Catacomba di Commodilla is a 4th century set of catacombs with its entrance in the Parco di Commodilla, a public park next to the Via Giovannipoli in the Ostiense quarter. Pictures on Wikimedia Commons are here.
These catacombs are the nearest known to the city on the ancient Via Ostiensis, and were established close to the tomb of St Paul at San Paolo fuori le Mura. The date of the main excavations is put around the mid 4th century, and these began from a pozzolana quarry. The interesting thing about this is that the martyrs venerated here must already have been entombed by then, so it seems that they were buried in a passage of a working underground quarry.
The origins of several of Rome's catacombs seem to have been with such quarrying, and it is tempting to imagine that the owners of the quarries saw a useful means of making further profit by turning old passages into burial places. Whatever, the proprietor of the original catacomb here was called Commodilla -it is also noticeable that many of those in charge of establishing catacombs at Rome were women.
The revised Roman Martyrology (2001) has kept entries for three saints in these catacombs:
- SS Felix and Adauctus, 30 August. These were obviously the most popular, as the catacomb layout focused on their shrine. The Martyrology places their martyrdom at the end of the persecution by the emperor Diocletian, about the year 303. Unfortunately, their extant legend is fictional and only appears first in the work of the notorious 9th century forger Ado of Vienne.
- St Emerita, 22 September. The Martyrology has her as being of unknown date. Her worthless legend is one of a genre featuring virgin martyrs enduring grotesque tortures, and couples her with a companion called Digna. The latter never existed, and is thought to have been created through an old erroneous reading of an epitaph on Emerita's shrine -Digna e Merita for Digna Emerita.
There are documentary traces only of the veneration of two others:
- St Nemesius is mentioned in the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries, but nowhere else. There is the vaguest of hints that there were three martyrs in the main catacomb shrine, and so some modern publications have put him there.
- St Gaudentia "with three others", 30 August (the same date as SS Felix and Adauctus). The Martyrologium Hieronymianum put her on the Via Ostiense, but the old Roman Martyrology gave her a separate entry from those of SS Felix and Adauctus and merely lists her as "at Rome". The revision of the Roman Martyrology has deleted her.
4th century catacombs Edit
The catacombs are on two levels. The main, upper and older level has a very wide spine passage which is thought to have been an original quarry tunnel, begun as an adit into the side of a hill. This was part of a small network of quarry tunnels, which was supplemented in the later 4th century with freshly cut passages. The original entrance was then walled off, and an entrance staircase provided nearer the main shrine (this is the one still in use).
The catacombs at that time were experiencing a heavy demand for tomb places. The wider corridors were having their floors deepened to accommodate further loculi in both sides of the trenches thus created, and unusual square pits about two metres deep were dug here and there to provide vertical surfaces for yet more loculi. The weirdest aspect of this tomb-packing was the use of the light-shafts or lucinaria, which would have been very inconvenient for funerals.
Older descriptions of the catacombs presume that the motivation for this tomb-packing was a demand for burial places as near the martyrs as possible. This is certainly seen in other catacombs containing shrines, but not to this extent. An alternative explanation might be that the administration only owned or leased a limited surface territory, and so could not do the obvious thing and simply extend the catacombs by means of new passages.
However, one can then ask why a new level was not initially dug out instead at these catacombs. The same odd tomb-packing is only seen in another set of catacombs in Rome, at Catacomba di Santa Tecla. This is just down the road, and perhaps the same quirky management were administering both in the late 4th century.
The later 4th century work included the remodelling of the shrine-tomb of SS Felix and Adauctus, completed by Pope St Siricius (384-99) and initiated by Pope St Damasus (366-84) who was his predecessor. The latter certainly composed an epitaph for the martyrs, which survives in transcription.
The embellishment of the shrine involved the widening of the far end of the spine passage, creating a large crypt. The insertion of masonry revetting walls blocked off access to a side gallery, which the archaeologists found completely intact.
