Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina is a ruined 4th century palaeochristian basilica just east of the Via Ardeatina, south of the junction with Via Luigi Capucci. However, it is accessed by a rough driveway off the Via Appia Antica (look for the cypresses on the right, south of Domine Quo Vadis). This is in the Ardeatino quarter.
A set of catacombs is attached.
Funerary complex Edit
The excavation revealed that the basilica had been built in the mid 4th century over a small pre-existing pagan cemetery, and two ancient structures which the excavators called the "Big Villa" and the "Little Villa". These 1st century AD edifices had been scavenged for materials when the basilica was erected.
It is hoped that complete excavation of this complex might clear up some issues as regards the circiform basilicas at Rome -see Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, Basilica Costantinina. It is clear that these structures were all funerary enclosures originally, but three live points of continuing debate remain:
- Structure. Were the buildings completely roofed, with a central nave having a higher roof than the enclosing U-shaped ambulatory? Or, was the central space unroofed, with the ambulatory forming an open arcaded portico such as that now at the Quadriportico at the Campo Verano? Or, did both designs originally exist?
- Status. Were the buildings originally also churches as well as places of burial? This has been seriously questioned, as no traces of altars have been found within the apses of any of them. Rather, the apses seem to have been loci of specially favoured burials. However, it has recently been suggested that the altar could have been in the centre of the nave as there is documentary evidence for such a location in other Roman churches (see San Pancrazio, for example).
- Function. How did the routine funerary arrangements within these edifices actually work, given the density of the packing of the tombs within them?
Dated epigraphs were discovered indicating that funerary activity was intense at the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century. This seems to have tailed off to become sporadic in the 6th and 7th centuries and ceased about the year 700.
However, the pillaging of the complex and its ruination seems to have come later although evidence of activity is obscure. Final spoilation and abandonment is thought to have occurred in the 11th century.
It is thought that any ruins above ground were deliberately demolished and buried in the 17th century in order to convert the locality into a vineyard. In fact, the entire Complesso Callistiano (see Catacombe di San Callisto) was so treated (three separate vineyards were created), and this was the main reason why so few remains have survived above ground of what was an enormous burial complex.
Documentation exists of the existence of the ruins of a church with a central nave and side aisles (tre navate) in the locality in the early part of that century. It might be that the ruin noted was of this basilica, although the alternative favoured by past historians has been the basilica of SS Mark and Marcellian over the Catacomba di Basileo.
There is no documented history of this particular site before the excavations in the late 20th century.
The locality is part of the vast Complesso Callistiano which occupies the large area between the present Via Ardeatina, Via Appia Antiqua and the Vicolo delle Sette Chiese. In late antiquity this area was completely occupied by several sets of catacombs, as well as surface cemeteries. The identification of the new site with one of the former, as documented in early records, is an ongoing problem.
However, the presence of the buried ruins of a large basilica was first made apparent through crop marks. These were noticed in 1991 by a Salesian lay-brother at San Tarcisio a Via Appia, and the Pontificia Commissione was notified. A series of campaigns of excavation ensued by them, from 1993 to 1996. These concentrated on an area of 25 by 22 metres over the apsidal end of the basilica. A transverse portico was identified attached to the far end of the apse, and fitted into the angle between the two to the right was a mausoleum. The apse proper was delineated by a row of four rectangular piers suggesting a transverse arcade or triforio.
The excavated area, -apse, ambulatory, portico and mausoleum- was found to be completely packed with graves. An exceptional one in the centre of the apse, amounting to a barrel-vaulted crypt containing a sarcophagus, was tentatively identified as being of the founder of the basilica.
A set of catacombs on two levels was also discovered.
After 1996, no work was done here until 2007 when the excavation began of the middle section of the basilica. It was hoped to excavate the entire building in due course. As at 2017, the excavation of the middle section has been completed and awaits a formal publication. The most important discovery has been a tomb containing a set of golden jewellery, next to a converted inspection-shaft for an underground aqueduct. The latter is thought to have served a villa in the valley to the west before the basilica was built.
On the other hand, hoped-for evidence of an altar in the middle of the nave seems not to have been found. This leaves the problem of how the edifice functioned as a church, and the question as to whether it actually did originally.
This is the first time that a major palaeochristian Roman basilica on a site undisturbed by later buildings has been excavated with full professional standards.
The basilica itself was circiform, meaning that it was on the plan of an elongated arch with a semi-circular far end and an ambulatory. This resembles an ancient Roman circus or race-track, such as the Circus Maximus, and this is the sixth paleochristian basilica discovered in Rome on this plan.
The dimensions are 66 by 28 metres, as measured over the crop marks.
The fabric was in tufo stone with brick, some of it being in the so-called opus vittatum in which the two are used to create a horizontally striped effect. This is very typical of mid 4th century buildings.
