People going to Rome often ask me what they should see when they’re over there. It’s a hard question for me to answer– the places I would list would either be the obvious ones you’ll find on most tourist lists (the 4 Major Basilicas, the Vatican Museums, the Flavian Amphitheatre) or places that I would want to take you myself, so I could show you what you needed to see. Actually, any place I tell you to go in Rome I would want to take you myself, because it’s too easy to miss something (table of the Last Supper, anyone? How many people miss that in the Basilica of John Lateran?) or because you’ll probably have some silly guide who tells you something absurd, like that no martyrs died in the Colosseum.
There is one place, however, I would always recommend to someone visiting the Eternal City. Something that often escapes the tourist lists and a place where *most* of the guides are pretty legit (I’ve only had one bad one, and that was almost 10 years ago).
The excavations under St. Peters. Only about 200 people get to go down there each day, but it’s actually not that difficult to get tickets. (see here.) I’ve never not gotten tickets when I’ve requested them.
I don’t have time here to go into detail about the Scavi, but I’d highly recommend reading George Weigel’s fantastic piece The Scavi of St. Peter’s and the Grittiness of Catholicism, originally from his book Letters to a Young Catholic.
Megan and I had tickets for a 9:00 English tour, so we had breakfast at our hotel (more bread, ham, cheese, and Nutella, plus that delicious Italian yogurt I really wish I could find over here) and then walked to St. Peter’s. We faced the effects of the murmuration and roosting the night before, and made a note to ourselves to either take the bus in the mornings or walk after the power-washer came through. The stench was overwhelming.
We went to the Arch of the Bells, where I’ve always gone to go back into the Vatican for the Scavi tours, but things have changed (perhaps due to the extensive restoration work that’s going on) and the guards sent us around to the Holy Office gate, off Via Paolo VI. That’s okay — it just meant I was saluted twice by the guards. (That always makes me go a little weak in the knees- to have a man in uniform salute me.)
We didn’t have to wait long for our tour guide, who was a Hungarian woman, an archaeologist by trade. I generally prefer North American College priests or seminarians, although the worst guide I ever had was a priest. But so was the best! This woman was quite good, though, and I wonder if the tour hasn’t gotten better every year. I can definitely tell the difference with the actual restoration efforts each time I go — one whole tomb was newly restored this time.
Okay, so the historian-Romaphile in me can’t help but at least give you a brief overview. Basically, St. Peter’s is built on a pagan cemetery. After St. Peter was crucified in the circus of Nero (which ran sort of diagonally to the present basilica and piazza), the Christians cut him down from the cross (most likely leaving his feet behind — that’s the quickest way to remove a person who has been crucified upside down) and buried him in a tomb on the hillside nearby, where there was already an expansive necropolis. Over the years a shrine was built up around his tomb, where the Christians would come pray, touch things to his tomb, etc. Eventually, other Christians were buried around him.
When Constantine wanted to build a church around the shrine, he was faced with two problems — one, Peter was buried on a hillside. How do you build a giant church on a hillside? And two, to build anything around the shrine would require destroying hundreds, perhaps thousands of tombs — in a necropolis that was still in use. Not only would such an action be illegal, but it would be wildly unpopular and highly suspect, given the Roman respect for the dead.
The fact that Constantine leveled the hill (chopping off the top and using the dirt to fill in the bottom, thus created an even plane) and destroyed the necropolis is a clear indication that he knew Peter was buried there and it was crucial that he build the church on top of his tomb.
Fast-forward to the 20th century. Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, asks to be buried in the crypt of the Popes. While making room in the crypt for his grave, the workers break through the floor of the crypt and make an interesting discovery — they’ve broken through into a family tomb. Pius XII gives permission for the excavation work to take place, although in secret, and five or six archaeologist spend the next several years discovering the pagan necropolis.
You hear this story and others on the tour, as you make your way through the necropolis, admiring beautiful pagan family tombs, eventually seeing Christian tombs, and then seeing the remnants of the early shrines, and the Constantinian high altar.
You can do your own little tour here.
The climax of the tour is when you step into a dark room. You know the tour is almost at an end. You’ve heard the story of the search, you’ve heard of the false alarms and you wait with expectation. Did they find his bones? And the tour guide begins to describe the graffiti on this one wall… and how they brought a graffiti expert in, who deciphered the early Christian writing, and when she discovered the words “Peter is here,” she asked that they look in the wall. They did, and they found bones- bones of an old man, of robust stature. Bones of almost an entire male body… except the feet.
And there you stand, in the darkness, and peer through glass into lighted excavations. There, in a fiberglass box, you can see bones. And your first instinct is to fall to your knees and weep, knowing that you are looking at the bones of the humble fisherman who walked on water, who denied Christ, and who was told, “Feed my sheep.”
A box of bones on which — literally– a church has been built. For almost two thousand years.
Not bad for 10am.