Catacomba dei Giordani and Catacomba di Sant'Ilaria are two separate catacombs sharing a common entrance at Via Salaria 334. This accesses the latter set of catacombs first and is in the Trieste quarter, while the former set is under the Via Ada and is in the Parioli quarter. The connection is via an 18th century tunnel under the road.
There is a serious historical confusion between the Giordani set of catacombs and the Catacomba di Trasone at Via Yser 1, and this is persisting in modern publications - including online.
The Giordani set has also confused with the Catacomba anonima di Via Anapo further up the road. The proper identification of these three catacombs was only established in 1969, so especially beware of descriptions based on material published before then.
The problem arises because, before the 20th century, it was believed that Giordani and Trasone referred to the same vast set of catacombs on the left hand side of the Via Salaria. So, Mariano Armellini at the end of the 19th century wrote about the Cimitero di Trasone e Saturnino e dei Giordani. This was believed to lie under the southern tier of the present Via Ada, extending south-westwards to under the Villa Grazioli.
This view persisted until 1921, when the catacombs on the Via Anapo (on the right hand side of the Via Salaria) were discovered and identified as Giordani, leaving the previously known galleries under the Via Ada (on the left hand side) to be labelled as Trasone.
Finally galleries to the south-west of the Villa Grazioli were explored as a result of commercial development in the Sixties, and identified as Trasone in 1969. The Villa Ada set was then re-identified as Giordani, and the Via Anapo set labelled as anonimo.
The identification of these three separate sites is that followed by the Pontificia commissione di archeologia sacra.
Origins of Giordani Edit
The Giordani catacombs were one of the largest in ancient Rome. They apparently began in the mid 3rd century around the core of a private hypogeum, located in region B of the present second level. The martyr Alexander was entombed in a cubiculum (catalogue reference Bd) at an unknown date, and his shrine became the focus of a massive expansion from the latter 3rd century into the 4th.
Part of this expansion involved re-using a large abandoned pozzolana quarry (referred to as an arenarium or "sand-pit -region F) which was extended over the 4th century into a vast network. There are five levels, which before the recent discovery of a fifth level at Catacombe di San Callisto was a record. However, two of these levels are mezzanines and are small.
The origin of the name is completely unknown -in English, "the [family of?] Jordans". It would be a good guess that the people concerned were the original proprietors, and a less sure guess that they were Jewish.
Origins of Sant'Ilaria Edit
The Giordani catacombs are very large, but the Sant'Ilaria ones are small. They are separated only by the width of the ancient Via Salaria Nova, so one can wonder as to why there are two separate sets. However, catacomb excavators usually confined their activities to designated property boundaries, and the highways belonged to the Imperial government. So, catacomb passages under them were not usual -although they might have existed, as witness at Santa Priscilla further up the road (bearing in mind that the modern road at Santa Priscilla might not be the original route).
This little set of catacombs is 4th century. See Coemeterium Maius and Catacomba di Novaziano for other examples of a large set of catacombs separated from a small one by a highway. It is uncertain as to whether this pairing had any significance in their original functioning, such as a confessional split between the mainstream Church and the Novatianists.
As with other catacombs, the ones here received burials into the 5th century and then became venues for the veneration of martyrs until the 9th century when they were abandoned.
The revised Roman Martyrology (2001) for 10 July lists three martyrs enshrined in Giordani: SS Vitalis, Martial and Alexander, of unknown date. Further, it names a group of seven female martyrs on 31 December -also of unknown date.
Alexander should not be confused with his namesake at Sant'Alessandro, who was not on the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries. He is a candidate for the mysterious St Alexander mentioned in the Roman canon of the Mass. Also, he should not be confused with Pope St Alexander (107-115) who has a completely fictional legend attached to him.
The early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries have a number of martyrs to be found here, whose popularity did not outlive the abandonment of the catacombs and which demonstrate the above-mentioned confusion:
The little catacomb was named after:
- St Hilary or Hilaria. She is seriously confused with one of the seven women martyrs mentioned (see list of them below), and with the mother of St Maurus who was enshrined at the Catacomba di Trasone. It is impossible now to say whether these three were the same person. The name of the catacombs, and the existence of her shrine there, relies on the Excerpta Topographica from the biography of Pope Adrian I, which states: Atque coemeterium S. Hilariae innovavit (And he restored the cemetery of St Hilary).
