Commentary Magazine

The Unknown Catacombs

Italian Jews are finding it very difficult to examine and preserve the records of their own history. The town of Venosa in the South of Italy, for example, boasts a group of ancient catacombs of exceptional historic importance. Known for centuries as the catacombs of Santa Ruffina, and generally believed to be of Christian origin, they were actually used by Italian Jews both as a burial ground and religious meeting place from about the 3rd to the 11th centuries. From the evidence unearthed at Venosa we learn, among other things, that there was a renaissance of Hebrew in Italy during the early Middle Ages, and that there was far more Jewish cultural activity going on there than the standard texts had led us to believe. Yet today the catacombs of Santa Ruffina are in imminent danger of destruction, and the priceless materia they contained is being tucked away in museums and monasteries throughout the Italian peninsula—part of a vast cultural and historical patrimony which may soon be lost to the Jews forever.

How little we know and how much still remains to be learned about the history of ancient and medieval Jewish communities in Italy was symbolized by the discovery—no more than fifteen years ago—of the existence of a substantial Jewish community in the ancient Roman port city of Ostia Antica, complete with a synagogue which is the oldest extant monotheistic structure in Europe. Among other things, the findings at Ostia Antica necessitate a revision of the historical commonplace that the Jews came to Rome in large numbers only after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., for the Jewish community at Ostia Antica antedates that event by about a hundred years.

Yet until this community was discovered, Ostia Antica had been considered just another Roman outpost, inhabited first by Romans, then by Christians. No one thought to look for evidence of Jewish life because Jews for the most part are not included in the mainstream of Italian history except as a curiosity—a tiny handful of people who from time to time have produced something or someone of interest.

This systematic exclusion, which serves the ideological purposes of both Jews and Gentiles on occasion, can take place only so long as the actual evidence from the ancient world goes unexamined. Once the Pandora’s box is opened, we discover that the Jews figured prominently in the political, economic, and religious history of the Roman empire as well as of Rome itself, and that they constituted a surprisingly large percentage of the population of the ancient world. (Of some seventy million inhabitants of the Roman empire at its peak, according to recent studies, seven million were Jews—as compared with the four million citizens of the city of Rome itself.)

All of this suggests that there is historical treasure buried in the ruins of Italy, but it has been exceedingly difficult to get at. Even where excavations have taken place, the material uncovered has more often than not proved inaccessible to the Jewish community. A case in point is that of the Jewish catacombs at Monteverde, a once-splendid ruin dating back to the end of the Roman republic. According to the German archaeologist, Nikolaus Mueller, these catacombs are of inestimable importance in establishing the Jewish presence in ancient Rome. Hidden for nearly twenty centuries, the incredible trove at Monteverde was first uncovered in the early 1600’s, when Rome was undergoing its baroque transformation under the hand of Pope Urban VIII and his twin architectural geniuses Bernini and Borromini. No sooner had the curtain of silence been lifted, however, when it dropped again, and we hear no more of Monteverde for another century or so, when an Italian architect bemoaned the deterioration of this priceless historical relic. By the time Mueller rediscovered the catacombs in the early 1900’s, they were in a pitiable state, but, with the help of the Academy of Jewish Science of Berlin, he was fortunate enough to carry out substantial excavations for the next several years. By the 1930’s the catacombs had deteriorated further and the excavations stopped. Today, for all practical purposes, they no longer exist.

The Monteverde necropolis provided a gold mine for historians of the Jewish communities of ancient Rome. Thanks to these catacombs we know the names of many of the families who lived in the ancient city, and that they spoke Greek rather than Latin or Hebrew; we know the names of all thirteen (1) of the synagogues of ancient Rome, as well as the occupations, habits, and modes of dress adopted by members of the Jewish community. But the story of Monteverde also has contemporary significance—as an example of the reluctance of the Italian cultural world to undertake a serious reconsideration of the history of the Jews of Rome. The catacombs of Monteverde could still have been saved in the 1930’s—indeed, a prominent archaeologist at the University of Rome remarked at the time that they were in better condition than many of the Christian catacombs in the city. But despite these warnings, no measures were taken to protect the Monteverde site. And though it might be tempting to attribute this failure to Fascism, the fact is that Italian Fascism in the 1920’s and 1930’s had not yet turned anti-Semitic. No, the tragedy of Monteverde is not the result of modern politics; it is part of a much older and much more durable Italian tradition.

