Irina Taissa Oryshkevich

title.none: Ghilardi, Subterranea Civitas (Irina Taissa Oryshkevich)

identifier.other: baj9928.0403.014 04.03.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Irina Taissa Oryshkevich, Columbia University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Ghilardi, Massimiliano. Subterranea Civitas: Quattro studi sulle catacombe romane dal medioevo all'eta moderna. Series: Nuovi Saggi, vol. 111. Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 2003. Pp. 156. ISBN: $37.00 88-8476-001-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.03.14

Ghilardi, Massimiliano. Subterranea Civitas: Quattro studi sulle catacombe romane dal medioevo all'eta moderna. Series: Nuovi Saggi, vol. 111. Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 2003. Pp. 156. ISBN: $37.00 88-8476-001-1.

Reviewed by:

Irina Taissa Oryshkevich
Columbia University

As indicated by its title, Ghilardi's Subterranea Civitas: Quattro studi sulle catacombe romane dal medioevo all'eta moderna consists of four studies on the history of the Roman catacombs from the Middle Ages to modernity. Although obviously related in terms of subject, there is so little continuity between the essays that it is difficult to gauge Ghilardi's reason for joining them under one title, especially since he has already published much of the material elsewhere.

In the first study, Ghilardi attempts to prove that the catacombs were not abandoned after the relics of what were believed to be martyrs were exhumed in the eighth and ninth centuries. This is hardly a revolutionary claim since it is well known that those cemeteries linked to basilicas outside the walls of Rome, such as S. Sebastiano, S. Pancrazio, Sant'Agnese, S. Lorenzo, and S. Valentino, continued to attract pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. That the names and general whereabouts of many others were known, is evident from pilgrimage journals and various guidebooks to Rome. How deeply they were explored is another matter, and one which leads Ghilardi round in circles. Although he emphasizes again and again that portions of the cemeteries were open to the public, he nevertheless concludes that knowledge of their existence was for the most part 'labile,' that is, rooted in collective memory rather than based on empirical observation, for the simple reason that the crypts themselves were no longer accessible. This is baffling, for if the catacombs were not visited in the Middle Ages, what point is there in proving that they were still open? If, on the other hand, they continued to be frequented, what role was played by collective memory? Surely back then there were people (as there are now) who knew of the catacombs only from texts or hearsay. Yet there were probably as many, if not more, who traversed at least a short stretch of one of the more easily accessible cemeteries mentioned above, especially if, as Ghilardi himself states, a visit to them offered a bounty of indulgences. Simply put, some people went, some didn't. Those who did could describe them to those who didn't. How far or how often they dared to enter hardly matters for even the quickest glimpse into one catacomb provides a sense of their general ambiance.

In making his points Ghilardi relies almost exclusively on textual (as opposed to archaeological) evidence. His sources range from medieval guides to Rome (the so called Mirabilia urbis Romae), to chronicles, devotional texts, poems, epistles, and anecdotes by the likes of William of Malmesbury, St. Brigid of Sweden, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Although many of these do contain fascinating material, Ghilardi goes little beyond the perfunctory task of compiling them. He provides minimal information about the authors, and the purpose, or intended audience of the texts. He makes little effort to distinguish between symbolic and literal references to the cemeteries. When discussing Petrarch, for example, he does not discriminate between the poet's account of his actual descent into an existent catacomb, and his metaphorical use of one to signify the early Church. Ghilardi likewise fails to discuss or even mention Petrarch's most interesting reference to an early Christian cemetery, that in the sixth Eclogue of Bucolicum Carmen.

Although there are plenty of explicit references to catacombs in medieval texts, Ghilardi is so anxious to prove that they were not forgotten that he imagines their existence in the most incongruous places. On pages 20-21, for example, he cites a passage from William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum in which the author relates the tale of a monk who, as a child, explored the winding passages of a perforated mountain in Italy because he had been told that the treasure of Octavian lay hidden there, and instead discovered at a certain crossroad the rotting bones of men who had lost their way in the maze. The description of the site contains nothing that suggests that it was used for proper burial, or that it was located anywhere near Rome. Nor is there evidence that anyone in the Middle Ages suspected imperial treasures of lying buried in Christian cemeteries.

