were removed in the 4th and 5th centuries, when the catacombs suffered at the mercy of barbarian hordes that couldn’t breach the walls of Rome.

Yellow globes, hung at intervals near the tunnel’s ceiling, do little to brighten the gloom. You might want to bring a flashlight. With its help, you’ll be able to see scars left on the ceiling by pickaxes. Early Christians called Fossores, special miners in service to the early church, excavated the catacomb by hand. The ground here is tufa, a lava rock that is easy to dig. They carried the earth away in baskets.

The walls of the tunnel look as if bunks have been carved into the stone. The shallow niches are just large enough to tuck a body inside. The dead would be wound in a sheet and placed here without a coffin, then a slab of marble — if they were wealthy — or terracotta would seal them inside. The early Christians filled the graves on top first, then dug the floor down below them. In the tunnel where our tour group stood, the floor had been lowered five times.

Try to conjure a sense of what the place must have been like when bodies filled it. There was, of course, no embalming in the Roman world of the second and third centuries. When people died, their survivors had to cart them out of Rome, since the Law of the Twelve Tables forbade burial inside the city walls. Most Romans would not have owned a horse or an ox, especially not Christians, who tended to come from the lower and slave classes. I suspect that transportation of a cadaver presented a pressing concern in the Roman summer.

The pagan majority of Romans disposed of their dead by cremation. They burned corpses on a pyre, then collected the ashes into an urn. These urns of ashes were placed in tombs that lined the Appian Way, the road to Ostia through the Porta San Paolo, and all the other old roads leading out of Rome.

Jews practiced inhumation — burial in earth — in observation of Genesis 3:19: “Earth you are and to Earth you shall return.” We hear it most commonly as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer. Early Christians pursued this custom, burying their dead because Christ had been placed whole in his tomb. Early Christians anticipated bodily resurrection, the way Christ had come back.

Romans called a collection of graves a necropolis: a city of the dead. Christians, many of whom spoke Greek rather than Latin, referred to their burial places as coemeteria, equivalent to dormitories. The root of dormitory, of course, means to sleep. Christians believed that their dead were merely resting (ideally in peace) until Christ came again and ushered them into heaven. This is why we refer to a graveyard as a cemetery.

Our guide led us into a room unlike any of the shadowy hallways we’d visited. Marble sheathed its floor. Its walls were whitewashed. In contrast to the rest of the catacomb, this room was brightly lit. On my left stood a simple stone table, draped with a spotless white cloth edged in lace. Across from that, on a pedestal, balanced a polished marble bust of a man in pain or ecstasy. Bernini, the architect who decorated St. Peter’s Basilica, carved the bust.

Prayer card for St. Sebastian

Sebastian was a Roman soldier who decided he could no longer persecute Christians. The other soldiers tied him to a tree and shot him with their arrows. They left him to die, but he recovered from his wounds and started to preach. They captured him a second time and killed him. Christians buried his body beneath this altar. When Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he had a church built above the catacombs and Saint Sebastian’s bones moved into the basilica, directly overhead. One of the relics stored in the basilica is an arrow embedded in part of the pillar against which Sebastian was bound.

Our tour made one final stop. At some point during the excavation of the catacomb in the late 1800s, church archaeologists had discovered three Roman-era tombs. These little villas had been perfectly preserved when the low area where they stood had collapsed during an earthquake, then been been filled with rubble to support the church above. You can peer into these wonderfully preserved Roman tombs. Delicate mosaics brighten the surprisingly roomy interiors. One tomb had a staircase that stretched down to the tunnels below it.

“Here is the origin of the word catacomb,” our guide Maria said before we left the area. “This place was called cata cumbas, meaning the low place near the quarries. Here stood a crevice between the tufa hills where the Romans cremated their dead. Since it was already a necropolis, it made sense for the Christians to bury their dead here.”

From this place, the word catacomb spread to refer to any hall of Christian tombs, from the ossuary in the quarry under Paris to the aboveground mausoleum complex at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.

Useful links:

Italian homepage about the catacombs in translation

Rick Steves’ history of the catacombs

Overview of all the catacombs in Rome

Information on the bus routes to the catacombs

The Archeobus site (a tour bus that makes the rounds of Rome’s archeological sites)

My review of The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions

Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:

Cemetery of the Week #8: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #15: the Capuchin Catacomb


Cemetery of the Week #32: The Mausoleum of Augustus

The Mausoleum of Augustus

The Mausoleum of Augustus
Piazza Augusto Imperatore
Rome, Italy
Founded: 28 BCE
Number of Interments: none any longer
Open: only with a tour group

The Mausoleum of Augustus was built in 28 BCE as the tomb of Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, who took the name Augustus upon his ascension to the throne. His wife Livia, mother of Emperor Tiberius, was buried there, along with Emperor Nerva, who died in 98 CE. Reportedly the ashes of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius (Livia’s grandson) had also been entombed here. At some point during the mausoleum’s long history, all the ashes vanished.

It’s a struggle to imagine the mausoleum as it had been, faced with marble, surrounded by columns, with a hill on top crowned by a golden 50-foot statue. In two millennia, it had fallen a long way from such grandeur.

Rome Access describes the red brick Mausoleum of Augustus as “drum-shaped.” The cylindrical tomb has a dusty circular path around its base, paced into the moat between its brick walls and the land heaped up around the tomb. The tomb originally stood alone on a field where the Roman Army held war games. The site isn’t far from the river and years of flooding had all but buried it in silt. Lush green grass sprouts from its roof and bright red poppies nod amidst the wildflowers.