The ambulatory was separated from the central nave and apse by rectangular piers, and four more piers were in a line across the mouth of the apse. It remains unclear as to whether any of these supported arcades with arches, or trabeations (horizontal entablatures). The original excavators labelled the apse piers as the triforio, as they concluded that a threefold portal existed here. Also unclear is whether the central nave was originally roofed -elucidation awaits the excavation of the front end, to see whether the original structure had a frontage.
It was found that the right hand side of the basilica had been occupied by a road of some kind. The left hand side had a row of five conjoined apsidal mausolea, an arrangement also found in other circiform basilicas such as San Sebastiano fuori le Mura nearby.
Unique to this basilica, however, was the presence of a shallow transverse "portico" across the back end of the apse, little more than a corridor. This seemed to have been a covered access way to another mausoleum (the excavators' Mausoleo A) which was tucked into the curve of the apse on the right hand side and which had an entrance from the "portico" on its far side. This mausoleum was not apsidal, but had a transverse rectangular plan (except that the left hand side fitted into the apse curve) and contained three niches in each long side formed by engaged piers.
The entire excavated area was found filled with tombs, in the form of walled cavities in the floor. Some were double-decker, with stacked burials. Especially striking were the tombs in the apse ambulatory, which were completely packed together with thin party walls in a regular geometric array. The alignment of these walls followed the curve of the apse, with six concentric curving rows of tombs with the bodies head-to-foot in the direction of the curve.
The Mausoleo A and the "portico" were also packed with tombs. There was evidence of re-use in the later centuries of the complex's existence, especially in Mausoleo A where pottery dating from the mid 8th century to the early 9th was found.
A large number of epigraphs were excavated.
The centre of the apse was found to be occupied by a specially favoured tomb, so-called Tomba 82. This was a small barrel-vaulted chamber containing a re-used Classical sarcophagus. When found, the sarcophagus had been smashed open and the human remains completely removed. It is surmised that this tomb was that of the basilica's founder or of a venerated saint, and the surmise is that Pope St Mark was buried here.
The other outstanding tomb was number 373. Here, the excavators found the intact burial of an adult female accompanied by an impressive collection of jewellery. She had two gold chain necklaces, one with a chi-rho medallion and the other with emerald and pearl beads. Also here were four single-stone finger rings, one with a garnet, two with clear glass stones and one with green glass. A pair of pendant earrings with emeralds and pearls matched the second necklace. Finally, a collection of loose gold, emerald and glass beads hint at a third necklace with a decayed string.
The catacombs underneath this complex are quite extensive, on two levels. However, the excavators have concentrated on the surface remains because of their outstanding interest.
There are frescoed cubicula, including one noted as depicting The Good Shepherd with fishes.
Very unfortunately, no epigraph has yet been discovered which could identify the basilica conclusively.
The supervisor of the excavation considered that the most likely documented candidate was a basilica dedicated to Pope Mark, which is known to have been on the east side of the ancient Via Ardeatina and which was built by the pope in 336. See Catacomba di Balbina for the documentary witness to this.
The scholarly consensus by 2017 seems to be favourable. The dating evidence from the fabric, epigraphs and odd found items indicate a foundation date in the mid 4th century, and the location corresponds to the descriptions in the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries.
There are three worries, however:
- The layout of the Complesso Callistiano in its full glory is very uncertain. The above-mentioned itineraries mention various shrines of saints, but the almost complete destruction of surface features in the laying out of 17th century vineyards makes it impossible to plot these without an element of guesswork.
- The itineraries place the shrine of Pope St Mark on the east side of the Via Ardeatina. Unfortunately, the modern road does not here correspond to the ancient one. In fact, the present junction with the Via Appia at Domine Quo Vadis was established in the 16th century, and it is thought that the ancient road had its own city gate at Porta Ardeatina.
- Most seriously, it is possible that the basilica never actually attracted pilgrimage attention because no saint was ever enshrined here. So, it would be genuinely anonymous. In support of this concern over treating the pilgrimage itineraries as comprehensive sources of identification possibilities, is the existence of the Basilica dei Gordiani which is a circiform basilica with no documentation at all.
Nestori, Aldo: La basilica anonima della via Ardeatina, Vatican 1990. (Write-up of first excavation.)
Fiocchi Nicolai, Vincenzo: La nuova basilica circiforme della via Ardeatina (con appendice di M. P. Del Moro- D. Nuzzo e L. Spera), in Rendiconti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia, 48, 1995-1996 (1999), pp. 69-233.
Ibid: Corredi aurei da una tomba della basilica di papa Marco sulla via Ardeatina, in Costantino, 313 d. C., Roma, Colosseo, 11 aprile-15 settembre 2013, Milano 2013, pp. 60-66.
The latter two are available on http://www.academia.edu/