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Catacomba di Basileo with its Basilica dei Santi Marco e Marcelliano was a 4th century set of catacombs containing the shrine of SS Mark and Marcellian.

They are (tentatively) identified with the catacombs under the present Istituto di San Tarcisio a Via Appia, which has its address at Via Appia Antica 102. These are part of the Complesso Callistiano (see Catacombe di San Callisto).

You will find them referred to as the Catacomba di Balbina in the older literature.

History Edit

Saints Edit

The revised Roman martyrology (2001) entry for SS Mark and Marcellian on 18th June describes them as having been martyred in the persecution of the emperor Diocletian, at the start of the 4th century. It adds a comment that their legend describes them as twins (unfortunately this story is unreliable historically, hence the careful phrasing).

They were buried in the cemetery of Basileus, who must have been the original proprietor or landowner. This had its original entrance on the ancient Via Ardeatina, and is so listed in the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries.

Basilica Edit

When the saints had a shrine basilica built for them, most likely later in the 4th century but perhaps early in the 5th, their relics were apparently removed from their tomb in the catacomb and enshrined under the basilica's altar. The Itinerarium Salisburgense states that they "rest above ground, under a great altar".

Nothing else is known about this church, not even its date of abandonment. The relics of the two saints allegedly ended up at Santi Cosma e Damiano, where they were discovered in 1583. Most of them are enshrined in the crypt there, although part was taken to the high altar at San Nicola in Carcere and in 1949 an arm-bone was taken to the church dedicated to them at Forme.

Catacomba di Balbina? Edit

The ruins of a church having a central nave with aisles (or three naves, as the Italians describe such) was mentioned as being in the locality at the start of the 17th century.

Also, the protagonist of catacomb exploration, Antonio Bosio, had discovered a set of catacombs just south of Domine Quo Vadis and identified it as the Catacomba di Balbina. So, this ruin was interpreted as that of the basilica of Pope St Mark -see Catacomba di Balbina (Basilica di San Marco Papa). It might have been what is now called Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina, re-discovered in 1991, or it might have been the lost basilica of SS Mark and Marcellian. There is no way of telling without new discoveries.

Later in the 17th century, the entire area was cleared of ruins to create vineyards. Three of these occupied the Complesso Callistiano. The putative Catacomba di Balbina was under the Vigna Moroni, extending south into the Vigna Cardelli, and the actual Catacombe di San Callisto were under the southernmost, Vigna Amendola.

In the 18th century, the only two catacombs known in the area were these ones and the ones under San Sebastiano fuori le Mura. The latter were under supervision and protection, but tragically the former were not and the accessible areas were plundered and vandalised.

19th century Edit

Serious archaeological study of the catacombs is judged to have begun with the work of the Jesuit Giuseppe Marchi (1795-1860) who published the first volume of his Monumenti in 1844. His young disciple Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) was to become much more famous as the alleged "discoverer" of the Catacombe di San Callisto. Although the guides showing pilgrims around San Sebastiano fuori le Mura had been pretending for centuries that the catacombs there were those of San Callisto, scholars had known where the latter were for some time. De Rossi sexed-up his own account of his work here with bene trovato details, but it makes a very good story.

In 1849, at a cottage in a vineyard north of San Sebastiano, he discovered that one of the steps in a stone staircase has an inscription: ...NELIUS MART. Knowing that the martyr Pope St Cornelius had been interred in the catacomb of San Callisto, he searched the area and found an open ventilation shaft allowing underground access. There, he stumbled across a part of the same inscription, saying COR.... Wisely, he immediately tipped off Pope Pius IX who purchased the vineyard and allowed De Rossi complete freedom to excavate. The latter found the wrecked cubiculum where nine popes had been interred in the 3rd century, and soon after was able to bring the pope himself to view what were to be known as the Chapel of the Popes and the Chapel of St Cecilia.

In 1883, after De Rossi had restored and tidied-up these two "Chapels", the Catacombe di San Callisto were given into the care of a new Trappist Cistercian monastery, founded here from Mont des Cats in France. From then, San Callisto became the premier catacomb to visit for pilgrims and tourists, a status it has maintained to the present day.

Meanwhile the "Catacomba di Balbina" was also explored by De Rossi, and surviving descriptions derive from his work. The Trappists also received the supervision of them. At some stage during the 19th century, the area around the original entrance on the Via Ardeatina suffered some major collapses and the entrance was rendered unusable. To compensate, the monks opened a modern access stairway from next to their monastery of San Tarcisio a Via Appia. There was some limited opening to the public, although obviously Balbina was very much in the shadow of Callisto to the south-east.

Catacomba di Basileo? Edit

In 1928 the Cistercians gave up the administration of the Complesso Callistiano, and the Salesians who took over seem to have shut down the "Catacomba di Balbina" to visitors.

This identification lasted until 1991, when the Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina was discovered further along the modern Via Ardeatina. After some hesitation, a scholarly consensus seems to be emerging that this is the Basilica di San Marco and that the associated catacombs are the genuine Catacomba di Balbina.

This leaves the catacombs discovered by Bosio as possibly identifiable with the Catacomba di Basileo. However, there are still scholarly worries about this as epigraphic evidence is lacking. An alternative identification is that of a cemetery dedicated to St Soteris (Santa Sotere) which De Rossi considered to have been part of Callisto proper.

Description Edit

The location of the basilica of SS Mark and Marcellian is unknown. A vague guess is that it was in the vicinity south-east of the farmstead located on the driveway from Domine Quo Vadis to San Tarcisio a Via Appia.

According to De Rossi, this is an impressive set of catacombs with imposing cubicula. Some are richly decorated not only with frescoes but with stucco work, and contain smashed up remains of sculptured marble sarcophagi.

Specially mentioned was a cubiculum fresco showing Christ with the twelve apostles, one of whom is pointing to a star. Another cubiculum showed a man climbing a ladder, an allegory of the ascent to Heaven and a unique depiction in the Roman catacombs.

As well as the modern entrance at San Tarcisio, apparently these catacombs link up with through passages to San Callisto which the monks either dug or discovered.

External links Edit

Italian Wikipedia page

"Archeologiasacra" gallery

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