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Basilica di Generosa

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Basilica di Generosa is a ruined 4th century palaeochristian basilica over the Catacombs of Generosa, which are to be found on the Via delle Catacombe di Generosa. This is a dead-end street off the Via della Magliana in the Portuense suburban district, south-west of the suburb of Trullo and near the railway station of Magliana.

The dedication was to SS Simplicianus, Faustinus and Beatrice.


Foundation Edit

Towards the end of the 3rd century a small Christian catacomb was developed here, in an abandoned pozzolana quarry, at the sixth milestone on the Via Portuensis. The hill is now called the Monte delle PIche.

The diminutive size and proportions of the original passages suggest that this was a burial facility for a local country settlement. The name Generosa is thought to have come from the owner of the land in which the quarry had been dug. The locality might have been called Phillipi.

Archaeological excavations showed that this locality boasted a pagan sacred grove and a temple to Ceres, which was a rotunda. Remains of this Tempio degli Arvali have been preserved in a hotel near the train station at Magliana -see Youtube video here.

During the Great Persecution of the emperor Dioceletian, three martyrs named Simplicius, Faustinus and (possibly) Beatrice were interred here about the year 302. Their existence is certain, but unfortunately their legend is unreliable. It alleges that they were siblings, the first two being martyred together in the city and then their bodies thrown off a bridge into the Tiber. Their sister fished the corpses out near the catacomb and buried them there, being martyred herself later.

SS Simplicius and Faustinus were enshrined together in a cubilicum (burial chamber). Beatrice was apparently interred elsewhere, and there is doubt as to whether her martyrdom was originally involved with that of the other two. Her grave has not been found.

As a result of the development of the veneration of the martyrs, Pope St Damasus built a basilica over the catacombs around the year 370 with the apse next to the shrine cubilicum. This church had a surprisingly short existence, as it is thought that it was abandoned about the year 600. This is early in the progressive abandonment of Rome's suburban Christian sites, and might have come about through a raid by pirates sailing up the Tiber.

Abandonment Edit

The catacombs remained visitable until at least 682, when the relics of the martyrs were transferred by Pope Leo II to a (now lost) church called San Paolo near the present church of Santa Bibiana. A fragment of the sarcophagus used for the shrine is apparently in a staircase wall at the canons' residence at Santa Maria Maggiore, and Pope Leo's epigraph reads (note the lack of a reference to St Beatrice):

Martyres Simplicius et Faustinus, qui passi sunt in flumen Tibere et positi sunt in cimiterium Generoses super Philippi.

In 744, St Boniface founded the great abbey at Fulda in Germany, and relics of the two martyrs were enshrined there. They remain as patrons of the city, the cathedral of which is the descendent of the original monastery.

Rediscovery Edit

The catacombs were rediscovered by chance in 1868, and part of the basilica was excavated by Giovanni Battista De Rossi. For a scholar who has left a reputation for integrity this was a sloppy job (del tutto casualmente), and his plan was inaccurate.

Fortunately a fragment of a marble dedicatory inscription was discovered, which enabled the catacombs to be positively identified. It read: Faustino viatrici. The fragment is part of a frieze, and is thought to have been over a doorway or in an altar canopy.

Oddly, De Rossi only excavated about a quarter of the basilica including its apse. Somehow the idea got into print that this was the entire basilica, and so it can still be found referred to as a "little" basilica or as an oratorio which it definitely was not.

After the late 19th century excavation, the site was abandoned for a while until it was tidied up and consolidated in 1901 by Orazio Marucchi. In 1936 interest reawakened, and Enrico Josi did further investigations and repairs after a proposal to build a large new church on the site. The architect was to have been Mario De Renzi, but the proposal came to nothing. A drawing is here.

French paratroopers were billeted in the area in 1944, and have left some graffiti.

Fortunately the catacombs were not forgotten because, when suburban development began of the area in the Fifties, a group of parishioners of what is now Santa Maria del Rosario ai Martiri Portuensi took an interest. This group became the present Comitato di Catacombe Generosa. They were able to protest against any development threatening the site, and in 1965 were able to conduct their first guided tour of the catacombs. These continue to the present day.

The precarious state of the catacombs was illustrated in 1970, when intruders vandalised the lamp niches.

The Comitato was formally set up in 1979, and in 1980 the basilica was fully excavated and its plan recovered by the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology. The catacombs also received some necessary repairs to make them safe. At the same time social links were established with the city of Fulda, which have proved fruitful. A special contact was established with the village of Hainzell which has its church dedicated to SS Faustinus and Simplicius, and this place is considered twinned with the suburb of Magliana.

There was another restoration by the Commission in 2013 after a tunnel collapse, which included consolidation of surviving frescoes.

This seems to be the only set of catacombs open to the public which are not under the control of a religious organisation as agents of the Vatican (the Holy See is the owner of the freehold, as with all Roman catacombs).


The archaeological survey in the Eighties revealed a basilical edifice with a north-south orientation which had been partly excavated from the hillside, being only accessible via an entrance from the west.