They noted that this first phase of the catacombs, as well as being crowded, was culturally impoverished. There were no cubicula or arcosolia, only loculi and these with poor-quality epitaphs where provided at all. It seems that the customers were lower-class people with some money but not much -and also rather individualistic (cubicula were routinely taken by small confraternity, trade and family groups, but not here).
5th century catacombs Edit
The second phase of the catacombs, beyond and below the main shrine, marks a change of character. It is dated to the end of the 4th century and the early 5th century, and does contain some higher-class burials in cubicula as well as more of the same sort of lower-class burials as in the older zone. One of these cubicula, the Cubiculum of Leo, contains the first known depiction of Christ with a beard (the tradition beforehand was to show him as a youngish, beardless man).
The catacombs received burials until the 6th century.
At some stage a basilica dedicated to SS Felix and Adauctus was built above-ground, in the surface cemetery known to have existed over the catacombs.
Pilgrimage destination Edit
The proximity of the catacombs to the shrine of St Paul at the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura would have insured a substantial footfall of pilgrims in the early Middle Ages. This was the first set of catacombs on the Via Ostiense, the road to the basilica, and pilgrims also had the opportunity to visit the Tomba di San Timoteo and the Catacomba di Santa Tecla. For ultras, at the seventh milestone could be found the Catacomba di San Ciriaco.
The surviving frescoes in the main shrine are palimpsests, bearing witness to several renovations. The extant work is mainly 6th century, and might belong to a renovation ordered by Pope John I (523-6) (see Santa Maria Antiqua). However, one fresco panel has an epigraph placing the work in the reign of the emperor Constantine IV (668-85).
The shrine-crypt contains graffiti from the 7th century and later, including Anglo-Saxon examples and in runes. A famous graffito is pointed out as one of (or the) earliest examples of proto-Italian as distinct from late Latin.
The abandonment of the complex possibly took place in the reign of Pope Leo IV (847-55), who donated the relics of SS Felix and Adauctus to Empress Irmengard, wife of Lothair I the Holy Roman Emperor. She donated them to a nunnery at Eschau in Alsace, and they were allegedly taken to the cathedral of St Stephen in Vienna in 1361. There are rival claims, however.
The alleged relics of SS Digna and Emerita were taken to San Marcello al Corso, where they are enshrined in a side chapel.
It is stated online that the first exploration of these catacombs was by Antonio Bosio 1595, but in his book he confines himself to collating the documentary evidence.
The first actual visit was by Marcantonio Boldetti in 1720, who left a description which is obviously of the main shrine. Back then the locality was a vineyard, the Vigna Serafini, and the vines were still here at the start of the 20th century. Perhaps fortunately, a landslip in the same century obstructed the entrance and the catacombs remained relatively safe from plunderers.
Giovanni Battista De Rossi investigated the surface cemeteries hereabouts in the later 19th century. He and Henry Stevenson fixed the identity of the catacombs in 1897.
The first major archaeological excavation was in 1903, under the aegis of the Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra. It confined itself to the first level, including the martyrs' shrines, but noted the existence of a lower level. The write-up was by Orazio Marucchi, and the evidence obtained was systematically presented as the doctoral thesis Il Cimitero di Commodilla o dei Martiri Felice ed Adautto sulla via delle sette chiese of Bellarmino Bagatti in 1934 (published two years later).
The newer parts of the catacombs were explored by Antonio Ferrua from 1953, with results published by him in 1958. This campaign included the discovery of the Cubiculum of Leo.
Since then, the catacombs have apparently been accessible to serious scholars under a discretionary scheme. There has never been free public access.
In 1971 there was a serious act of vandalism when an intruder smashed the fresco of Turtura. This has been carefully repaired.
The top of the single set of access stairs is protected by a little rendered brick building standing in the Parco di Commodilla, which is a pleasant and quiet open space.
The presence of the park means that the immediate environs of the catacombs have never been built on. However, the previous existence of a vineyard seems to have ensured the removal and destruction of all surface remains including the putative foundations of the basilical church (often confused in the literature with the underground shrine-crypt).
