Catacomba di Ponziano is a mostly 4th century set of catacombs at Via Alessandro Poerio 55 in the Gianicolense quarter. The locality is in the Monteverde Vecchio neighbourhood.
For an overview of the catacombs, see Catacombs of Rome.
This set of catacombs was apparently the major suburban pilgrimage destination beyond the city walls of Trastevere in the early Middle Ages, about the first milestone on the Via Portuense. As well as the catacombs, the site boasted two churches -the major one dedicated to SS Abdon and Sennen, and another one dedicated to an obscure martyr called St Candida.
Two popes were buried here.
The catacombs were dug into a southern outlier of the Janiculum hill, rather unusually in an unsuitable matrix. Most Roman catacombs are cut into the local volcanic tufo stone, which is both easy to cut and yet fairly resilient. However, the geology of the Janiculum consists of a friable sandstone with some clay and is not that stable.
Why this is relevant to the history is, that the exploration of these catacombs is actually dangerous because of a risk of collapse. Hence, there has not been any systematic archaeological investigation and so a date of the later 3rd century for the beginning of excavations is simply a guess. The known remains are 4th and 5th centuries.
The ancient name is Coemeterium Pontiani ad ursum pileatum. The name Pontianus almost certainly refers to the original proprietor of the burial ground or the landowner concerned, since no stories concerning him as a saint or martyr emerged later. The second name is an odd one, and means "at the bear wearing a cap". This seems to have been an ancient hostelry.
The pileus was a brimless felt hat, well-known in ancient Greece.
Those familiar with mediaeval Roman history might have come across another ad ursum pileatum associated with the church of Santa Bibiana. This was the result of a mediaeval muddle, and was not a distinct locality in ancient times.
Abdon and Sennen Edit
The developed legend of SS Abdon and Sennen has them as noble Persian prisoners of war in Rome who assisted the Church suffering persecution under the emperor Decius, and were martyred themselves as a result. There was no Persian campaign during the reign of this emperor, a peace having been agreed in 244 that lasted until 253. Hence the legend has been treated as fictional by historians, and the revised Roman martyrology lists them on 30 July as "3rd century?"
However, their cult as martyrs is on record from early times. A depiction of them in these catacombs show them "in Eastern dress" (which seems to mean that they are wearing loose short trousers -garments that the ancient Romans viewed with suspicion and contempt). Their names are certainly non-Latin.
A large basilica was built for them, perhaps in the later 4th century. The 7th century pilgrim itinerary called the Itinerarium salisburgense described it as an ecclesia magna.
Santa Candida Edit
The same itinerary mentions a second church, to the north of the first, dedicated to the obscure St Candida and containing her shrine. The revised Roman martyrology lists her on 29 August as a virgin martyr of unknown date.
San Pigmenio Edit
The fourth martyr buried in these catacombs to find an entry in the Roman martyrology was St Pigmenius, who was listed as a priest thrown into the TIber during the reign of the emperor Julian. The story is very dubious, and his listing on 24 March was deleted from the Roman martyrology in 2001. His shrine was underground.
San Pollione Edit
Listed as enshrined on the surface is St Pollio. He is depicted in a fresco underground, accompanied by SS Marcellinus and Peter whose catacombs at Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros are on the other side of the city. Nobody knows why he was so depicted. He has been confused with St Pollio of Cybalae.
Other martyrs Edit
The Itinerary lists the following additional martyrs buried underground in the catacombs: Milex, Vincent and Quirinus.
"Milex" is an odd name, and has been rendered (e.g. by Armellini) as "Miles", which means "soldier". A fresco in the catacombs depicts a saint labelled "Felix", which might be another correction.
Papal tombs Edit
Two popes were buried here, in separate above-ground mausolea which seem to have flanked the basilica of SS Abdon and Sennen. The first was Anastasius I (399-401), and the second was his son Innocent I (401-17). Both of these were mistakenly venerated as martyrs by later pilgrims.
Parish complex Edit
As well as a pilgrimage destination, the catacombs became the focus of a local worshipping community perhaps in the 5th or 6th century. The evidence for this lies a the surviving underground baptistery.
Several other catacombs have had underground water-sources pointed out as "baptisteries", and this mislabelling was the result of the romantic fantasy that Christians lived and worshipped in the catacombs in times of persecution. (Rather, the water was used to make cement to close the tombs.) The baptistery here is the only genuine underground one known in the catacombs, and was presumably (not certainly) attached to the basilica of SS Abdon and Sennen. However, it might have been under the care of the church of St Candida -we know nothing of who was in charge of either church.
Pope Adrian I effected a major restoration.
Perhaps because of its importance, the complex seems to have been abandoned rather late. There was a restoration here ordered by Pope Nicholas I (858-67), at a time when other catacombs had already been stripped and abandoned because the countryside had been overrun by marauders. The restoration must have been a waste of money, because the catacombs fall into historical oblivion after it.
Interestingly, the relics of SS Abdon and Sennen had already been taken into the city and enshrined at San Marco by Pope Gregory IV (827-44). This is a slight hint that the parish church was Santa Candida, and that this was kept going for the sake of the local population. When the latter gave up and took refuge within the city walls, the rationale for any church here was lost.
Santi Abdon e Sennen al Colosseo Edit
The memory of the two saints was preserved in Rome by the erection of a small church near the Colosseum, which has its first mention in 1127. The legend of the martyrs has them executed near a colossal statue of the emperor Nero, which gave its name to the amphitheatre, and this might have influenced the siting of the church.
