Inside the catacombs, buried history ties Jews to ancient Rome
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Small staircase that separates bright summer day from dark, cold gallery is like a time machine

Inside the catacombs, buried history ties Jews to ancient Rome

Rich with symbolism, the mysterious underground chambers tell an unfinished tale of communal Jewish life 1,800 years ago

The painting of a menorah is one of several clues as to the Jewish origin of the Catacombe di Vigna Randanini. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)
The painting of a menorah is one of several clues as to the Jewish origin of the Catacombe di Vigna Randanini. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)

ROME — Aristocratic Roman families have chosen the scenic environs of the Via Appia to build their villas for centuries. Shrouded by lush gardens and trees, the mansions near the 2,000-year-old road connecting Rome with Southern Italy still stand majestically. The ancient neighborhood is surrounded by archeological sites, lawns littered with remains of columns and ruins of timeworn buildings.

In 1859, then-owners of one estate, the Randanini family, made an extraordinary discovery while preparing to plant a vineyard — an ancient catacomb from Roman times.

Catacombs (underground cemeteries) are quite common in the area of the Via Appia. The very word “catacomb” derives from the Latin expression ad catacumbas, “to the caves,” that originally designated the nearby Christian underground cemetery that came to be known as San Sebastiano Catacomb.

But the Catacombe di Vigna Randanini is unique compared to the dozens of Christian catacombs in the city: only a few meters into the site, in a cramped, painted chamber, a large brick-red menorah is silhouetted against the upper part of the wall in stark contrast to the stone and earth surroundings.

To reach the menorah’s chamber, visitors must descend into the ground. With flashlights as the only source of illumination, the small staircase that separates the bright summer day from the dark, cold gallery is like a time machine to Ancient Rome.

An area just above Rome's Catacombe di Vigna Randanini (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)
An area just above Rome’s Catacombe di Vigna Randanini (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)

Over the centuries, robbers and explorers have stripped this catacomb of most its content — the bones of those who were buried here, the decorations, the objects left by the mourners. But the hundreds of loculi (burial niches) excavated in the walls are still in situ, together with dozens of inscriptions, fragments of artifacts, and evocative frescoes which bear witness to how Roman Jews lived and died 1,800 years ago.

“The chamber with the painted menorah was the private chapel of a prominent family. There used to be a sarcophagus for the head of the family,” caretaker Alberto Marcocci tells The Times of Israel.

Marcocci is 84 years old. He spent 40 years working at the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, with a specialty in the field of catacombs. Since his retirement in 1992, he has taken care of the Vigna Randanini Catacombs on behalf of the Marquis del Gallo di Roccagiovine. The family, who can number Napoleon Bonaparte among their ancestors, currently owns the catacomb as well as the estate above, under the oversight of the Superintendence in collaboration with the Jewish Community of Rome.

Plan of the Vigna Randanini catacomb by Jean-Baptiste Frey published in the Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 10 [1933] (Photo courtesy of Jessica Dello Russo/ International Catacomb Society)
Plan of the Vigna Randanini catacomb by Jean-Baptiste Frey published in the Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 10 [1933] (Photo courtesy of Jessica Dello Russo/ International Catacomb Society)

At the time of its discovery, the Vigna Randanini site was the second Jewish catacomb to be unearthed in Rome. Later on, more Jewish catacombs would come to light, but of the six found, only two are still accessible.

Marcocci knows every corner of the Vigna Randanini catacomb and takes care that the structure remains solid. He also accompanies visitors. But the site, which numbers around 2,000 tombs, is not easily accessible. It can accommodate only small groups of people (not more than 10 at a time), the ground is uneven and there is no lighting system.

While those who are interested are able to book a visit around once a month, in honor of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy decreed by Pope Francis, the catacomb was opened for two extra days in May and June, thanks to the efforts of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, the Superintendence and the Jewish community.

The organizations are planning more open days in September and October as part of the program of the Jubilee Cultural Routes.