De Rossi's surface explorations included both the surface cemetery of the catacombs and the burial ground along the Via Ostiense next to San Paolo fuori le Mura, the old Cimiterio di Lucina. The two establishments bordered each other as a swathe of tombs fitting around the shoulder of a hill where it abuts the course of the Via Ostiense. This cemetery area is ancient, dating back to the 2nd century BC.
The set of stairs follows the original one made when the catacombs were first systematically laid out in the 4th century. They debouch near the crypt-shrine, from which the old spine-passage of the upper zone runs away to the blocked original entrance of the previous quarry. Near this quarry entrance is the alleged shrine of St Emerita.
Facing the martyrs' tomb in the crypt, to the right is the intact and unplundered side passage discovered in 1903, with its intact loculi and attached personal objects. The remodelling of the crypt in the 5th century, and the building of revetting walls, had blocked off the entrance of this and so had hidden it.
Behind the tomb is the newer area including the Cubiculum of Leo, and also access to the lower zone (an aperture in the floor of the crypt looks down into this now).
Otherwise, there is a paucity of cubicula and arcosolia but the way that the catacomb fossors (diggers) packed in the loculi is of great interest. Note the trenches dug in the floors the wider passages, with loculi in both sides of them, and the square pits (pozzi so-called) containing up to twenty loculi. There are also loculi in the blocked lucinaria or light-wells.
Shrine of SS Felix and Adauctus Edit
The shrine-crypt was created by widening the end of the original quarry spine-passage. It is a large space of irregular plan, now with modern vaulting in brick. There are two arcosolia and two round-headed apsidal niches, one which is very tall to the right of the main tomb which is tucked away at the left of the far end. This might have contained statuary once.
The crypt was once entirely frescoed, but much of this has perished. Some very interesting works have survived, though, and there is evidence of palimpsests hiding under the extant paintwork. So, several cycles of decoration were executed in the crypt during the centuries when it was in use.
The main arcosolium tomb, which was found broken open and which has modern repairs, has a fresco of the two saints in the tympanum. The so-called Epitome of the pilgrimage itineraries describe the two martyrs as ambo requiescunt in uno loco ("both rest in the one place"), and this has been taken to mean that they shared the tomb.
However, the second arcosolium (to the left of the entrance) has a palimpsest fragment of an epitaph mentioning a martyr. This has been taken to mean that one of the two martyrs was enshrined here, and that in uno loco meant the crypt. However, an alternative and very tenuous hypothesis is that a third martyr, the shadowy Nemesius, was in here.
The tympanum of this second arcosolium has a 6th century fresco of Christ giving the keys to St Peter. Christ is seated on a globe, symbolizing his universal power, and St Peter is to the left. The latter has his hands wrapped in his tunic, which echoes imperial court ceremonial for when a courtier was given something by the emperor. To the right is St Paul, holding a box of candles in the same way. The other saints depicted are Emerita, Felix, Adauctus and Stephen the Protomartyr.
To the right of the main tomb, on a pier flanking the apse here, is a well-preserved fresco icon of St Luke. He is holding a little handbag, taken to be a medical doctor's bag -this is allegedly the earliest known example of this attribute. The frame has an epigraph dating the work to the reign of the emperor Constantine IV (668-85).
The left hand side wall has the famous and well-preserved (despite the 1971 vandalism) fresco of Turtura. This depicts the Madonna and Child flanked by SS Felix and Adauctus, who are presenting Turtura as a suppliant. Our Lady is depicted as an empress, dressed in purple and seated on a scarlet cushion on a gilded throne embellished with pearls. She holds the Christ-child, dressed in cloth-of-gold. Below the fresco is a long epitaph composed by Turtura's son Obas, which gives biographical information. Turtura (the name means "Turtle-dove", as the epitaph makes clear) lived for thirty-six years as a widow, and brought up her son as a single mother. She lived into her sixties.
