Despite its structural integrity, the edifice contains no altar and does not seem to have been consecrated after its restoration.
These catacombs have two names in the documentary sources, either Catacombe di Sant'Ermete or Catacombe di Bassilla. "Bassilla" is also spelt "Basilla".
The revised Roman martyrology 2004 has the following entries:
St Hermes, 28 August. 3rd century. "A martyr in the catacomb of Basilla, on the Via Salaria Vetus. As Pope St Damasus relates, he was from Greece, became a citizen of Rome and suffered for the sacred name".
St Basilla, 22 September. 304. "At Rome on the Via Salaria Vetus, the burial of this martyr in the reign of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian".
SS Protus and Hyacinth, 11 September, 3rd century. "At the catacomb of Basilla on the Via Salaria Vetus, the burial of the holy martyrs whose tombs Pope St Damasus restored and adorned with verses. After fifteen centuries the burial of St Hyacinth was found intact and his burned corpse discovered."
Via Salaria Vetus Edit
This set of catacombs was located on the so-called Via Salaria Vetus, which was part of an ancient trackway along the left bank of the Tiber long before Rome was a city. This was almost certainly in use in the Mesolithic period (Late Stone Age), and became the Via Salaria. The ancient, but probably false, etymology translates the name as "Salt-trading way" (the name might well have come from a pre-Latin and pre-Etruscan Bronze Age language used locally when the Latins were still confined to the Alban Hills).
A circuitous part of the route through what is now the Pinciano quarter was bypassed by the Roman road-builders by a straighter alignment, the Via Salaria Nova. After the Aurelian Walls were built, this cut-off section had its own gate at the Porta Pinciana and functioned as an alternative route between the Milvian Bridge and the Quirinal.
A series of catacombs was established along the road in the 3rd century.
Series of catacombs Edit
The known catacombs along the Via Salaria Vetus are, in order from the gate:
Ipogeo di Via Livenza (actually a sumptuous private tomb, but falls under the control of the Vatican).
The Sant'Ermete catacombs come next.
Catacombe ad clivum Cucumeris Edit
The last-listed is a serious puzzle. These catacombs are mentioned in the early mediaeval pilgrim itineraries, and were obviously important. They also had a basilica, dedicated to St John the Priest who had been beheaded as a martyr (there is a suspicion that the head of St John the Baptist at San Silvestro in Capite actually belongs to him). However, the official position is that they have never been discovered.
This is bizarre, because the area has been fully developed as a suburb and the surface remains must have been obvious to the developers as soon as they started to dig. They must have been tidied away illegally, and in secret. Further, there is a rumour that Umberto Maria Fasola discovered the catacombs in 1955 but that the discovery was corruptly suppressed on behalf of local landowners.
It is a fair guess that any explorers poking around the Via Francesco Denza (the suspected locality) will have some large dogs set on them.
Early times Edit
It remains uncertain as to whether Bassilla was the lady who owned the land on which catacombs named after her were excavated, or a martyr of the early 4th century who was buried here. A received scholarly opinion is that there were two women, the landowner and the martyr.
If so, the first Bassilla is thought to have been involved in the opening of the catacombs in the mid 3rd century. Scholars in the 19th century tried to move this date back to the beginning of the 2nd century, but this was because of a undeserved respect for the legends attached to the saints. Giuseppe Marchi gave his opinion that the original structure on the site was a nymphaeum of a Roman villa that had been abandoned -this would have happened in the early 3rd century (a century later than Marchi would have it).
St Hermes and SS Protus and Hyacinth (together) were buried in separate cubicula fairly soon after the catacombs were opened. Unfortunately, their stories are lost and their names were later co-opted for two fictitious romances. St Hermes appears in the so-called acta of Pope St Alexander I, and SS Protus and Hyacinth with St Bassilla for those of St Eugenia. Both of these legends are valueless as history, but the latter conjunction shows that the author was familiar with these catacombs.
St Bassilla the martyr was interred about fifty years later, but the location of her grave is not known. However, epigraphs were found which mention her. Armellini reproduces this one in the Lateran epigraphic collection:
Domina Bassilla commendamus tibi, Crescentinus et Micina, filia nostra Crescen[?tia] que vixit men X et dies.