The pattern becomes clearer when one considers other Italian Jewish treasures from the ancient world. In 1882 a group of archaeologists found a Jewish catacomb on the Via Labicana, slightly more than a mile from Porta Maggiore. After waiting two years to examine it, the archaeologists pronounced the catacomb of considerable historic importance, yet all traces of the site have since vanished, and are probably buried beneath the network of roads that have been constructed in the area in the intervening century. The same destiny has also befallen the Jewish necropolis of Via San Sebastiano, adjacent to the famous Catholic catacombs, which are an obligatory tourist stop to this day. Interestingly enough, there are some Jewish tombstones and wall inscriptions still visible on Via San Sebastiano today, but hardly anybody ever sees them for the simple reason that the candles provided at the site are relatively short and tend to burn down at about the time one reaches the Jewish artifacts.



Those who wish to examine Jewish catacombs in Rome today must go either to the Via Appia Antica (in the heart of cinema mogul territory) or to the Via Nomentana in the park of the Villa Torlonia. To gain entry to the Via Appia catacombs a series of formal requests must first be lodged with the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology, which is in charge of all the catacombs in Rome, and whose functionaries make it a point to warn visitors of all the problems involved. In the case of the Villa Torlonia, there used to be a problem crossing Prince Torlonia’s private property; recently, however, the city of Rome has converted the estate into a public park and the catacombs are open one morning each week. But the relics from Villa Torlonia may not even be available for this limited viewing; a few years ago a small door was built leading from the street to the entrance into the catacombs, probably for the use of Vatican archaeologists who have been quietly digging at the site for five years.

The Jewish catacombs on the Via Appia, which are known only to students of Roman archaeology or Jewish history, are even more difficult to find. They are not mentioned in any of the tourist guides to Rome, and there are no signs indicating their existence (or, for that matter, the existence of the other Jewish catacombs); nobody—not even the experts of Rome’s Jewish community—will tell you about them unless you pry the information out of them.

The Appia catacombs are in bad shape. A few years ago representatives of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities managed to obtain funds for their restoration and attempted to get in touch with the Vatican Commission on Sacred Archaeology for this purpose. In keeping with tradition, nothing came of these contacts, and the catacombs continue to deteriorate.

Considerable work has gone on at all these sites, however, performed almost entirely by Vatican experts. Under their supervision, the objects from the Jewish catacombs of Rome, like the material originating elsewhere in the country, have been dispersed among the various museums of the Catholic Church all over the peninsula. Much of this material is to be found in Rome itself—there used to be a Jewish Hall at the Lateran Museum in Rome, for example, which contained a good many epigraphical relics from the Monteverde catacombs. The rest of it is in monastical museums and small churches elsewhere in Italy. But wherever these relics are stored, they are not much talked about, for the Vatican has shown little interest in bringing them to the light of day.

Not too long ago, the Vatican Museum opened a huge exhibit of religious cultures of the world which took up miles of space in the endless corridors leading to the Sistine Chapel. In all this vast expanse, the Jewish exhibit consisted of one small display case, containing a meager handful of Jewish artifacts, and tucked away in a corner at the end of one of the halls. No suggestion was offered that the Vatican Museum actually contains countless treasures from Jewish antiquity or that the city of Rome is full of things which bear witness to an important Jewish presence both in Rome itself and in the rest of the country.



To remedy this situation and to enable Jews fully to explore and to preserve their historical patrimony in Italy, a change in the law is required. The Concordat of 1929 between the Italian Fascist government and the Vatican stipulated that the Church would have full control over Italian catacombs, and this provision is still in full force. At the moment, negotiations are under way to revise the Concordat, in order to provide for a greater separation between church and state, and to guarantee greater integrity for the religious minority groups in Italy. Many had hoped that these negotiations would provide an opportunity to transfer the administration of the Jewish catacombs from the Vatican to the Italian government, which could then engage the participation of the Jewish organizations. To date, however, statements on this subject by Giulio Andreotti (the President of the Council of Ministers) and by Vatican officials have been anything but clear. The chairman of the Pontifical Commission, Father Umberto Fasola, has given two interviews on the subject, elucidating two separate positions. To the Roman Jewish magazine Shalom he said that “if the Jewish community wishes to share the responsibility or assume all of it, the present situation can be modified.” But to the radical-chic daily La Republica he came down sharply against relinquishing Vatican control over the catacombs:

Within ten years they would all be ruined. For 150 years we of the Vatican have been digging in the Roman earth. How could they undertake new projects and keep up the existing catacombs without the help of our Commission?

I am opposed to giving them up, for the same reason for which they were entrusted to us; that is, because only the Pontifical Commission is capable of dealing with the catacombs in Italy.

