The Vatican Necropolis: History & How It’s Used Today

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Studying why people bury the dead can teach us a lot about various cultures and societies throughout history. So can studying how people bury the dead. This is particularly true when this involves learning about or visiting famous burial sites. These locations offer us a unique glimpse into the culture and history of those who’ve come before.

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Consider the example of the Vatican necropolis. Although many people already know that Vatican City is home to some of the world’s most famous art and architecture, they might not realize that beneath a section of the city, you can find a remarkably unique burial site with a very rich history.

If you’re curious to learn more, here’s some essential information about the Vatican necropolis, explaining what the Vatican necropolis is, how it first came about, and what you need to do if you’d like to visit it in-person.

What is the Vatican Necropolis?

A necropolis is an ancient cemetery that typically features elaborate monuments, architectural designs, and similar features.

The Vatican necropolis is a particularly famous example of this type of site. Despite its name, it didn’t begin as a strictly Catholic cemetery, a point that the next section of this blog will expand on. Research indicates that over the course of centuries it served as a cemetery for numerous Romans, including wealthy families, the middle class, and even slaves, making it somewhat unique. It’s only fairly recently that we’ve actually begun to learn much about its architecture and overall function.

Origin

The origins of the Vatican necropolis date back to the early days of the Roman Empire. During this period of time, Roman law prohibited burying dead bodies within the boundaries of the city walls.

As a result, the location of the Vatican necropolis technically wasn’t part of the city when the Romans first began using it.

Purpose

The Vatican necropolis is remarkable for many reasons. One is the nature of its architecture, which features a range of styles depending on when construction on a given section began.

However, perhaps more noteworthy is the fact the presence of numerous mausoleums, burial stones, and similar features indicates the Vatican necropolis served as the burial spot for a large number of people. Scholars believe this is partially a result of the Great Fire that occurred in Rome in 64 CE. The fire itself claimed many lives. After the fire, Emperor Nero also began persecuting and executing Christians in Rome, leading to even more deaths.

The city needed a place to bury all those bodies. The site that we now know as the Vatican necropolis offered the necessary location. It contains graves and tombstones of various types. Additionally, because Christianity wasn’t dominant in Rome when the use of the necropolis first began, it features both pagan and Christian iconography.

Future developments

It’s important to understand that St. Peter’s Basilica (or any other basilica, for that matter) did not exist in the location of the Vatican necropolis when Romans first started storing bodies there. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later in 319, when Emperor Constantine decided that it would serve as an appropriate location for a basilica.

However, when construction began on the basilica, those involved in making certain key decisions chose not to destroy the necropolis. Instead, they built atop the site. As a result, most forgot about its existence for centuries.

Renewed interest in the necropolis began in 1949. Many Catholic officials suspected that St. Peter’s body may be among those buried in the necropolis. Thus, Pope Pius XII and Monsignor Ludwig Kaas authorized excavation of the site to locate his remains. If you visit the Vatican necropolis, you may find a cordoned off area with a hole dug into a mound. This is supposedly home to St. Peter’s remains, although there’s no consensus among scholars regarding whether this is actually the case.

Recent excavations

Although excavations of the Vatican necropolis began in 1949, it wasn’t until 2003 that excavations revealed enough of the site to justify opening it up to visitors.

To some degree, the discovery was accidental. In 2003, the Vatican was working on the construction of a new car park. This involved clearing some space first. However, during the process, they discovered sections of the Vatican necropolis they had not previously excavated.

Some Vatican officials first suggested that this find shouldn’t stop them from moving forward with the construction of a car park that would significantly help reduce congestion in Vatican City. It did eventually spark additional excavations of the site.

This resulted in the discovery of tombs that archaeologist and scholar Giandomenico Spinola, who was responsible for overseeing the archaeological work, described as “a small funerary Pompeii.” He used this description because a Vatican hill mudslide from thousands of years ago had preserved them, along with decorations and various ritual furnishings. Spinola pointed out that this was a significant discovery because the Vatican necropolis is “the type of complex that is usually lost over time.”

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Where is the Vatican Necropolis Located?

The Vatican necropolis is located beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The confined nature of the space means the lanes that take visitors through the various mausolea are often quite narrow.

