Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Anna Maria Nieddu, La Basilica Apostolorum sulla via Appia e l'area cimiteriale circostante. Monumenti di antichità cristiana, II serie, 19. Città del Vaticano: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 2009. Pp. xvi, 494. ISBN 9788885991460. €90.00.
Reviewed by Hendrik Dey, Aarhus University, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Washington, DC

Table of Contents

The basilica apostolorum, now San Sebastiano, is a monumental (65 x 30.5m) and unusually well-preserved funerary basilica constructed outside the walls of Rome, between the second and third milestones on the Via Appia, early in the fourth century. Nieddu's expansive publication of the site began life as a doctoral thesis at La Sapienza, under the supervision of Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, before reaching its current and definitive form. It is, frankly, a book that could only have been written in Rome, by a researcher with extensive knowledge of, and regular access to, both the remains of the site and an enormous assemblage of documentary materials contained in a range of libraries, archives and private collections scattered across the city and beyond. While large-scale excavations on the site concluded in the 1960s, much of the massive corpus of data in existence has until now only been published in summary form. Nieddu has systematically mined reams of photographs, private correspondence, excavation reports and diaries, much of it unpublished (including Antonio Ferrua's copious excavation records), to produce an exhaustive study of the church and the funerary structures in its immediate vicinity. Alongside the topography of the complex, Nieddu considers also the surviving traces of the frescoes, stucco and sculptural decoration that once adorned it, as well as the numerous sarcophagi, inscriptions and assorted smaller finds recovered in connection with the structural remains. While the bulk of Nieddu's study is focused on the period between the fourth century and the sixth, when the site was a leading center of funerary cult and saw the installation of thousands of burials, she devotes considerable attention both to the prior occupation of the area, as well as to its subsequent history up to the thirteenth century, when it underwent an extensive reconfiguration.

Much of the information that will be most useful to non-aficionados of Roman funerary basilicas is contained in the first chapter, which provides a general introduction to the occupational history of the area, with particular reference to the Roman cemetery that occupied the site of the future basilica from the first century AD, and the first manifestations of Christian cult in the third and fourth centuries. From the period before the construction of the basilica, the most remarkable feature present is the small complex of rooms arranged around a central courtyard, dubbed by the excavators the Memoria Apostolorum. The structure is unambiguously a site of Christian cult; its walls are covered by hundreds of Christian graffiti; and it dates to the mid-third century, and thus to precisely the time (AD 258) when the relics of Peter and Paul were transferred to the site, according to two later Roman martyrologies, probably as a result of the Decian persecutions. While the veracity of the tradition has occasioned much scholarly debate, Nieddu follows the tradition of Duchesne in thinking that the relics were installed on the site for several generations, until their eventual translation to St. Peter's and St. Paul's.1 Following the construction of the basilica, which Nieddu, in accord with a general -- though not universal -- consensus, places early in the reign of Constantine, the interior and environs of the church were given over to intensive funerary use. During the remainder of the fourth century, a remarkable concentration of often large and elaborate mausolea was constructed abutting the church and in its immediate vicinity, alongside hundreds of simpler burials. Many of the 25 documented mausolea, many of which preserve traces of elaborate painted, stuccoed and sculptural decoration, housed scions of Rome's most distinguished families, some of whose names appear among the vast corpus of inscriptions recovered in the vicinity.

The second chapter contains an overview of the scholarly tradition on the complex, culminating with an account of the extensive excavations conducted between the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the 1960s.