To those who have followed the attempts of Italian Jews to gain some small control over their cultural patrimony in recent years, Father Fasola’s shift in position should come as no surprise. Time and time again the Vatican has made promises to the Jews in public, only to rebuff them in private. Indeed, the pattern is so consistent that there is a suspicion in some quarters that theological motives are involved. What could these be?

Part of the answer comes from Father Fasola himself, who has never opposed ceding the actual relics stored in Vatican museums to Jewish institutions, though he is against handing over the catacombs themselves. Could it be that there is something else buried in the soil of Italy along with these artifacts (for which no catalogue exists) that the Vatican wishes to keep there? If so, in all likelihood it is evidence that Jewish and Christian histories in the first centuries of the “Christian era” are cut from a single piece of cloth, theologically speaking, and that the convenient division which has hitherto prevailed between the two might have to be abandoned. There are Jewish sarcophagi in Rome, for example, dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, which are covered with figurative representations (despite scriptural injunctions against such art), and strongly resemble Christian funereal art of the same period. An important unresolved question, as one scholar has written, is whether

. . . these Jewish paintings, and their far more abundant and varied counterparts in the Christian catacombs in Rome, share a common Jewish source that has now vanished. Like other early Christian art, they show little awareness of the Gospels (other than John) and display an extraordinary, total avoidance of the death of Jesus, or even of his arrest and trial. For evidently these events were still regarded by many, for all that the New Testament has said, as horrible and hideous defeats. . . . These themes have been traced back, conjecturally but plausibly, to lost Jewish paintings in catacombs, or, conceivably, in illuminated editions of the Septuagint. . . .

If such a common Jewish origin were proved, then early Christianity—which avoided dealing with the question of the death of Jesus—would have to be treated as part of a Jewish tradition in which a presumed messiah was revealed to be false, and his death viewed as a condemnation of those who had believed in him. This Judeo-Christianity would itself have to be analyzed in terms of the much older tradition of the Roman Jewish community, to which, in all probability, John addressed his “good news.”

It is unfortunately not possible to test any of these fascinating hypotheses at present, because the catacombs are in the hands of an interested party. Indeed, there are some in Italy who believe the Vatican is systematically eliminating evidence which might necessitate revising the official history of Christianity in Rome, just as in earlier times the Church sacked the monuments of pagan Rome to make it a more visibly Christian city. Such suspicions are probably misguided, but they flourish under an arrangement which gives the Vatican total control over what is excavated, what is preserved, and what is opened to public view.



To change this arrangement and wrest control of the Jewish catacombs from the Vatican has been the life’s work of a single individual, Henryk K. Geller, a former Austrian, now Israeli, who has lived in Rome for over forty years. For nearly two decades Geller, who is the author of Jewish Rome, has been trying to convince the Jews of Italy that they should be administering the catacombs and studying and displaying their treasures themselves. Thus far, however, Geller’s efforts to persuade the Jewish community to raise the funds and find the skilled personnel necessary for the purpose have met with little success, in part because the Italian Jewish community is not particularly well off, in part because its leaders, conditioned by centuries of life in the shadow of St. Peter’s, prefer to maintain a low profile, and in part because the Italian government has not been eager to engage in such battles with the Church. Moreover, with the rising incidence of anti-Semitism in Italy, and the almost universal antagonism to Israel which exists among both Catholic and left-wing politicians, Jewish leaders have been reluctant to put themselves in the spotlight. Typically, when interviewed by the New York Times in early March, both the Chief Rabbi of Rome and the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities said that there were no problems worth mentioning, that everything was going well, and that the Church had taken exemplary care of Jewish catacombs and treasures.

Fortunately, however, some small grounds for optimism do exist. The small but influential Republican party has launched a vigorous campaign for the de-Vaticanization of the Jewish catacombs, and has received support from a handful of distinguished intellectuals. Former Minister of Cultural Riches Giovanni Spadolini, himself a Republican, has thrown his considerable prestige behind the project, and given it the benefit of his long experience. In Spadolini’s words:

The revision of the Concordat and a policy for cultural riches must be more than ever anchored to that religion of liberty, in whose name it may prove necessary to translate Croce’s phrase “we cannot fail to call ourselves Jews.”

Finally, the Italian Jewish organizations could undoubtedly benefit from the support and the vigor of other Jewish institutions which have had experience in organizing such cultural undertakings. Surely it is absurd that the ancient synagogues of Prague and Toledo have been restored to Jewish hands while the most ancient community of the Diaspora remains cut off from its own history.

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