Detail of the inscription that marks the burial of four-year-old Neppia Marosa containing a menorah, a shofar, a lulav, and an etrog. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)
Detail of the inscription that marks the burial of four-year-old Neppia Marosa containing a menorah, a shofar, a lulav, and an etrog. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)

Upon deeper exploration, a few meters past the painted chamber — one of four that can be found in the catacomb — is another powerful symbol of the catacomb’s Jewish origin.

“Here was buried a four-year-old girl, Neppia Marosa,” Marcocci explains, pointing out a marble plaque. “Look at the carved symbols: there is a menorah, the small oil jug to refill it, a palm tree, an etrog, a shofar.”

Rome’s contemporary Jews recognize the importance of these symbols.

‘The Jewish catacombs are a source of pride since they attest to our presence in Rome since far-off times’

“The Jewish catacombs are a source of pride for our Jewish community, which is often referred to as one of the most ancient of the Diaspora, since they attest to our presence in Rome since far-off times,” Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni said during a conference on the topic in 2012.

“The catacombs belong to a very specific period in the history of Judaism, when the verse ‘For dust you are, and to dust you shall return’ (Bereshit 3, 19) was fulfilled not by burying the dead in the ground, but in the loculi excavated in the stone,” Di Segni added, explaining what it is possible to learn about the Jewish life of that times.

“There are no references to rabbinical figures, but many inscriptions mention scribes and arcontes, who were comparable to community presidents,” Di Segni said. “Moreover, it is interesting to see that all inscriptions are in Latin or Greek, with no Hebrew. Most of the names are not Jewish, and along with the Jewish symbols, there are many paintings or symbols that are either mysterious or definitely not Jewish. Therefore, we are probably speaking of a community very assimilated in the general society.”

The painted chamber with the Goddess of Victory crowning an athlete. (Courtesy of Jessica Dello Russo - International Catacomb Society)
The painted chamber with the Goddess of Victory crowning an athlete. (Courtesy of Jessica Dello Russo – International Catacomb Society)

Among the paintings referred to by Di Segni are the frescoes in the other three private chapels (or cubicula) in Vigna Randanini, where the walls are decorated with plants, animals, and even pagan figures.

Why there are such symbols in a Jewish cemetery remains a mystery, scholar Jessica Dello Russo from the International Catacomb Society says in a Skype conversation with The Times of Israel.

‘I couldn’t tell you what these people believed in’

“Aside from the menorah chamber, the other three chambers do not bear any significant Jewish sign,” Dello Russo explains. “The paintings are interestingly neutral, they feature the most generic kind of Roman sentiment connected to paradise — flowers, birds, the goddess of fortune Tyche. They are symbols which everyone used in that times. I couldn’t tell you what these people believed in.”

Another possible hint at the Jewish identity of Vigna Randanini is the strong presence of a specific type of burial niche, called koch.

“The kochim are shafts that go directly into the wall in a perpendicular direction, not parallel as you find in the vast majority of catacombs. They are very common in Israeli archeology, and for this reason many have taken them as evidence of Jewishness, but actually kochim have been found also in non-Jewish tombs in Palmyra and Northern Africa, as well as in Israel. Therefore, they are not necessarily a proof of a specific ethnicity. We need further studies on the issue,” Dello Russo points out.

An inscription with a menorah, a jug, and an etrog engraved. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)
An inscription with a menorah, a jug, and an etrog engraved. (Rossella Tercatin/Times of Israel)

“If it weren’t for the inscriptions, with the Jewish symbols they bear, but also the particular epitaphs and formulas that are used in them, like ‘lover of people’; ‘lover of laws’; ‘student of laws’; it would be very hard to identify the site as Jewish,” she added.

Dello Russo highlights that a vast part of the site, as well as the original entryways, are not currently accessible, leaving scholars with many questions.

“The catacomb, which is datable between the 3rd and the 4th century CE, stands on a pre-existing burial site. Whether it was pagan, Jewish or other, we don’t know. Vigna Randanini is still virgin territory. It would be wonderful to look at it more closely.”

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