Also questionable is Ghilardi's interpretation of the story of St. Florian, whose remains were translated from Rome to Krakow in 1184. According to Ghilardi's source, Cesare Baronio's Annales ecclesiastici, the saint's relics were removed from a sacrarium by order of Pope Lucius III and shipped to Poland. Ghilardi interprets sacrarium, which normally means 'treasury,' as 'catacomb,' and thus uses this as a premise to conclude that bodies were still being translated out of the catacombs in the twelfth century. Perhaps they were, but it is just as likely that by this point in history the pope controlled a treasury or repository from which he selected relics to ship abroad as diplomatic gifts. More problematic, however, is Ghilardi's reliance on the Annales ecclesiastici, a seventeenth century text, for information on the state of the catacombs in the high Middle Ages.

Ghilardi does make some attempt to trace the origins of various topoi associated with the catacombs, but his knowledge of medieval literature is not up to the task. He claims, for example, that Boccaccio was the first to imbue the cemeteries with erotic connotations by using them as settings for clandestine trysts. Yet the association between early Christian burial sites and sexual activity goes back nearly a millennium earlier to Ambrose and Jerome, who warned unchaperoned young women not to enter cemeteries on feast days. Inexplicable too is Ghilardi's silence on Jerome and Prudentius, that is, the impact of their descriptions of catacombs on later authors, as well as his utter failure to discuss the Passions of various martyrs, which often included anecdotes about subterranean burial places.

The weakness of the first essay is nothing compared to that of the second, which deals with the catacombs in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although Ghilardi does deal briefly with the state of the cemeteries in the early Renaissance, his main focus is on the 'rediscovery' of the catacombs in the Counter Reformation.

Here again the reader is left in a quandary, for if the catacombs were accessible in the Middle Ages, why did they need to be rediscovered? Ghilardi gets around the problem by saying that the cemetery which was accidentally found in 1578 and which supposedly sparked interest in Roma subterranea, differed from those known earlier in that it contained paintings, which could be used as weapons against Protestants who maintained that the early Church had prohibited all imagery. He is wrong. The catacombs of Pietro and Marcellino as well as those of Priscilla, which were visited in the 1470s by the Roman Academy under the tutelage of Pomponio Leto, contain murals and stuccos, as does that of Sant'Agnese, which was open throughout the Middle Ages. Ghilardi, in fact, has almost nothing to say about the Roman Academy's interest in the cemeteries except that it was prompted by curiosity rather than devotion. This does not stop him from quoting a passage written by one of the Academy's chief members, Bartolomeo Platina (whose name, incidentally, is spelled without an accent) which specifically states that he (Platina) went to the catacombs with his friends for religious reasons.

Like most historians who have dealt with the catacombs in the late Cinquecento, Ghilardi stresses the role played by St. Philip Neri and the Oratorians in rousing interest in monuments of the early Church. Unfortunately, he does little more than summarize (and sloppily at that) what has already been written on the subject by Vincenzo Fiocchi Niccolai (whom he thanks in his preface) and a host of earlier authors. He makes no effort to scrutinize how the ideology of the Oratorians may have affected their approach to the past, and ignores some of their most important historical works. He offers no new insights on how the manuscript of Roma sotterranea, Antonio Bosio's magnum opus on the catacombs, was appropriated by the Oratorians, or how it was altered by Giovanni Severano, the priest put in charge of its publication. Instead, Ghilardi dwells extensively on the testimony delivered at Neri's canonization process by three witnesses, who claimed that they had found their way out of a catacomb by praying to the future saint. Rather than question their motives, Ghilardi accepts the account at face value, though the chief witness, Giacomo Crescenzi, was a forger and probably an embezzler, in other words, not the most trustworthy of men.