Epitaph of Pope Damasus Edit
The archaeologists only found a small fragment of the epigraph tablet of Pope St Damasus, but fortunately the text was transcribed in the early Middle Ages. It read:
O semel atque iterum vero de nomine Felix qui, intemerata fide, contempto principe mundi, confessus Christum coelestia regna petisti. O vera pretiosa fides, cognoscite, fratris qua ad coelum victor pariter properavit Adauctus. Presbyter his verus, Damaso rectore iubente, composuit tumulum sanctorum limina adornans.
("O once and again, in truth Felix [happy] by name you with undefiled faith, spurning the prince of the world, a confessor asked Christ for heavenly rule. O truly precious faith of the brother -know this- by which Adauctus the victor went fourth to heaven. The actual priest-in-charge for these by the order of Damasus the ruler, put in order the tomb of the saints and decorated its limits.")
It is thought that the fictional romance of the saints' legend is based on this epitaph. According to it, Felix was being led to execution when an unknown Christian stepped from the spectators and volunteered to join him. The name Adauctus, literally meaning "consecrated for sacrifice" was then given to him.
Early Italian graffito Edit
A graffito scratched into the plaster near the entrance to the shrine-crypt is pointed out as one of the earliest examples of proto-Italian, competing in age with the more famous example in the underground basilica of San Clemente. Unfortunately, it is impossible to date this even to a particular century. It could be anything from the 6th to the early 8th.
The text reads:
Non dicere ille secrita a bboce
In proper Latin this would be:
Nolite dicere illic secreta a voce ("Don't speak secret things aloud there").
It's a semantic point to argue whether this amounts to proto-Italian or bad late Latin. See the Italian Wikipedia article here.
Santa Merita Edit
Boldetti claimed to have found the shrine-tomb of St Emerita down the wide spine-passage away from the main shrine-crypt. This he did by noting that the tympanum of the arcosolium had a fresco of a young woman, and that the area was especially well-endowed with graves as if the locality was popular. Obviously, the surmise is weak on both counts -but no other candidate for her shrine has been found.
An oddity mentioned is that her tomb is "like an oven", which seems to be that the grave-slot was excavated longitudinally into the wall of the passage instead of transversely as in a standard loculus.
Cubiculum of Leo Edit
As mentioned, most of these catacombs are occupied by graves of people who were not well-of. In contrast, the Cubiculum of Leo is a very high-status communal cubiculum with (tellingly) signs of having had its own independent access from the open air. It dates to the end of the 4th century or just after.
The rather small chamber has three arcosolia, and is entirely covered in fresco work utilising much expensive scarlet cinnabar paint. The walls show scenes from the New Testament and the career of St Paul, but the important work is on the roof. This is vaguely curved in sympathy with the arches of the arcosolia, giving a very shallow cross-vault effect. A fresco panel, much reproduced, shows Christ as a majestic bearded man -the Pantocrator or ruler-of-all. This fresco is the first known example of this iconographic motif, to become extremely familiar in sacred art. Beforehand, the tradition was to portray Christ as a youngish man (he was crucified in his early thirties) with no beard.
Near the cubiculum is an arcosolium with a tympanum fresco showing Christ as the Lamb of God blessing baskets of loaves.
The discretionary scheme of the Commissione allows visits to accessible closed catacombs by groups of not more than fifteen, "for a real and exclusive cultural purpose". The minimum fee in 2015 was 220 euros, increasing after 75 minutes. See the PDF file Rules Regarding Visits to the Catacombs Closed to the Public.
Note that the Commissione does not commit itself to allowing access to this or any other such catacombs, but decides each application individually. Unfortunately, its "Don't bother" list of catacombs which are simply not visitable, either permanently or because of some problem (flooding or roof collapse, for example) is kept secret.
"Roma SPQR" web-page (has photo of entrance)
"Riflessioniromane" web-page (not secure, don't click on links)