In 1925, Prince Giovanni Torlonia offered Italian dictator Benito Mussolini the use of his majestic family villa in Rome as a residence. In the prince’s family since 1797, the villa had been restored and expanded over the centuries.
The Duce promptly accepted the prince’s offer. For the next 18 years Mussolini would live in Villa Torlonia with his family for the symbolic payment of one lira per month, enjoying the sprawling mansions and beautiful grounds.
But only a few years before the Mussolinis arrived, in 1919 an extraordinary discovery was made: Beneath the estate lay an underground Jewish cemetery — an ancient catacomb likely used between the 3rd and 5th centuries. Mussolini took advantage of them to help build the safest, most advanced possible underground bunker for himself and his family.
Torlonia died heirless in 1938. Four decades later, after years of neglect, the grounds of the estate were reopened as a public park. In addition, several buildings were restored and made available to the public after 1993. After years of excavations, the Jewish catacombs are also expected to open to the public in the near future.
It was discovered that there are roughly 3,800 graves in the cemetery under the villa, which covers more that 13,000 square meters (140,000 square feet). It has been excavated over multiple levels and is one of the few Jewish catacombs in Rome among dozens of Christian subterranean tomb sites.
The cemetery also contains a treasure trove of information that unravels mysteries about what Jewish life looked like more than 1,500 years ago in a city that has had an organized Jewish presence for the last two millennia.
But as the excavations to explore it have progressed, the site also prompted complex questions as to how to preserve the peace of those buried there, as is stringently required by Jewish law.
“According to halakha [Jewish religious law], human bodies must remain buried at all times,” Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni explained to The Times of Israel. He said that because of the sensitivity of the issue the Italian authorities conferred with Jewish institutions.
“The responsibility for the preservation of the Jewish catacombs rests with the state. However, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities has also been consulted. Many years ago, I was tasked with looking after the issue by its rabbinic consulting body,” Di Segni said, who added the project was funded by private donors from abroad.
“In the Jewish world there was deep concern about the situation at the site of Villa Torlonia,” he said. “We needed to find a solution that would take into consideration both the halachic needs and the archeological needs. That’s how we came to Amir.”
Di Segni was referring to Amir Genach, an Israeli conservator. Together with his company, Genach Amir Ancient Conservation Society and Mosaic Works Ltd, he has worked on several projects all over Israel — including at Beit Shearim in the Galilee, which features a Jewish necropolis from roughly the same time period as the catacombs under Villa Torlonia.
“The first time I visited the catacombs [at Villa Torlonia] we found a disaster, with literally thousands of tombs opened and human remains exposed [due to grave robbers and centuries of neglect]. Some of the barriers closing the tombs excavated in the walls had collapsed. At the same time, many chambers and corridors featured incredible frescoes and inscriptions,” Genach told The Times of Israel via telephone.
After Genach’s initial survey of the Italian catacombs, he gave a presentation for the Italian authorities detailing the scope of the work he and his team had carried out in the similar catacombs at Beit Shearim. Rabbi Chizkiya Kalmanovich from the European Committee for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries also participated in the presentation. The expertise of Kalmanovich and that of another specialist in the preservation of ancient Jewish cemeteries, Rabbi Levi Shmaya, proved to be essential in conceiving and carrying out the project.
“In sites like [Villa Torlonia and Beit Shearim] there are many points of view that must be taken into consideration: halacha, archeology, engineering, tourism,” Genach told The Times of Israel.
“We explained that we were there to speak on the behalf of the people buried in the catacombs, our forefathers, and that it was important to make sure that their bones were protected and not used for scientific analysis, as well as that the tombs that were still closed would never be opened,” he said.
Protecting the bones of our forefathers
After the Italian authorities gave Genach the go-ahead to begin work at the villa, a team of around 20 people spent a year clearing the entire catacombs of all bones and human remains, which they placed in one of the bare, undecorated corridors. Then they sealed it off so that the centuries-long rest of the deceased wouldn’t be disturbed again.
The deep connection between past and present is still very strong. Di Segni said that Italian Jews don’t view the remains at the site as simply archaeological finds, but as ancestors of a community that continues to thrive today.
“This site of Villa Torlonia is exceptional for many reasons,” Di Segni said. “The frescoes depicting objects connected to Jewish life and traditions are extraordinary, as well as the inscriptions found, which are invaluable when shedding light on the Jewish life of so many centuries ago.
“This is one of the very few examples of such an ancient Jewish burial site,” he said. “We can safely assume that the ancestors of many Jews not only in our community but all over the world are buried here. And we feel the emotional connection.”
Indeed, the walls of the catacombs depict countless menorahs, etrogim, shofars and other objects connected to Jewish rituals. One of the most beautiful chambers at the site is elaborately covered with Jewish symbols and floral patterns, including a depiction of a holy ark used to house Torah scrolls.
The unusual illustrated chamber has also been reproduced at the recently inaugurated Museum of Italian Judaism and the Holocaust in Ferrara, together with the replica of another chamber from the catacombs under the estate of Vigna Randanini on the Via Appia. Another example of Jewish catacombs was discovered in 1602 in the Monteverde neighborhood.
“Considering that in ancient Rome people used to bury their loved ones in cemeteries that were located in the vicinity of where they lived, the distribution of the evidence speaks volumes: the location of these Jewish cemeteries provides us with incontrovertible evidence [documenting] that in Late Antiquity Jews were not living in a single spot,” reads the Ferrara museum’s catalog entry devoted to Jewish catacombs.
Recent estimates reflecting a consensus among historians put the first-century Roman Jewish community at 40,000 to 50,000 people, or five to six percent of the local population. That number was echoed by the museum catalog.
The inscriptions found in the catacombs also indicate that there were at least 12 synagogue congregations distinguished by sometimes overlapping factors such as the neighborhood and geographical origin of the congregants. At times, congregations were even centered around a single profession. From the inscriptions we also learn that Jews had many different occupations, from butchers to medical practitioners.
Holocaust museum on hold
In 2005, the grounds of Villa Torlonia were designated as the future site of the capital’s Holocaust museum. However, 13 years later, construction has yet to begin. Rome’s Holocaust museum continues to maintain its temporary home in the Casina dei Vallati building in the city’s historic Jewish ghetto. It is not clear when the new building will be erected.
In the meantime, work in the catacombs has been recently been completed. Now it is up to the Italian authorities to open the site up to the public.
“The site is completely excavated. We are now planning an additional project in order to consolidate, restore and revamp it, so that it can be open to the public,” archeologist and Antiques Authority representative Daniela Rossi told The Times of Israel.
“The funds have already been allocated, it is just a matter of going through the bureaucratic process, although I cannot, unfortunately, make an estimation on how long it will take,” she said.
Rossi was very impressed by the experience of working alongside the special team brought by Genach.
“It was the first time that I cooperated with such a unique team — there was deep mutual learning and enrichment. I was especially captivated by one thing: for us, the humans remains there were just skeletons. For them, they were their grandparents,” she recalled. “I will never forget it.”