Meanwhile Ghilardi virtually ignores those antiquarians and scholars whose interest in the cemeteries was not prompted by the Oratory. These include individuals such as Philip van Winghe, Jean l'Heureux, Alphonso Chacon, Pompeo Ugonio, and Giulio Mancini, who visited and wrote extensively about the catacombs and their art. Since not all of these men were Italian by birth, it could be argued that they fall beyond the range of Ghilardi's chapter, which is entitled "The Catacombs in Italian Literature: the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century." Yet Crescenzi's testimony hardly falls into the category of 'literature,' was delivered only in the seventeenth century, and contributed far less to the development of Christian archaeology in Italy than did the notes, drawings and books of the men mentioned above.

There are plenty of minor errors in the chapter as well, such as the claim that Onofrio Panvinio knew of only three extant cemeteries in Rome when, in fact, his manuscripts show that he was aware of at least five; or the claim that Bosio inherited Van Winghe's drawings after his death, when, in fact, they were shipped back to the latter's brother in Flanders. Although trivial, such oversights do reveal the careless nature of the author's research.

The final two essays each deal with one character, namely the eighteenth-century French diplomat, Jean Alexis Francois Artaud de Montor, and the nineteenth-century Italian poet, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. Whereas the first was responsible for the highly romanticized, Voyage dans les catacombs de Rome par un member de l'Academie de Cortone, anonymously published in 1810, the second was the author of several rather cynical poems on the translation of relics, written in cryptic Italian and not published until 1940.

One would think that the narrower scope of these chapters would have encouraged Ghilardi to treat his subjects with more intellectual scrutiny. Alas, he fails to take advantage of the opportunity. In the case of Artaud de Montor, he merely paraphrases the French text in Italian. There is no apparent point to this chapter except to inform the reader that the diplomat was obsessed with the idea of finding a catacomb running under the Tiber. Although Artaud de Montor does have interesting things to say about the style of catacomb painting and its influence on Renaissance art, Ghilardi does not seem to notice. He reveals little about the Frenchman's background or about the state of catacomb research in the late eighteenth century. He does not bother pinpointing Artaud de Montor's sources on the cemeteries, though some of his ideas on the cemeteries were clearly impressed by Protestant views of the early Church.

The final essay is no better. Ghilardi simply summarizes Belli's sonnets, and concludes that the poet had dubious feelings about illegitimate translations of relics out of the catacombs, that is, ones that were not carried out according to the rules of the pontifical commission in charge of the cemeteries. Belli's verses, however, seem to be mocking all relic translations, not just 'illegitimate' ones. (Ghilardi himself seems to be believe that in the nineteenth century there were still legitimate ways of identifying martyrs in the catacombs even though the thirty odd saints listed as lying buried in them in the Depositio martyrum of 354 had all been translated out of the crypts by the end of the Middle Ages.) Although Ghilardi does provide some interesting information on the discovery of the body of St. Filomena, he does not do much to integrate it into his discussion of Belli. As in the previous essay, he provides little contextual material on his protagonist, most importantly on the poet's relationship to Vincenzo Tizzani, who inherited the sonnets, and who was instrumental in organizing a commission to protect the catacombs.

The book as a whole is poorly edited. Footnotes, often superfluous, are repeated verbatim, in some cases only twelve pages apart. The bibliography provides a good overview of recent studies on the catacombs, but is insufficient when it comes to primary sources and older, especially German, secondary literature. In addition, a key to abbreviations of journal titles would have been helpful to non-Italian readers.

There is no conclusion or epilogue to the book. Even worse, the opening quote from the Christian archaeologist, Giuseppe Marchi, makes Ghilardi's approach to catacomb lore all the more unfathomable. It is even difficult to guess the author's discipline, since his thanks are directed first and foremost to members of the Pontifical Institute of Archaeology, yet his book contains no illustrations at all and little information that would be of any use to archaeologists. Finally, what makes Subterranea civitas such a disappointment is that so little of Ghilardi's discussion is based on careful examination of manuscripts and other primary sources. As a native of Italy with easy access to the rare books and documents housed in the wonderful libraries of Rome, Ghilardi owes his readers something vastly superior to this.