The heart of the volume comes in Chapters 3-7. Chapter 3 focuses on the church itself, and concludes with the case for dating the structure to the early years of Constantine's reign, on the basis of circumstantial but generally convincing indicators, in particular the marked similarity of its masonry with the adjacent Villa of Maxentius, and the absence of Christograms among the copious graffiti covering the underlying Memoria Apostolorum, which must thus have been put out of use and interred in the foundations of the Basilica before ca. 320-325. Chapter 4 treats the series of mausolea constructed along the south side of the church, beginning soon after its completion and terminating at the end of the fourth century with the large semicircular structure built adjoining the external wall of the ambulatory, the so called Platorina or Mausoleum of Quirinus. In addition to preserving what may well be the remains of the Saint himself, a martyred Pannonian bishop whose relics were transferred to Rome in ca. 390, in two small boxes interred deep beneath the floor, the structure is remarkable for its rich painted and stuccoed decoration, which Nieddu calls 'undoubtedly the most important preserved at Rome from the late-antique period' (p. 246). Chapter 5 is devoted to a discussion of the pre-Christian funerary remains on the north side of the church, followed in Chapter 6 by an account of the fifteen mausolea constructed in the area in the second half of the fourth century. Chapter 7 rounds out the consideration of the northern sector with a discussion of the contemporaneous reoccupation of earlier Roman burials, and the installation of simpler tombs in the open spaces surrounding the mausolea.

These very dense chapters are followed by a brief overview of the Christian burials in their entirety in Chapter 8, with particular attention given to issues of funerary cult, the identity of the deceased, and the mechanisms of private patronage, piety and self-representation that led to the erection of the mausolea. Finally, Chapter 9 provides a more summary history of the occupation of the site between the sixth century, when burials largely ceased, and its extensive restoration in the thirteenth.

The volume is enormous, well-produced, copiously footnoted, and furnished with good illustrations and photos (458, plus three fold-out plans!), many of them previously unpublished. Consideration of the massive underlying labyrinth of subterranean catacombs, which extends over many acres on three levels, would have required another book of similar length, which the author can hardly be expected to have written, particularly as precisely such a volume is currently under preparation by Raffaella Giuliani. Giuliani's study will thus be an essential pendant to that of Nieddu, the more so given that Nieddu focuses more than any of her predecessors on the expressly funerary character of the church during the first two centuries of its existence, and devotes most of her attention to the mausolea and other burial contexts located at or near ground level. We will thus have to wait a bit longer before the catacombs are fully integrated into the scholarly picture of a complex known, from the time of its founding, as the basilica ad catacumbas.

Remaining on the subject of what the book does not contain, it should be said that Nieddu's analytical and interpretive focus is closely tied to the structures and materials for which material documentation exists: vanished features attested only by vague textual references, therefore, receive only summary consideration, and no systematic attempt is made to explain why the complex as a whole remained so unusually vibrant over the longue durée. Nieddu makes it quite clear that the basilica and its surroundings have been intensely and quite continuously frequented from late antiquity to the present (apart from St. Peter's, St. Paul's and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, it seems in fact to have been the only one of Rome's great extramural sanctuaries to remain an important focus of cult practice in the early Middle Ages, when it seamlessly transformed from a funerary complex to a center of veneration for its associated saintly burials), but she does not offer a developed thesis on why this may have been the case. My sense -- and I presume Nieddu's as well, in light of her repeated emphasis on the lasting importance of the cult of Peter and Paul -- is that the durable tradition that linked the relics of these saints to the site was sufficient to endow it with a status unmatched by the remaining funerary basilicas and martyrial shrines in the Roman suburbs. As the 'basilica of the apostles,' as it was still called under Pope Hadrian I at the end of the eighth century, it constituted a third privileged focus of Petrine and Pauline cult, and thus followed an historical trajectory that linked it more closely with St. Peter's and St. Paul's than with the remaining fourth-century funerary basilicas. The scope for further reflections along these lines seems wide indeed.

In practical terms, the maintenance of the site, the supervision of the shrines of its most famous martyrs, and the performance of a continuous regime of prayer and services at their tombs will have fallen largely to the monks residing in the adjacent monastery established ad catacumbas by Pope Sixtus III (432-440; it is in fact the earliest monastic foundation attested at Rome, another significant indicator of the prestige of the basilica).2 As no traces of the original foundation, which was subsequently restored by Pope Nicholas I (856-67), according to the Liber Pontificalis, have been plausibly identified, Nieddu concentrates almost exclusively on the remains of the early-thirteenth century cloister, which was erected ex novo on the south side of the church (pp. 479-90). Thus, as they do not appear in the material record, the monks who were likely so instrumental in ensuring the remarkable upkeep of the site over the course of eight centuries have largely disappeared from the historical panorama traced in Chapter 9.

