Catacomba di Sant'Ippolito is a set of catacombs begun in the 3rd century, which have a modern entrance on the Vicolo dei Canneti. This is a little dead-end street off the Via Ercole Pasquale, and is easy to overlook. The district is Nomentano.
It is thought that the origin of these catacombs lay in the earlier part of the 3rd century, and that the original hypogeum received the burial of the martyr after which it was named.
This is now considered to have been St Hippolytus of Rome, an early 3rd century patristic author who died about the year 236. He was a bitter enemy of Pope St Pontian in the controversy over Christians who had denied their faith under persecution, arguing that such people had no hope of reconciliation. He went so far as to become an antipope (not of the Novatian sect as claimed, however, as that arose after the year 250). However, both of them were arrested by the government and packed off as slaves to the mines in Sardinia, and died there. The tradition (undocumented) is that they were reconciled beforehand. Their bodies were brought back to Rome, and Hippolytus was buried here. The two are now liturgically celebrated together on 13 August.
Then, for centuries he was confused with a character in the developed legend of St Lawrence, having allegedly been an army officer converted by the saint in prison and martyred with him. This is now regarded as fiction, and even if true would have been a completely different person since St Lawrence died in 258.
A further confusion arose when a late 4th century basilica dedicated to the saint was built on the Isola Sacra near Fiumicino (which is neither in the municipality nor the Diocese of Rome). This led to a duplication in the old Roman Martyrology, with a completely non-existent "St Hippolytus of Porto" being listed on 22 August. This mistake was rectified in the 2001 revision of the Martyrology.
Confusion over the true identity of the saint was already present in the 5th century.
Working catacombs Edit
These catacombs were massively expanded in the 4th century, expanding to occupy five levels. The shrine of the martyr is on the third level.
The site enters into recorded history in the latter part of that century, when Pope St Damasus (366-84) remodelled the saint's cubiculum and composed an epigraph in honour of the saint which he had carved on a marble tablet. This read:
Hippolytus fertur, premerent cum iussa tyranni, presbyter in scisma semper mansisse Novati. Tempore quo gladius secuit pia viscera matris, devotus Christo peteret cum regna piorum quaesisset populus. Ubinam procedere posset Catholicam dixisse fidem, sequerentur ut omnes. Sic noster meruit confessus martyr esset. Haec audita refert Damasus, probat omnia Christus.
("It is said that Hippolytus always remained in the schism of Novatus when the orders of the tyrant pressed heavily. In the time when the sword cut the holy intestines of the mother [the Church], the faithful one looked for Christ since the people had sought the kingdom of the pious ones. Wherever he was able to go, he had spoken of the Catholic faith so that all might follow it. Thus our martyr deserved to be acknowledged. These things being heard, Damasus passes on. Christ tests everything.")
The word fertur is an interesting indication that the pope was not entirely sure about his sources.
Prudentius visited towards the end of the 4th century, and referred to the catacombs in his hymn in honour of St Hippolytus.
Burials here, as in the other Roman catacombs, persisted into the 5th century and then the complex functioned as a pilgrimage destination.
Pilgrimage destination Edit
The original cubiculum of the martyr was converted into the antechamber of a new shrine-chamber by Pope Vigilius (537-55), after the complex was sacked during the Gothic Wars. This vandalism was during a year-long siege of Rome by the Ostrogoths in 537, and 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).
As part of the work, access passages were cut through the original catacomb galleries which demonstrate that the site was the focus of much attention on the part of pilgrims. It ranked with San Lorenzo nearby in importance.
There was also a church here above ground, which had a nave and side aisles in the 7th century. The relics of St Hippolytus seem to have been transferred to here by then.
The pilgrimage itineraries of that century mention other martyrs venerated here. As with St Hippolytus, some of them were subsumed to the story of St Lawrence, so it seems that the two catacomb complexes had been marketed to pilgrims as one destination since perhaps the 6th century if not earlier:
- St Concordia. She was a genuine martyr listed in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, but was subsumed to the St Lawrence legend by being listed with St Hippolytus as his nurse on 13 August in the old Roman Martyrology (RM). A complete paucity of historical details led to her being deleted in the 2001 revision of the martyrology. Of the itineraries, the Epitome avoids linking the two martyrs and the Itinerarium Salisburgenis describes him as his "woman" -meaning wife, not his nurse.
