The Vatican Necropolis (Scavi)
When trying to choose the spot for Christendom’s greatest church, the location of an old Roman cemetery would probably be the farthest thing from most people’s minds. Unless of course, the old Roman cemetery happens to be the final resting place of St. Peter. According to a long-held catholic tradition, the Vatican Necropolis, aka Vatican Scavi is the old Roman graveyard in which St. Peter was buried. Peter’s grave was originally marked with a small shrine but Emperor Constantine upgraded it to a church, and Pope Julius II turned it into the jaw-dropping Basilica we know today. Today the Necropolis, i.e., the remains of the graveyard still sits beneath the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica and each day a few lucky visitors – both the devout and those with a strong interest in archeology – descend into them to see the mausoleums as well as the tomb of the saint.
Visiting the Vatican Scavi – What to See
During the Roman Empire what we now call the Vatican Necropolis was a humble cemetery beside the Circus of Nero. It’s proximity to the fabled circus meant that it also became the final resting place of St. Peter when he was crucified there in AD 69. After his death the graveyard grew to accommodate the remains of other Christians who wanted to be buried near the saint until it came to encompass much of the land under the present-day Vatican.
Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, built a church on top of St. Peter’s supposed resting place in AD 333. Though an impressive structure for its day, it couldn’t compare to the history-making vision of Pope Julius II who tore down Constantine’s church in order to build the one we know today.
Although the Scavi were never “lost” the way that some works of art from ancient Rome were, not much was known about them until the 1940s when Pope Pius XI commissioned an excavation beneath the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica to try to pinpoint the definitive spot of St. Peter’s tomb. His reason turned out to be the same as almost all Christians buried in the area for the previos thousand years – to be buried as close as possible to St. Peter.
The Vatican Scavi (Italian for “excavation”) consists of over 20 mausoleums, some containing hundreds of bodies. It seems that many of the mausoleums, which once stood above ground, were used by generations of families to bury their dead. Some of the families have even been identified from inscriptions on the ruins themselves.
The location of St. Peter’s tomb is based on a fair amount of conjecture bolstered by two thousand years of faith. In fact, whether or not the Scavi contain St. Peter’s real remains is even a matter of debate within the Vatican. Despite Pope Francis’ unveiling of the supposed bone fragments of St. Peter in 2013, many skeptics remain. At the end of the day, the historical truth of where one man was buried is less important than the historical truth of 2,000 years of culture and veneration that produced not only the Vatican Necropolis, but the entire Basilica of St. Peter. For this reason the Scavi remain a perennial favorite of religious pilgrims to Rome and lovers of the city’s rich architectural history. They are also an uncrowded but sometimes difficult-to-access attraction. Visits are only arranged by the Office of the Scavi who allow just 250 visitors per day.
Tips for Visiting the Vatican Necropolis
The Vatican Scavi are only opened for tour groups who have booked through the Vatican Excavations Office. (more on that below).
The Vatican Necropolis, like St. Peter’s Cathedral under which they sit, are holy places; appropriate attire must be worn by all who wish to enter. Both men and women should wear clothing that covers their shoulders and knees. Small bags and umbrellas are permitted inside but large bags have to be checked at the entrance, next to the official audio-guides desk.
A visit to the Scavi will cost €13.00, and a some forethought/luck if you don’t go with a tour group. In order to book one of the Vatican’s tours you have to email the Excavations Office (email@example.com,) with the following information:
1. Exact number of participants;
2. Names of participants;
3. Language requested;
4. Possible dates for your visit – the more the better (the time will be determined by the Office). IMPORTANT: always write in full the name of the month (e.g.: from 01 January 2013 to 08 January 2013)
5. E-mail address, fax number, or a complete postal address.
The Best Time to Visit the Vatican Necropolis
Because the Excavations Office strictly limits the number of visitors who see the Scavi every day, you never have to worry about crowds. However, you do have to worry about having your application declined. In order to have a chance of having your application accepted email them at least two months before your intended visit. The Scavi are a very popular destination and because access to them is so tightly controlled they are one of the more difficult-to-see attractions in Rome.
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