How Can You Visit the Vatican Necropolis?

If you’re interested in dark tourism, you may want to pay the Vatican necropolis a visit. This is something you can do. That said, it’s not necessarily as easy as just showing up. The process of arranging a visit involves the following key steps:

Submit a request

You must reserve a spot on a tour of the Vatican necropolis by first submitting a written request to the Ufficio Scavi at the Vatican. It’s best to submit your request months in advance, as the Vatican only allows a maximum of 250 guests to tour the necropolis on any given day. Individual tour groups can consist of no more than 12 guests. Each member of a tour must speak the same language.

In your request, you must provide the dates that you’ll be in Rome, how many people will be in your party, what their names are, and what your language is. You should also provide your address and any other relevant contact information. Keep in mind that guests must all be 15 years old or older.

Get response

Submitting a request to tour the Vatican necropolis doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a spot. Again, if you don’t submit your request early enough, the Vatican might not be able to accommodate you.

If the Vatican accepts your request, you’ll receive a confirmation letting you know exactly when your tour will take place, along with information about printing or collecting your booking voucher. You need to have your booking voucher on hand when you arrive for the tour or the guide will not allow you to join. Your confirmation message will also explain how you can pay the 13 euro fee to the Vatican Excavations Office.

Remember key tips

If you get a spot on a tour, you should arrive at the Excavations Office no less than 10 minutes in advance. There, you’ll give your ticket/voucher to the Swiss Guard.

It’s important to keep certain essential tips in mind if you do get a chance to tour the Vatican necropolis. They include the following:

  • Make careful clothing choices. On the one hand, the excavation site is often very hot. On the other hand, you need to abide by the dress code, which involves covering your shoulders, and wearing long pants or skirts that at least cover the knee. You need to strike a delicate balance. You also shouldn’t wear any clothing that has any potentially inappropriate imagery or words.
  • Consider bringing an official ID for younger guests. Because the Vatican doesn’t permit anyone under 15 to tour the Vatican necropolis, sometimes teens may technically be old enough to visit, but because they look young, the relevant officials might not allow them in.
  • You can’t tour the Vatican necropolis with a camera. If you’ve brought one along, make arrangements to store it somewhere safe during your tour.
  • Follow the guide. Tempting as it can be for dark tourism fans to wander through a famous necropolis or cemetery on their own, the Vatican requires all guests to follow the guide and not wander off.
  • Keep your voice low. First of all, you want to give the tour guide proper respect, instead of talking over them. Even when the tour guide isn’t talking, the sanctity of the site requires a certain degree of reverence. You want to give other guests the chance to enjoy the experience without your voice distracting them.
  • The Vatican Excavations Office doesn’t recommend that anyone with claustrophobia or similar conditions tour the Vatican necropolis.

Seeing the Vatican necropolis for yourself can be a truly rewarding experience. That’s simply more likely to be the case if you prepare accordingly.

The Vatican Necropolis: A Glimpse Into the Past

Anyone interested in learning more about attitudes towards death in different cultures should make a point of studying the ways different cultures dispose of bodies. As the Vatican necropolis proves, sometimes an ancient cemetery can be far more than a simple burial site. It can also be a window into history.


Sources

  1. Aerie, Sophie. “Necropolis proves headache for Vatican car park builders.” The Guardian, Guardian news and Media Limited, 10 March 2003, www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/11/italy.sophiearie
  2. Dickey, Colin. “Necropolis.” Lapham’s Quarterly, Lapham’s Quarterly, www.laphamsquarterly.org/city/necropolis
  3. Thavis, John. “Unearthed Vatican City necropolis reveals slice of ancient Roman life.” Catholic News, Catholic News Service, 11 October 2006, web.archive.org/web/20121004044056/http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=21571
  4. “The Vatican Necropolis.” Travel and Leisure, Travel and Leisure Group, www.travelandleisure.com/travel-guide/rome/things-to-do/the-vatican-necropolis
  5. “Vatican necropolis, excavations below St. Peter’s Basilica.” Vatican City Guide, Vaticancityguide.org, 21 August 2013, www.vaticancityguide.org/vatican-necropolis-st-peter-tomb/
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