- "Nineteen other members of the family of St Hippolytus" (old RM). The Epitome reads: In monte basilica s. Hippolyti est, ubi ipse cum familia sua tota XVIII martyres iacet. ("On the hill is the basilica of St Hippolytus, where he with his family, a total of 18 martyrs, lie.") As mentioned this source lists St Concordia separately, so it seems that the muddled entry in the old RM included her and then added St Hippolytus himself to the total by mistake. The original source of this group might have been a cubiculum filled with victims of an epidemic outbreak (compare Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros).
- SS Tryphonia and Cyrilla. They were described in the itineraries as the wife of the emperor Decius, and her daughter. This assertion found its way into an entry in the old RM for 18 October, but is completely fictional -the name of the wife of that emperor is known (Herenia Etruscilla). They have been deleted from the RM.
- St Genesius, about whom nothing is known.
The Epitome also mentions a "Prison of St Lawrence" (carcer) which pilgrims could visit. This conflicts with another old tradition that has the martyr's prison at the present church of San Lorenzo in Fonte.
Pope Adrian I (772-95) restored the complex, but apparently the relics of the saints had already been removed to San Silvestro in Capite by Pope Paul I (757-67). Abandonment is thought to have happened in the early 9th century.
The 15th century floor of the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano contains fragments of the epigraph tablet in honour of St Hippolytus commissioned by Pope St Damasus. This is certain proof that not all the catacombs around Rome were completely forgotten about in the Middle Ages -it is just that nobody cared.
In 1553, the fragments of a famous statue of St Hippolytus were discovered on the site and this probably came from the lost above-ground basilica. The work was reassembled and heavily restored by Pirro Ligorio, and is now in the lobby of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (although a more accessible copy of it is in the narthex of the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso).
The catacombs themselves were rediscovered at the start of the 17th century by Antonio Bosio, but were only systematically explored by the archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi from 1862. As a result, what was described as a "tri-apsidal mausoleum" was discovered (this might have been the above-ground basilica), as well as the underground shrine-chamber of Pope Vigilius. Some fragments of the epigraph by Pope Damasus in honour of the saint were also found, and Rossi was able to reconstruct the text using an early transcription in an old manuscript.
Among the epigraphs found, De Rossi noted that two commemorated priests of the titulus of Santa Pudenziana and so surmised that this titulus was administering the working catacombs..
Modern times Edit
Unfortunately, the remains of the tri-apsidal structure were destroyed when the locality was developed as a suburb just after De Rossi excavated. Also, all epigraphs discovered by Rossi were removed and apparently there is little of interest in the catacombs now. There is a notable paucity of fresco work as well, which is odd.
In the Second World War, parts of the catacombs were converted into an air-raid shelter and serious damage was done as a result.
The complex has never been open to the public since then.
There is nothing to see above ground, and the entrance is not easy to find.
Below ground, the most interesting feature is obviously the shrine-chamber of St Hippolytus. This is an approximately rectangular chamber with an apse, having a barrel vault supported by wide ribs in brick. The walls show evidence of the original decorative scheme including marble revetting panels and strips of marble cornice, and it is clear that there were several renovations of this. The archaeologists attached loose bits of stonework to the walls, and also brought here fragments of columns and other carved stonework from elsewhere in their excavations.
The way in is via a little antechamber, with an arched entrance flanked by a pair of brick columns which must have been rendered formerly. On the left wall near the entrance is an area of surviving plaster which has pilgrim graffiti helping to identify this as the shrine-chamber. The most quoted one is:
Ippolite in mente Pet[rum] [p]ec[cat]or[em] [habeas]. ("Hippolytus, keep Peter the sinner in mind.")
In the apse is a stone block where one would expect an altar if the layout belonged to a church, and this was taken by De Rossi as evidence that Mass was celebrated here. It is now considered that such celebrations would only have taken place in the Middle Ages, not in early times so this block seems to be part of the original shrine.