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Behind the Headlines the Jewish Catacombs of Italy

The Jewish catacombs of Italy — underground burial networks going back to the first century BCE and spanning the next five — are to leave the custody of the Vatican and become the responsibility of Italian government authorities, a move Italy’s Jews view as both a historic opportunity and a cause for concern.

There are about a dozen major Jewish catacombs known to have existed in Italy. Archaeological explorations dating back to the 1600’s testify to their existence in Rome, Sicily, Sardinia and the southern region of Apulia — especially Venosa and Bari.

Scholars estimate that in Imperial Rome, underground labyrinths were lined with up to 100,000 tombs. The tombs provide priceless information on the daily lives of Jews in the earliest European diaspora.

Since Italy’s reunification in 1870, and more formally since the 1929 Concordat between the Italian government and the Holy See, some Jewish and Christian catacombs in Italy have been under the control of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Art.

FEARS AROUSED IN JEWISH COMMUNITY

In February 1984, the Secretaries of the State of Italy and of the Vatican signed a revised version of the Concordat under which the Holy See agrees to relinquish its management of all “non-Christian” catacombs.

Though Italy’s 35,000 Jews had long and anxiously awaited this move, they now fear that lack of funds and archaeological know-how might well impede the restoration, further exploration, and above all conservation of the catacombs — thus, endangering the survival of the only direct source of information still available on early Jewish life in Italy.

REVELATION OF EARLY JEWISH LIFE

The epigraphs in the catacombs — about 75 percent in Greek, most of the rest in Latin and a small number in Hebrew — reveal the wide range of arts, trades, and professions of early Italian Jews: from artists, actors and scribes to lawyers, bankers, physicians, merchants and sailors — as well as their family, social, and religious community structures.

The wall frescos of the Roman catacombs depict menorahs and ritual subjects plus peacocks, birds, fish and serpents, winged victories, and nude athletes. This provides interesting evidence that Hellenized Jews lived according to a less rigorous interpretation of the commandment to refrain from making graven images, according to Tulia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UIJC).

A 1981 archaeological excavation of the catacombs of Venosa revealed the interesting fact that Jewish and Christian sections were located in “such proximity to one another” as to suggest “a high level of interaction in these communities” up to the ninth century, according to Prof. Eric Meyers of Duke University, who co-directed the Italian-American archaeological team with Prof. Cesare Colafemmina of Bari University.

Most of the Italian Jewish catacombs were thoroughly plundered in the long centuries before the Vatican authorities took over their supervision, and their treasures still surface in private auctions. These thefts were halted with the Vatican take-over.

METHODOLOGY OF CONSERVATION

The methodology of conservation employed by Vatican authorities differed for Christian and Jewish catacombs, however. The artifacts and inscribed tombstones of Rome’s Christian catacombs were largely kept in place and the catacombs were opened to guided tours for visitors from all over the world.

The archaeological artifacts found in the Jewish catacombs, however, were mostly removed and carefully stored in special areas of Vatican museums and later, Italian state museums, as well. Their safety there is guaranteed, but due to the wealth of the museums’ stocks and other priorities, they can presently be seen only upon special request from museum directors. A smaller quantity of tombstones and artifacts is dispersed in various city museums in Rome.

TWO CATACOMBS IN ROME SAVED

Of the six known Jewish catacombs in Rome, only two were saved from burial beneath modern buildings. One of these, the Villa Randanini, is the only one in all of Italy currently open to the public. The other Roman catacomb, the Villa Torlonia, and its counterpart in Venosa could conceivably be reopened if proper “first-aid” treatment were rendered.

The entrance to the Villa Torlonia catacomb was sealed off in 1978 by agreement between the Pontificial Commission for Sacred Archaeology, and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. This was done to “protect the catacombs from vandalism” when the ground they occupied — part of an estate belonging to the Mussolini family — was turned into a public park. Today, unfortunately, trucks and other vehicles occasionally pass over the unmarked earth covering the entrance.

The Venosa catacombs cover a vast and largely still unexplored underground area, much of which was ravaged and despoiled right up to and into the 20th century. Excavations were carried out there in May 1981 by the Italian-American team, with support from the UIJC and the World Jewish Congress.

After the earthquake that same year, the Italian government allocated funds for reinforcing the external and internal structures of the catacombs under the supervision of Prof. Mariarosaria Salvatore, Superintendent of Fine Arts at Venosa.

HOPES FOR OTHER EXCAVATIONS

Colafemmina, a Catholic priest fluent in Hebrew who co-directed the Venosa excavations and has been largely responsible for maintaining high public interest in conserving the Jewish catacombs, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency of his “dream” of another team excavation at Venosa. This one, he said, could also include experts from Tel Aviv University, with whom he discussed the idea on the most recent of his many trips to Israel.

Zevi would also like to see exploration of catacombs in addition to those in Rome and Venosa — including some whose entrances have been “lost” under construction sites but which, she said, still exist underground. She also envisions a complete inventory of the contents of the catacombs and the establishment of a Jewish Archaeological Museum in Rome to preserve and display at least part of the many objects which have been or will be discovered there. “But if we are to do any serious work on the catacombs, we need to raise several million dollars,” Zevi told the JTA. The Italian government, though willing to help, can make only a partial contribution to this effort, she said, because “with the best of good will, it already has more of this country’s vast archaeological, artistic and historical patrimony to conserve than it can afford to. And Italy’s small Jewish community has neither the expertise nor the funds” to do it alone.

“We Jews always speak of the centrality to our faith of historical memory,” wrote Zevi in an “Open Letter on the Catacombs,” appeal to world Jewry for funding. “Now we have a unique opportunity to act on our convictions for the sake of saving a precious testimony that would, if it were lost, be absolutely irreplacable.”

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