With regard to the historical context of the basilica's construction, Nieddu notes that its location immediately across the Via Appia from the Villa of Maxentius likely results in part from a desire on the part of Constantine, newly sympathetic to the Christian faith, to supersede the villa and the legacy of its founder (pp. 143-45). Given the pivotal significance of the epoch in which the church was evidently founded (Nieddu's case for the date of construction makes it very probably the first large Christian basilica in Rome), a few further remarks are perhaps warranted. Recent excavations in the villa have in fact shown that it was never finished, and that the technical characteristics of the masonry are even more similar--effectively identical--to the masonry of the church than previously acknowledged, both points which provide considerable support for Nieddu's proposition that the same building crews employed in the villa worked on Constantine's new foundation across the road.3 Indeed, what begins to emerge is a sense that the builders were summarily transferred from the villa project, leaving off work almost from one day to the next and beginning anew on the basilica. The case thus grows in support of the idea that Constantine was directly involved in the foundation of the basilica, and that the project may have been undertaken very soon after his arrival in Rome, as the decision to cease work on an imperial project of the magnitude of Maxentius's villa, and the apparent reassignment of the workforce, can only have come from the very highest levels of the administration, in all probability from the emperor himself. The latest archaeological work at the villa thus lends substantial weight -- and color -- to Nieddu's inclination to see the basilica apostolorum as a remarkably precocious testament to Constantine's new sympathy for the Christian cause (pp. 144-45), begun in the years -- or even, we might now say, months? -- immediately following his victory at the Milvian Bridge.

The preceding remarks are not criticisms per se, or if they are, they are so chiefly in that most churlish sense of "attacks for not being the book you would have written" which BMCR reviewers are explicitly admonished to avoid. Nieddu clearly made a conscious decision to limit her analysis primarily to the physical contours of the complex that are either extant or for which extant documentation exists, and she has done so with great success. The topographical, architectural, archaeological, epigraphic and literary data she marshals demonstrate with new and lapidary clarity the lasting importance of the basilica and its associated tombs, and the extent to which it flourished in the early Middle Ages and beyond, relative to the other late-antique funerary basilicas erected on the Roman periphery. In an understated but very compelling way, Nieddu thus provides the most comprehensive case yet formulated for just how exceptional the basilica apostolorum really was; and in the process, she opens the way for new considerations of the all-important question of why (and how) this should have been so. Her study should thus become the essential point of departure for future reconsiderations of the impact of the site on the topographical and spiritual horizons of the city as a whole, which will have to range farther beyond its documented remains if the remarkable fact of their existence is to be more fully explained.

With regard to the physical contours of the basilica and its immediate surroundings, however, this book will be the standard resource for a very long time, barring the unlikely possibility of substantial new discoveries in the area. Nieddu has admirably fulfilled her objective of providing a comprehensive synthesis of the massive corpus of evidence pertinent to the physical configuration of the site; and in her punctilious sifting of the sources and their presentation in a cohesive, lavishly documented and illustrated format, she has performed a labor as herculean as it is useful for anyone with an interest in this remarkable complex.


1.   L. Duchesne, Le Liber Pontificalis, Texte, Introduction et Commentaire, rev. ed., Paris, 1955-7, pp. CVI-CVII.
2.   Ferrari, G. Early Roman monasteries. Notes for the history of the monasteries and convents at Rome from the V through the X century, Vatican City, 1957, pp. 163-65.
3.   Conlin, D., A. Haeckl and G. Ponti, 'The Villa of Maxentius on the Via Appia: Report on the 2005 Excavations,' Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 51-52 (2007), 347-70.

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