- SS Alexander, Vitalis and Martial. The Itinerarium Salisburgensis only lists the first-named. The three together feature in the fictional legend of St Felicity and her seven sons, being presented as three of the seven. A fragment of epitaph for the shrine of St Alexander (only) was decisive in the proper identification of these catacombs when it was found.
- SS Theodolus and Eventius. These alleged martyrs seem to have been enshrined together, nearer the catacomb pilgrimage entrance than Alexander according to Salisburgensis. They seem only to have existed owing to a confusion with the martyrs SS Alexander, Eventius and Theodolus, who are listed in the revised Roman Martyrology on 3 May as having suffered martyrdom at the seventh milestone on the Via Nomentana. The old Roman Martyrology identified this Alexander with Pope St Alexander, which was an error.
- The Seven Virgins. These were enshrined together, apparently in a surface shrine or church. They were: SS Saturnina, Hilarina (or Hilaria, probably not the same as the martyr across the road), Dominanda, Rogantina, Serotina, Paulina and Donata. The Roman Martyrology gives Hilaria, and does not list them as virgins.
The massive 4th century expansion of the Giordani catacombs seems to focus, however, on the one shrine of St Alexander. This is actually the only martyr's shrine identified in the two sets of catacombs, and it is so thoroughly destroyed that the identification has to be tentative.
The Liber Pontificalis for the early career of the catacombs also shows this shrine receiving exclusive attention. Pope St Damasus (366-84) renovated it, and provided an epigraph. He also provided a new staircase for pilgrims to access the shrine.
Fragments of a tablet with Filocalian lettering, and hence commissioned by the pope, were found scattered about in region F in 1966. Put together, they read:
Septimus in numero fratrum. Hic voluit sanctus martyr sua con......Atri....caeli sciret lon....
The complete sentence reads "Seventh in the number of brothers", and is claimed to be a reference to the legend of St Felicity of Rome and her seven sons. However, the alternative possibility is that the legend derived from the epigraph. An ongoing worry, generating controversy, is that the name of the martyr is not given -that it was St Alexander is a surmise.
Gothic vandalism Edit
Also in 1966 were found fragments of a marble epigraph tablet which replaced Pope Damasus's, and which provided a valuable historical insight. Further fragments of this had already been known to scholarship, but they had been looted in the 18th century without any provenance being preserved.
When they were finally put together, they read:
Dum peritura Getae posuissent castra sub Urbe, moverunt sanctis bella nefanda prius. Istaque sacrilego verterunt corde sepulchra, martyribus quondam rite sacrata piis quos, monstrante Deo, Damasus sibi papa prabatos, affixo monuit carmine iure coli. Sed periit titulus, confracto marmore, sanctus nec tamen his iterum posse late fuit. Diruta Vigilius nam mox haec papa gemescens, hostibus expulsis omne novavit opus. Sancto Alexandri martyri.
("When the doomed Goths put an army camp below the city, first they made disgraceful war against the saints. These tombs they overthrew with sacrilegious heart, formerly rightly sacred to the holy martyrs whom Damasus the pope, when a revelation of God showed them worthy, indicated by affixing a poem that they were justly to be revered. But the holy epigraph perished when the marble was smashed. But yet oblivion was not to hide these saints again, for soon Pope Vigilius, lamenting the destruction, renovated everything once the enemy had been expelled. To Alexander the martyr").
This discovery finally proved that the catacombs under the Villa Ada were Giordani.
The act of vandalism referred to occurred during the Gothic Wars, during a year-long siege of Rome by the Ostrogoths in 537. The motivation seems to have been spite rather than looting, as the epigraph of Damasus to Alexander was deliberately smashed and then scattered in another region of the catacombs. The vandalism is echoed in other catacombs where early damage is hinted at or demonstrated, and which previous scholars wished to place in the 5th century sacks of Rome (for example, Catacombe di San Callisto).
The date of abandonment is unknown, but the 9th century is a good guess.
