I didn’t know what to expect from this rare behind-the-scenes (or should I say under the scenes) tour of the Vatican Necropolis (known as Scavi), which escorts visitors to the excavations of an ancient Roman cemetery, which was originally constructed next to the circus of Emperor Caligula. Discovered directly below St. Peter’s Basilica in the 1940s, the site was not announced to the public until the early 1960s.
The tour itself is hard to get onto. Most people email the Vatican Scavi office at least 3 months in advance to try to secure a spot on one of the few small group tours that enter the Necropolis each day–total visitors is capped at about 150 per day. I figured I’d email the Vatican and see if anything was available. Sure enough, they emailed me back fairly quickly with the date and time, should we accept (November 19, 11:45 am). That was it. If we wanted to go on the tour, that was our option.
I immediately paid the seemingly steep fee of 13€ for each ticket and patiently waited on my confirmation email, which came just as quickly as the first response (the Scavi office has their crap together).
Now, let me clear something up, as it’s a bit confusing. The Necropolis is not to the grotto beneath St. Peter’s where many popes are interred. Rather, it is below the grotto. In fact, it is three stories below the basilica itself. The tomb of St. Peter actually sits exactly three stories below the dome, Bernini’s baldacchino, and the papal altar. The location of these items is not an accident, they were built precisely over St. Peter’s tomb to pay homage to the Saint as well as to help connect visitors with his remains.
I am going to back up a bit and review some history.
If you don’t want to hear me babble, you can watch the really well made virtual tour of the site that the Vatican has put together. You can essentially take the exact same tour I did.
And if you do keep reading, I’d still check out the link. It does far more justice to this incredible site that I ever could.
The ancient cemetery underneath St. Peter’s dates back to 1st century and likely even before that. The cemetery itself is reported to stretch from Vatican Hill all the way to the Tiber River, however, excavations only cover a small part as it became too dangerous to dig any further.
To access the Scavi office (to wait for our guide), we had to go through security and receive pat downs (I wish) from the Swiss Guard. Then we milled about in an out-of-the-way courtyard for 15 minutes or so before our guide escorted us inside.
Our tour began in a small room with a huge model of the ancient basilica that Emperor Constantine built on the site. As the first Christian Emperor, he chose the spot of the religions most massive structure to date because of one reason–St. Peter. Historical records indicate that Peter was crucified on the site–actually reported to be on the exact location of the present-day Clementine Chapel. After the crucifixion, Roman Christians retrieved the body and buried it in a secret tomb within the cemetery. The location was kept secret to help protect the site and the body of one of the most important figures of the burgeoning Christian faith (at the time being a Christian was punishable by death).
Gradually, the location of the site was forgotten by all but a few believers.
“In the early 4th century, the Emperor Constantine I decided to honour Peter with a large basilica. Because the precise location of Peter’s burial was so firmly fixed in the belief of the Christians of Rome, the church to house the basilica had to be erected on a site that was not convenient to construction. The slope of the Vatican Hill had to be excavated, even though the church could much more easily have been built on level ground only slightly to the south. There were also moral and legal issues, such as demolishing a cemetery to make room for the building. The focal point of the Basilica, both in its original form and in its later complete reconstruction, is the altar located over what is said to be the point of Peter’s burial.”
So essentially, Constantine destroyed an entire cemetery to create the foundations of his basilica. None of the tombs, save one, were given a second thought. All Constantine cared about was building his structure directly over St. Peter’s final resting place.
He took Matthew 16:18–where Jesus tells Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church…”–very literally when he chose the site, which was completely ill suited to be the location of such an immense building.
Our tour guide led us down into the excavated streets of the cemetery where we were shown into many frescoed and multi-roomed tombs complete with sarcophagi, detailed inscriptions, and courtyards where families came to dine with their deceased loved ones. There are reported to be at least 1,000 burial sites in the cemetery–not a large number considering the high infant mortality rate and average life expectancy of about 35 years during the 1st century.
At one point he directed our attention upwards. There, through a round, glass grate that people were walking on, we could see three stories up into the massive dome. I don’t think most of the people walking through the Basilica even realized what was three stories beneath them. It was awesome.
After about an hour of exploring the excavations and hearing about such incredible history (and pinching ourselves to actually be breathing it in and touching it with our own hands) we ascended a small flight of stairs into a tiny room which as been a holy Christian site for a millennium–the tomb of St. Peter.
Our guide used his flashlight to show us the small niche, deep inside the tomb, where a few bone fragments lay on purple cloth. The Vatican has carbon dated and studied the bones (and the cloth in which they were found) and has officially declared them to be those of Peter and that the site is indeed his tomb. Whether they are actually St. Peter’s bones or not, the experience of just being there, underneath the largest church in the world, walking the streets of an ancient Roman cemetery, was simply beyond words.
When workers found the site, they discovered countless coins, mementos, and other items dropped down from above by pilgrims over the centuries.
Our small group lingered in the room, completely quiet. Many, no doubt, soaking it in and saying their own prayers (I know I was).
I’m a very sensory-oriented person, so while I probably shouldn’t have, I found myself running my hands along the walls, tombs, and inscriptions of people who lived so long ago and whose contributions to society are all but lost. I feel like I was connecting with people who lived over 1,000 years ago by simply touching the stones that they laid.
After leaving St. Peter’s tomb, our guide led us into the gorgeous Clementine Chapel. The small chapel is beautifully decorated with frescoes and gold leaf and is the spot where countless popes have knelt in solitary prayer. It felt surreal to be touching (again, I had to touch something every time the guide turned his back) the actual altar that popes have knelt and prayed before. I am not Catholic, but it was still an incredible experience.
From there we were led past a few of the “country chapels” such as Ireland and Poland and finally bid adieu by our guide in the grottoes.
The tour lasted about 1.5 hours and was, of course, well worth every penny. Even Vince, who isn’t into history at all, really liked it. I thought it was incredible and recommend anyone visiting Rome at least try to book it.
And as an added benefit, you can simply walk through the grotto and up into the basilica, skipping the huge line outside.
*All photos were taken in the private courtyard outside the Scavi office. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed of the actual excavations, which was fine as it let me simply enjoy the tour without having to focus on capturing in anything but my memory. There are many more photos of the outside posted to my Flickr stream.
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