Behind a two-story iron gate, inside the sepulcher’s walls and draped in shadows, stood a big rectangular box — a sarcophagus? When I visited, there was no tourist office to answer my questions. Rome Access contradicted Permanent Italians by saying that the building opened for guided tours. Nothing announced when they might be.

The tomb was one of the first in Rome to be colonized by the living. During the Middle Ages, it served as a fortress. Worse, the area worked as a bullring in the 18th century. After that, it performed for a while as a concert hall.

From time to time, history tried to reclaim the mausoleum. Between 1926 and 1930, Mussolini restored the tomb by removing the grass growing over it and the dirt that had swallowed it. He planned to be interred in there with the memory of emperors. Instead, he’s buried with his family in Predappio, apparently not enough of a national treasure to find rest in the Eternal City.

I wonder over the ongoing attempts to find a purpose for the tomb. I haven’t ever lived in a museum; extremely few pre-20th century buildings exist in San Francisco. What it would be like to live in Rome, where the past inhabits large portions of your daily reality? As long as the moderns use something, it survives. Currently, the Mausoleum of Augustus serves no real purpose. It hasn’t been a grave in centuries. It isn’t much of a tourist attraction, since it isn’t open to tour. It is just a big building, sunk into the earth and overgrown with weeds. Do things need to be saved simply because they’re old and historic?

For me, it was enough that flowers grew there and birds sang louder than the traffic on the nearby Via del Corso.  At the Mausoleum of Augustus, I found a moment of peace.

Useful links:

History and dimensions of the Mausoleum of Augustus

Photos of the interior monuments

Aerial view of the tomb and the Tiber

Private tours

Another tour organization

My review of Permanent Italians

Other Roman-era tombs on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Roman Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian


Cemetery of the Week #29: the Roman Pantheon

The Pantheon from the Piazza della Rotonda

The Pantheon
Piazza della Rotonda, Rome, Italy
Telephone: +39 06 68300230
Established: 27 BC
Number of Interments: 5
Open: Monday to Saturday: 9 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Closed Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and May 1.
Admission: Free

The Rough Guide to Italy reports that the Pantheon is “the most complete ancient Roman structure in the city.” Agrippa, Augustus’ son-in-law, built the Pantheon in 27 BC, the year after Augustus found himself entombed in his mausoleum nearby (subject of a later Cemetery of the Week). That first Pantheon burned down, to be replaced by Hadrian in 125 AD.

In 609 AD, the abandoned building was re-consecrated as St. Mary of the Martyrs. Shortly afterward, the Byzantines stole the gilded bronze roof tiles to adorn Constantinople. The tiles traveled to Alexandria, before being finally lost to history. Plummeting from the splendor of Imperial Rome, the Pantheon’s portico slummed as a fish market during the Middle Ages.

In the 21st century, the Pantheon still isn’t much to look at from the outside. Its stone walls looks rotted and soft as butter. An embankment embedded with miscellaneous pieces of half-excavated architecture surrounds the building. Although no longer a fish market, the church’s shadowy portico remains uninviting.

Inside, the church glows with natural light. It is famed for its oculus — the eye of Heaven — an opening in the summit of the dome that allowed sunlight in. Polished marble of seemingly every shade from peach to red faces the walls. Inset panels of yellow-and-cream stone look like frozen flames and smoke trails. The antico giallo — yellow marble — had already become rare in Hadrian’s time. Its use demonstrated how much he treasured this place that he used it here.

Originally, the Pantheon honored the cult of the twelve gods, a holdover from Greece. Jove stood in the center of the room, surrounded by his family. Other niches held statues of Augustus and Hadrian. Being emperor made them divine.

The grave of Victor EmmanuelTo the right of the modern altar stands the grave of Victor Emmanuel II, first king of all Italy. His epitaph reads “Padre Della Patria”: Father of the Nation. With the help of Napoleon III, Victor Emmanuel unified the cities of Italy. Culbertson and Randall’s Permanent Italians: An Illustrated, Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of Italy reported that the king expected to be buried in his family’s tomb in Turin, but was deemed too much of a national treasure to be allowed to leave Rome.

When I visited, the black granite balcony that bore his name and epitaph looked very somber. Bright bouquets of orange lilies and birds of paradise softened it a little. An honor guard stood near a book where you could sign in to say you’d visited.
On the opposite side of the room stretched a monument to King Humbert I and Queen Margherita. Humbert was Victor Emmanuel II’s son. After his death, Margherita nursed soldiers in her home during World War I. Their grave sported a fascinating metal pillow supporting a scepter and crown.

Later, while re-reading Permanent Italians, I learned that the painter Rafael also rests in the Pantheon. I’m not sure how I missed him, except that a couple hundred stacking chairs lined up in front of the altar made it challenging to get around the room. The chairs were roped off, so I couldn’t sit and write and get a grasp on the place. In addition, dozens of people milled around as tour groups fought to stick together. A constant susurrus echoed from the high dome.

Rome Access reminds us that the Pantheon is one of the best-preserved Roman buildings in the world solely because the Catholic Church took care of it.

Useful links:

Architecture of the Pantheon

Aerial view of the Panthenon

Historical information about Hadrian

Other church burials on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #20: Napoleon’s Tomb

Cemetery of the Week #63: Westminster Abbey

Cemetery of the Week #70: Salisbury Cathedral

Richard the Lion-Hearted in Rouen Cathedral