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Rome: Vatican Necropolis (Via Triumphalis) Tour
The announcement in October 2006 of the recent opening to the public of the newly discovered Roman necropolis at the Vatican seemed timed to coincide with our long-planned trip to Rome in November. We were delighted when our request for a reservation was quickly answered and we were able to include the new tour in our plans.
Since this is a new tour, not yet covered in any of the guidebooks (or very well by most websites, including the Vatican's), I hope these notes will be useful to others trying to see this new discovery.
The necropolis was located along the Roman Via Triumphalis, a major north-south road commemorating an early Roman victory over the Etruscans to the north, roughly along the line of the modern Via Leone IV. It was lined with tombs dating from the late 1st century BC to the early 4th century AD. This necropolis is generally of a lower social status than the necropolis seen on the Scavi tour under St. Peter's, and the two are not thought to have been related. All of the tombs here appear to be pagan, even though the period of its use does extend into the Christian era. Due to development on the site, both inside and outside the Vatican, it is likely that only a small portion of the site has been excavated.
There are actually two separate parts of the necropolis which are part of the tour, and they were discovered at different times, though both were found during construction of new parking garages. The first, known as the "Necropoli dell'Autoparco", was discovered in the 1950s, but was not opened to the public at that time. The second area, known as the Santa Rosa site, was found during work on a new garage in 2003. In total, around 40 large tombs and over 200 individual graves were found on the two sites. Both areas have just recently been set up for visitors and they were opened to the public in October 2006.
The necropolis can only be visited on a guided tour. To schedule a tour, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (or email@example.com as listed on their press release - try both!) with your name, the number of people in your group, the preferred language for the tour, and the dates you would like to take the tour (the more choices you give them, presumably the better your chance of getting a tour). Currently it's only open on Fridays and Saturdays though they've said that this may change if there's enough demand. Tours are available in Italian and English at least. I'm not sure about other languages, but that probably also depends on demand. We received a response by email within one or two days, confirming our tour in English on the date requested.
We did have a slight glitch a few days before our trip when we received another email saying that due to scheduling problems the tour would only be available in Italian on the day of our reservation. We were offered a choice of going at the original time on a tour in Italian or of taking a tour in English one day earlier. Fortunately, our schedule was flexible and we were able to make the change. Frankly, if offered the choice of a tour in Italian or no tour at all, I'd gladly take the Italian tour - I'm sure I wouldn't have gotten as much out of it, but it would still have been a very worthwhile visit. Hopefully this sort of glitch is just part of getting the new tour program up and running and will be less common as they get the kinks worked out.
The entrance to the tour is at the guided tours entrance to the Vatican Museums, just to the right of the public entrance. Entry was a little confusing. A guard at the entrance had our names on a clipboard. At the appointed time, he escorted us to the entry line and told us to go through security and then to a ticket window in the lower level (the group tours area). We were then passed around to a series of ticket windows, none of which seemed to know anything about this tour. We finally found another security guard who took us back outside to the "groups" line where we had started. Our names were then checked again, we were given a badge to wear, and with the rest of our group were escorted once more through security and into one of the ticket sales lines. This time we were able to buy our tickets (tickets cost 8 Euro each) and meet our guide. The whole process was a bit confusing, but really only took about 10 minutes. Again, I'm sure it's just part of their getting organized to offer this new tour and will hopefully not be an ongoing source of confusion.
You enter the tour by going upstairs and through the ticket turnstiles as you would to enter the Vatican Museums. A guard then opened a door leading outside and the group followed the guide and a security guard on a short walk through the Vatican grounds. The actual site of the necropolis is just inside the Porta Sant'Anna, most of the way back to Piazza San Pietro, so it's a bit of a hike. The guard and guide were careful to keep the group together as the photographers among us (myself included!) were tempted by some views of the Vatican that we don't normally get to see. By the way, photography without flash is allowed on this tour, unlike the Scavi excavation.