("Lady Bassilla, we Crescentinus and Micina commend to you our daughter Crescentia who lived ten months and a day.")
This touching epitaph is a reminder of one massive difference in attitude between contemporary Christians and pagans -the latter were not just little worried about infant deaths, but practised infanticide.
By the mid 4th century, the catacombs had two main levels and a small mezzanine level in between (which is why sources disagree as to how many levels there are -two or three).
Shrines of martyrs Edit
In the later 4th century Pope St Damasus (366-84) built a basilica incorporating the shrine of St Hermes, apparently being two-storey with one storey underground and the other at ground level. The work was effected by excavating the ground down to the level of the cubiculum containing the remains of the martyr. Hence this was a similar arrangement to that pertaining at Santa Domitilla, except that the basilica here was a more substantial project.
The same pope also restored the cubiculum of SS Protus and Hyacinth, and left an epigraph:
Extremo tumulus latuit sub aggere montis, hunc Damasus monstrat, servat quod membra piorum, te Protum retinet melior sibi regina coeli, sanguine purpureo sequeris Hyacinthe probatus, germani fratres animis ingentibus ambo, hic victor meruit palmam prior ille coronam.
A priest called Theodore left this in (apparently) the same campaign:
Aspice descensum, cernes mirabile factum, sanctorum monumenta vides patefacta sepulchris, martyris hic Proti tumulus iacet atque iacincti, quae cum iam dudum tegeret mons terra caligo, hoc Theodorus opus construxit presbyter instans, ut Domini plebem opera maiora tenerent.
Middle Ages Edit
There is evidence of major restoration work in the 6th or 7th century, connecting to a remark in the Liber Pontificalis concerning repairs carried out by Pope Adrian I (772-95). Pilgrimage itineraries of the period make it clear that the catacombs on the Via Salaria Vecchia were of major interest to pilgrims.
At the end of the 8th century an oratory with important frescoes was attached to the main edifice of the basilica. In this period the church was part of a monastery, which is unfortunately completely undocumented. The importance of this evidence is that the frescoes include a depiction of St Benedict, and this is the first genuine evidence of the presence of Benedictines in Rome. (Up to the 20th century it was generally accepted that the Order of St Benedict had been in Rome since the 6th century, but this delusion was the result of malicious historical fabrications effected in the 10th and 11th centuries.)
However, the collapse of law enforcement for the city's environs in the early 9th century saw the abandonment of most of the catacombs and the removal of the relics of known martyrs to within the city walls. Pope Gregory IV (827-44) transferred the relics of St Hermes to San Marco, and those of St Bassilla were taken to Santa Prassede by Pope Paschal II (1099-1118). St Protus allegedly ended up at San Giovanni dei Fiorentini.
The site seems to have functioned as a cult centre, until it fell into decay and was eventually abandoned in the 13th century. This may be linked with the collapse of Benedictine monasticism in the city during the period.
The ruins of the basilica were allegedly brought back to notice when the catacombs were discovered by the Jesuits in 1576, when a vineyard on the site became part of the patrimony of the new German Hungarian College. The famous 16th century discoverer of catacombs, Antonio Bosio, first explored here in 1608 and it was he who identified the basilica. He made the connection by noticing a fragment of marble architrave built into the farmhouse (casino) attached to the farmyard, which bore the tag Herme... This he took as referring to St Hermes -a supposition which has been widely accepted.
The basilica still had frescoes on its walls when it was discovered, but these were lost as the century progressed. Also, Bosio noticed evidence of surface funerary structures which have since vanished without any record.
A restoration and consolidation of the structure of the basilica took place in the mid 18th century under the authority of Pope Clement XIII.
Recent times Edit
There was an important investigation by the Jesuit archaeologist Giuseppe Marchi in 1845. He excavated the cubiculum of SS Protus and Hyacinth, and took up the floor laid by Pope St Damasus. In so doing, he discovered a loculus sealed with an epigraph slab reading D. P. III idus Septembr[is], Yacinthus martyr. The loculus niche contained burned bones with remains of a cloth wrapping containing gold threads. This is the only certainly genuine interment of a martyr to be found in any of the Roman catacombs -the many other alleged relics of "martyrs" mined from them since the 17th century are certainly the result of wishful thinking.
