Subterranean Rome: the Catacombs

The rebuilding of Counter-Reformation Rome by the papacy occurred alongside the rediscovery of its subterranean early Christian heritage: the catacombs. This was a textual and archaeological project which occupied the minds of some of the foremost scholars of the day, including Cardinal Cesare Baronius. Published posthumously in 1635, Antonio Bosio’s 656 page Roma Sotterranea was one of the most ambitious components of this programme. Combining a systematic topographical survey of the passages and tombs with an account of the rituals of burial and relic veneration, this highly illustrated book invited its readers to enter the ‘theatres and circuses’ in which the ‘holy gladiators of Christ’ had been laid to rest in their imaginations. Presented as a riposte to Protestant iconoclasts who impugned the sacred images it reproduced, it was a work of devotion, polemic and scholarship rolled into one. Bosio derived his knowledge of this underground world from both books and field visits, armed with shovels, pickaxes, and trowels. Sites of memory that provoked emulation of the heroic martyrs who had died in defence of the infant faith, the catacombs became the abode of pious Catholics. The future saint Philip Neri lived ascetically in San Sebastiano, eating bread and vegetable roots, for prolonged periods in the 1540s. AW

Antonio Bosio, Roma Sotterranea (Rome: Guglielmo Facciotti, 1632 [1635]), title-page.


Further Reading

Simon Ditchfield, ‘Text before Trowel: Antonio Bosio’s Roma sotterranea revisited’, in Robert Swanson (ed.), The Church Retrospective, Studies in Church History 33 (1997), pp. 343–60.

Simon Ditchfield, ‘Reading Rome as a Sacred Landscape, c. 1586–1635’, in Will Coster and Andrew Spicer (eds), Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 167–92.

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