The location was somewhere to the west of the amphitheatre, where the tourists and bogus ancient Romans gather.
This church vanishes soon after it was listed in the reign of Pope Pius V (1566-72).
The actual date of the rediscovery of the catacombs is known, because this was by Antonio Bosio who went fossicking in 1618 in a vineyard belonging to the English College (see San Tommaso di Canterbury). He worked out correctly where the catacombs must have been by reading the sources.
His published description of what he found is good. Very unfortunately, for the next of the century the catacombs were sacked by so-called corpisantari and seriously damaged. A corposantaro was an uneducated workman employed by the Church, under the site supervision of a priest, to extract human remains from the catacombs under the guise of martyrs' relics. There was a high demand for these to go under altars in new churches, but there was an erroneous notion that the catacombs must have been stuffed with thousands of martyred Christians. The formulas applied for deciding which tombs contained martyrs were simply wishful thinking, and the result was that many tombs were simply smashed apart to extract the contents without any care for the integrity of the fabric. This was especially damaging in these catacombs, where the fabric was rather fragile to begin with.
Modern times Edit
Mariano Armellini supervised an archaeological exploration in 1883. He was followed by Orazio Marucchi, who published his work in 1917 together with Francesco Fornari in the same year. These three left almost the only useful extant descriptions, since nothing was done afterwards.
It is on record that the catacombs were open to the public at the turn of the 20th century, but only on the feast-day of SS Abdon and Sennen (30 July). A monumental entrance, which survives, was provided.
Disgracefully, when the suburb was developed in the early 20th century there was no systematic attempt to make a survey of surface remains. These were casually reported as existing before being destroyed on the north side of the site in 1917, and on the south side in 1921. Surreally, the latter development was for a large convent of the Society of Mary. This sort of stupidity was already out of fashion at the time.
The foundations of the buildings erected also penetrated into the catacomb galleries of the top level.
Allegedly there is a second entry to the catacombs in the basement of the convent.
There is nothing to see here, except the doorway. This is of steel, rather battered, and is in a brick kiosk with a cornice having a central gable topped by a low plinth.
The large convent of the Marianists, to the south, is worth a glance if you are in the vicinity. It is a good and rather grand example of very late Baroque revival (the Italians call this barocchetto). The architect was Rodolfo Morigi, and it was completed in 1925.
The catacombs are fairly extensive, on three levels although they have never been properly surveyed. Apparently several passageways have collapsed.
The present entrance was dug out by Bosio in 1618, and is not the original one.
A region explored by Armellini showed traces of high-status usage, with fragments of mosaic decoration as well as of frescoes which he thought were of the 6th and 7th centuries. He thus surmised that one of the pilgrimage shrines was located here -his suggestion of St Candida's was a guess, and the itineraries seem to indicate that she was enshrined in her church. A gold-glass fragment showing the busts of SS Peter and Paul was found here. The main passage is seventy metres long, ending in a large arcosolium containing a smashed marble sarcophagus.
17th and 18th century visitors left "I was here" graffiti, so Armellini wasn't the first in after Bosio.
At the foot of the staircase is the famous baptistery, thought to have been converted from an earlier cubiculum in the 6th or 7th century. Over the entrance arch is a fresco head of Christ in Byzantine style, and this is repeated on the vault further down. Ten marble steps lead down into the water-tank, which a hundred years ago still had a working natural spring (this might have dried up by now). On the far wall is The Baptism of Christ, and below this is painted a large cross embellished with gems and flowers (what is actually represented is the case for the relic of the True Cross in Jerusalem). The lower end of this enters the water, which was a deliberate echo of an ancient liturgical act for blessing the water in a font.
On the left hand wall of the baptistery is a tomb with a stucco frontal imitating an ancient sarcophagus. Above this is a fresco showing SS Abdon and Sennen being crowned by Christ in heaven. They are wearing what look like loose short trousers, and a hooded cloak. The same fresco also features St Milex to the left and St Vincent ("Bicentius") to the right, who are labelled. These are wearing standard ancient Roman tunics, quite a contrast in sartorial style.
Nearby is a pair of cubiculua with a blocking wall containing a square aperture, and this has a fresco showing St Pollio between SS Marcellinus and Peter. Below St Pollio are depicted SS "Felix" (Milex?) and Pigmenius, and these are also shown on the right on either side of another jewelled and flowered cross.
This cubilculum was identified as the shrine of St Pollio, a surmise supported by the existence of pious graffiti scratched into the frescoes by pilgrims. One was by an Anglo-Saxon, from England: Healfrede pb serbus di. Another one transcribed by Armellini illustrates a small mystery as to why SS Marcellinus and Peter were being venerated here, when their shrine was on the other side of the city:
Eustatius umilis peccator pbr servitor beati Marcellini martyris set tu qui legis ora pro me ut habeam Deum protectorem.
Some distance from the baptistery is another interesting cubiculum, containing a fresco depicting an emporium at a port, with a ship docked with a cargo of amphorae. The sail and the tiller-man are shown. This is an example of a rather uncommon genre of catacomb fresco, depicting a real-life scene without apparent religious context.
The catacombs are closed to the public.
The Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra has a discretionary scheme which 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 is 220 euros, increasing after 75 minutes. See the PDF file Rules Regarding Visits to the Catacombs Closed to the Public.