The loculus was in the first layer above the floor, so was concealed when Pope Damasus ordered a new floor to be laid. This is apparently why his relics were not removed in the 9th century.
The site was leased out to the Guglielmi family until 1919, when the Jesuits took direct control. In this period the catacombs were regularly open to the public, apparently.
In 1940, Sandro Carletti located a small early mediaeval oratory attached to the left hand side of the basilica.
A confusion Edit
At present, the address at Via Antonio Bertollini 24 does not belong to any Church institution, and the catacombs have been inaccessible to the general public for several decades.
There is a serious confusion in contemporary published sources as to which of the villas on this street was the original Casino di Vigna dei Gesuiti which was apparently also known as La Pariola when it was an annexe of the German-Hungarian College. The choice is either the large block aligned parallel to the street at number 24, apparently built in 1925, or the so-called Casale Riganti at number 13 which dates from 1900. Both of these allegedly have catacomb entrances.
The catacombs are closed to the public, and what there is to see from the street in this rather bog-standard higher-class inner city suburb are a few decent early 20th century neo-Baroque villas. The Casale Riganti has a gallery of photos here.
Basilica layout Edit
The present underground basilica might have been the crypt of a two-storey church. The plan is that of a parallelogram rather than being rectangular, comprising a front narthex of two bays and a nave also of two bays with a semi-circular apse. The apse has a trapezoidal extension at the back, with its own small semi-circular niche.
The entrance is into the left hand side of the first bay of the narthex. There are three exits to the catacombs. One is from the left hand side of the second bay of the nave, via a short passage leading into a side chamber with two exit passages. Another is in the middle of the front wall of the narthex, accessing a small lobby also with two sets of exit stairs. The third is in the right hand side of the apse.
A so-called womens' gallery (matroneum) occupies the right hand side of the nave, and has its own entrance and catacomb access at its near end.
Basilica fabric Edit
The restored fabric of the basilica is in red brick, with two transverse vault arches separating the nave bays and the nave from the narthex. These spring from engaged rectangular piers, and have no imposts. The radial brickwork of the thick archivolts is of impressive quality -apparently 18th century.
The vaulting in between these arches is irregular -the narthex has it shallowly curved, in between the arches it is a transverse barrel vault and in front of the apse it is a half-barrel vault springing from the far arch. In the last vault in front of the apse is a skylight which would have lit the altar (if there was one here) or the shrine if this wasn't in the chamber behind.
The left hand entrance portal is tall and round-headed, but the corresponding left hand catacomb exit is surprisingly low. The former has a tall blind arch over it, of the same height as the transverse arches, and this is matched by an archivolt in the opposite wall which has very complicated fabric.
There is a small fragment of the original interior wall-plaster still surviving beyond this left hand catacomb exit.
The back chamber beyond the apse has its tiny sub-apse with its own archivolt. A so-called cathedra or president's chair carved out of a single cubical block of stone was found in the basilica, and it has been assumed that this was the original location. The chamber itself has been identified as belonging to the shrine -this is a guess.
The floor of the basilica contained graves, which have been excavated. The flooring was mostly scavenged when the basilica was abandoned.
Monastic oratory Edit
The medieval oratory was attached to the left hand wall of the basilica. Two early 10th century frescoes were discovered in 1940, occupying its apse. The one in the conch of Christ with angels, and the other shows the Madonna and Child with the angels Gabriel and Raphael and the saints Hermes, John the Evangelist and Benedict. This is claimed to be the oldest depiction of St Benedict in existence.
A photo on Cathopedia is here.
The catacombs are on two levels, with a small mezzanine. The most important feature is the cubiculum containing the loculus tombs of SS Protus and Hyacinth, which was restored and decorated by Pope St Damasus in the mid 4th century but damaged in the excavation of 1845 which discovered the undisturbed remains of the latter saint.
The cubiculum is on the second level, and is accessed by a staircase. At the bottom of this is an arcosolium with a lunette mosaic showing busts of saints -possibly the two martyrs. Here also is a perished fresco of Christ between the two of them. The cubiculum itself has a mosaic arcosolium including a representation of Daniel in the Den of Lions.
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.
Potential visitors need to be warned that "discretionary" means just that. The writer knows of people who have been refused.