The catacombs were rediscovered at the start of the 18th century, and explored in 1720 by Marcantonio Boldetti and Giovanni Marangoni. Back then, Sant'Ilaria was under the grounds of the Villa Odescalchi, and Giordani under that of the Villa Massimo. The latter set of catacombs was thus often referred to as the Catacomba della Villa Massimo.
As usual with any catacombs newly discovered in the 18th century, these catacombs were immediately plundered and seriously damaged. Unfortunately, they were regarded as more important as sources of moveable objects than as monuments in their own right. They were hence looted of frescoes, epigraphs, coins, lamps, glassware and, stupidly, the alleged relics of "martyrs" for which loculi were simply smashed open without regard for their antiquity. The artworks and other items ended up in museums and private collections, mostly losing their provenance.
The demand for "relics of martyrs" was being fuelled from the 17th century by the expansion of the Roman Catholic church in the New World, and the building of new churches as the population expanded in Europe. The Papacy intervened to discourage any private trade in such relics, and employed corpisantari -these workmen both guarded the catacombs, and explored them for relics. This was meant to be under the supervision of a priest, who looked for one or more of a list of symbols thought (on no actual archaeological evidence) to indicate a martyr -a little glass bottle, the depiction of a palm branch or the letter "M", for example. The occupants of anonymous graves were given names arbitrarily, and several of these "catacomb martyrs" are to be found under Baroque altars in Rome's churches.
The corposantari here dug a tunnel under the road to link the two sets of catacombs, apparently so that the denizens of the Villa Massimo were not disturbed by having an entrance on their property.
Modern era Edit
Proper scientific interest in these catacombs only emerged in the late 19th century, after the pioneering work of Giovanni Battista De Rossi. Here, as mentioned, the consensus was maintained that the Giordani catacombs were simply part of the Catacomba di Trasone nearer the city.
King Victor Emanuele II bought the Via Massimo in 1872 as an out-of-town palace, and directed much remodelling to the property. Armellini wrote furiously about the damage to the catacombs that resulted, and the destruction of intact loculi:
Gli operai del fondo superiore appartenente a Vittoro Emanuele, penetrativi devastarono barbaramente tutto manomettendo centinaia di loculi ancora intatti.
The royal family sold the property on in 1878, and it became the Villa Ada before they got it back which is why it is often called the Villa Ada Savoia. More damage was done to the catacombs when the royals built an air-raid shelter for themselves (this is now known as the Bunker, and can be visted).
Across the road, in 1882 Henry Stevenson properly examined the Sant'Ilaria catacombs and proposed the name. He found no trace of a shrine, however, and concluded that it was in a surface church.
In 1905 the Villa Odescalchi was bought by the Visitation nuns formerly of Sant'Anna dei Falegnami. At this time the two sets of catacombs were (at least occasionally) open to the public. However, the narrow single passage running under the road to Giordani rather precluded the nuns' developing the catacombs as a pilgrimage attraction like Santa Priscilla, which was a pity. They found the villa too cramped, and moved to Madonna di Guadalupe e San Francesco di Sales in 1942.
A correct identification of the catacombs was only published in 1970, after archaeological investigations involving the discovery of identifying epigraphs.
The entrance to both catacombs is part of the former Villa Odescalchi, with its main entrance off the northern end of the Via Taro. There is nothing to see.
The staircase down enters the little set of catacombs of Sant'Ilaria. This has a few passages with loculi, and one cubiculum with a fresco cycle: The Good Shepherd, The Raising of Lazarus, The Sacrifice of Abraham and Tobias and the Fish.
The access to the Giordani catacombs is through a cramped 18th century passage running under the road.
This is a very extensive set of catacombs, with one main passage running in a straight line for a hundred metres and with many frescoed cubicula. The fresco work is often of high quality, and attempts at genuine portraiture are discernible in the 4th century work.
The most famous fresco is one in an arcosolium depicting a racing charioteer, leading to the surmise that the tomb's occupant was one. However, an allegorical meaning might have been intended.
The shrine-cubiculum of St Alexander is pointed out on the basis of some architectural fragments and traces of mosaic work, but very little is left.
Italian Wikipedia page (Giordani)
Italian Wikipedia page (Sant'Ilaria) (Basically erroneous.)