This building, 20 metres long and about 14 metres wide, was divided into a central naves with aisles of different widths. The left hand aisle was wider, but narrowed towards the far end. The was also a narthex to the south, at the front end of the nave

The apse was basically semi-circular but had an irregular profile. Also, it was offset from the major axis of the building, being slightly oblique to align to the shrine of the martyrs already within the catacomb. To the right of the apse was a door, the introitus ad martyres, by which visitors entered the main gallery of the catacomb to visit the shrine.

The back of the apse had a niche containing a small marble seat (the so-called "bishop's throne") raised on two steps. Above this was an aperture looking into the shrine chamber behind -the technical term for this feature is the Fenestella confessionis. It is now blocked up. To the right was a passage (also blocked) which was the pilgrims' access to the catacombs from the basilica.

The basilica was itself a burial place until the first decades of the 6th century. Under the floor, in fact, have been found numerous graves, dug directly in the clay and, in some cases, covered with tiles either laid flat or cappuccino which means gabled. Some burials were placed near the apse in tombs built of brick and closed with marble slabs, which served as the floor of the church itself. These were obviously privileged interments.

Extant remains Edit

The site has been tidied up, and is now a place of worship.

The area excavated by De Rossi remains as a grassy hollow accessed by a short flight of stairs, with a modern revetting wall to the south (the excavations in the Eighties did not permanently clear the overlay on the south part of the church). A simple altar comprising a stone slab on a pedestal has been erected in front of the apse, which is substantially intact although extensively patched.

To the left (west) of the apse is De Rossi's spoil heap, which has been tidied up into a flat-topped mound with a staircase and a large steel girder cross.

The actual entrance to the catacombs is behind this. The entrance door is in a neat pink brick kiosk with a triangular pediment having brick dentillations.

Catacombs Edit

The steps lead down to a straight passage, which was widened when the basilica was built and which runs behind the apse and through the Cubilicum martyrum. The passage was reinforced with a revetting wall and transverse brick arches when it was widened.

Before reaching the Cubiculum, on the right there is a frescoed arcosolium. The main fresco is now perished, although it is on record that it depicted an orans. The side walls show pastoral scenes, including a shepherd with pan-pipes and two sheep (the panel is entitled Pastor).

To the left there is a passage leading to the main gallery complex. This is small, on one level about eight metres below ground level, and the galleries are narrow compared to the more famous city catacombs. There are three or four levels of loculi, closed with tiles and with no markers or epitaphs except for four exceptions which are thought to have been among the last burials. One gallery has a line of miniature loculi at floor level for children.

The galleries were provided with lamp niches, especially at corners, and these had little tiled shelves. Unfortunately vandals intruding in 1970 smashed them.

Just beyond the Arcosolium of the Shepherd is the apse wall with the (now blocked) fenestella. The Cubiculum martyrum is immediately on the left.

The Cubilicum has a double grave space for the martyrs. Above it is the famous Coronatio martyrum fresco, now unfortunately badly damaged with the lower register missing. It is alleged that De Rossi tried to remove the fresco, and failed badly. Fortunately, an engraving survives showing the fresco when it was first discovered and including details now lost.

The style is classically Byzantine, and the actual theme is a court reception at the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ is in the centre, shown as an emperor seated on a throne dressed in a gold tunic with a purple overmantel and holding a closed jewelled Gospel codex. He is flanked by four saints holding their crowns in reverence, and with identifying labels. The two nearest are in blue with gold mantles; the one on the right is Faustinianus, but the one on the left has lost his title -Simplicianus is a good guess. The one on the far left is a woman in a gold dress with a gold and silver mantle and hoop earrings -she is identified as ......tris, which is taken to have read Beatris.

The one on the far right is a solider, in a silver tunic with a red cloak. He is identified as Rufinianus, which is a problem since no soldier saint by that name is known. The old Roman Martyrology listed on 9 September the martyrs Rufinus and Rufinianus, with no details.

Continuing down the passage, there is the former passage from the basilica on the right and another cubiculum opening off to the left. This is the only other one in the catacombs. One of the tombs in here contained a skeleton described as laid out in the usanza etruscha ("Etruscan style"), whatever that means.

Access Edit

The Comitato Catacombe di Generosa arranges occasional guided tours for the catacombs, and the schedule is here. In 2016, it was working out at about one tour a month.

The entrance to the catacombs is towards the end of the Via delle Catacombe di Generosa, which is a dead-end street. If you are visiting privately, drive down this until you see a car park on your left. You should be able to find a space here. Just before the car park is a free-standing two-storey house with its frontage very near the street, and next to this is a derelict little building. In between the two is a narrow footpath without a sign, which leads to the grassed area containing the catacomb site.

The car park concerned is for the local residents, so it is requested that not more than one vehicle come here at any one time -and no coaches.

Liturgy Edit

Mass is celebrated on the altar in the basilica ruins on 29 July, which is the feast-day of SS Simplicianus, Faustinus and Beatrice.

It is also occasionally celebrated for pilgrim groups.

External linksEdit

Catacombs of Generosa website

"Roma Capitale" web-page

"Roma Sotterranea" web-page

Youtube slide-show

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