This tour should be okay for all except the most severely claustrophobic. Yes, it's partly underground, but at all times you're in large rooms with high ceilings and plenty of light. There are no tight spaces or passageways on this tour. Accessibility is another issue – we saw no evidence of alternative access to these areas (though we weren't specifically looking for it), so some stairs appear to be required. If you can manage a few stairs (or if there's a lift we didn't see) and you can get inside, most of the site can be seen without further need to climb stairs, though you'll probably be on your own for part of the tour as the rest of the groups explores the lower levels of the catwalks.
The tour lasted about an hour and a half and included visits to the two sections of the necropolis described earlier. One interesting feature of these sites is that the tombs and their contents have been studied and then returned as far as possible to their original locations (or in some cases, replaced with casts or reproductions). This means that you see the tombs largely as they were found, with walls, floors, and contents in place. Some items are displayed out of context on the walls or in display cases, largely to make them more accessible.
The area discovered in the 1959-60 excavation is the first to be visited. Here you enter a side door of the parking garage and go down a few stairs to see the excavations which are contained in a single large room. A metal catwalk was built around three sides of this area from which you can view various parts of the site. Most of the tombs here are large communal tombs which contained a number of burials. Unlike the wealthier tombs found under St. Peter's, these are believed in many cases to have belonged to cooperative associations formed to assist the less-wealthy to afford a "decent" burial, rather than belonging to a family group. Both cremation and inhumation burials were found, showing that the site continued to be used as burial practices changed over time.
Painted walls and mosaic floors were also found in some of the tombs and may be seen in their original locations. One side of the site showed evidence of burial by a landslide in the 2nd century, which assisted in the preservation of the site even though later burials were inserted into the area of the landslide including a large tomb containing a dozen or more inhumation burials. Along the walls of the chamber are several displays of grave markers with their inscriptions, as well as funerary urns (some in marble, but mostly pottery), brick tiles used for the roofs of the tomb (some with makers' marks which helped with dating the tombs), and various grave goods.
This view of a tomb with the large mosaic also shows the niches
The tour continues in the new parking garage, across the street from the first site. Here again, the excavations are contained in a single large room. Again you walk down a few steps from the entrance to a metal catwalk, which in this building completely circles the site. There's also a lower level of the catwalk on one side of the site. The burials here are similar to those in the first building, though both the richest and poorest burials in the site are found in the area. The simplest burials here are small holes in the ground containing small pottery urns or inhumation burials with a body placed in a shallow trench (the skeletons remain in place, which can be somewhat eerie). The riches were a group of elaborate marble sarcophagi which have been placed along the catwalk where you can get a close look at them. Other tombs of note here include a couple with nice mosaic floors or frescoed walls, and a moving burial of a small child holding an egg in one hand. Inscriptions found on these tombs have shed light on their occupants, ranging from slaves to a young member of the equestrian class, and including a number of interesting individuals including a set designer from the Theater of Pompey and a slave on the staff of the Emperor Nero.
The tour ends at the Porta Sant'Anna, rather than back at the Vatican Museums, which can save a bit of walking if you're heading for St. Peter's or back into central Rome, but doesn't work as well if you're planning to visit the Museums after your tour. I was sort of hoping to be able to "sneak" back into the Museums after the tour, but it was not to be! Still, it's a great tour and a fascinating look at a very well-preserved archaeological site.
Slow Travel Community Photos: Kevin's photos of the tour
Vatican Museum Press Release: On October 12th, 2006 the new section of the Roman necropolis of the Via Triumphalis, discovered during the construction of the new parking lot of Santa Rosa in the Vatican City State, will be presented to public. This archaeological complex (Sections of Santa Rosa and “Autoparco”) will be open for visitors on Friday's and Saturday's in groups of a maximum of twenty-five people, and requires advance reservation by writing to the Ufficio Visite Speciali (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Ticket (including the guide): Euro 8 per person.
© Kevin Clark, 2007
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