If you ever come to Rome, go on the “Scavi” tour of the excavations under St. Peter’s. You may have to reserve a spot several weeks or months in advance, but it is well worth it.
Rome is history built upon layers of older history. It is easy to forget that much of the great sites, churches especially, have been built or entirely reconstructed as recently as the renaissance and baroque periods. The massive St. Peter’s Basilica that we see now was built over a 120 year period, throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries.
Like the Lateran palace of the popes and a number of other buildings in Rome, the original Basilica of St. Peter had been left largely in neglect during the Avignon papacy and the papal schisms of the 14th and 15th century, and was in need of repair and restoration. Pope Julius II ordered the demolition of the Basilica, which had been built by Constantine more than a millennium before. The new would be built on the site of the old, with the altar as the center point and locus of continuity.
[For a great read on the history and the personalities of popes and architects involved in the building of the new St. Peter’s, I highly recommend R. A. Scotti’s Basilica: Splendor and the Scandal – Building St. Peter’s . It was given to me as a gift from a good friend, a priest with whom I worked closely while we were planning to build a church for the parish we were serving.]
Visitors to the Basilica today can tour the main level, designed largely by Michaelangelo, Raphael, Bramante and others, and then can go down to the “Tomb of the Popes” on the level of the old, Constantinian basilica for free and without tickets. If you did not know about the Scavi, you might think this level of the Vatican Grottoes was the lowest. But even Constantine built upon an older layer of history.
Before Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman empire and began to build imperial unity by building churches, the Vatican was a hill, on the slopes of which was a Necropolis – a city of the dead. Mausoleums constructed literally as houses for the dead, pagan and Christian side by side (or on top of each other) in family plots clustered around the area. In order to build his massive basilica, Constanitne ordered the hill leveled and the slopes filled in, up to about the roofline of many of the houses of the dead, which were then filled with rubble and debris to make room for the basilica platform.
It was in the midst of this necropolis that a small shrine was built up against a red wall. Over the few hundred years between the construction of the shrine and its being covered by Constantines basilica, more and more Christians were found to be buried as close as possible to the shrine, often without care for previous graves so that several layers of graves were found right on top of one another radiationg out fromthis shrine. But the shrine itself remained undisturbed.
It was this Necropolis that was excavated under the orders of Pius XII between 1939-1949. The remnants of the shrine was found, as described by ancient sources (in 160 AD, Gaius described the Trophy of St. Peter) – the tomb of Peter had been discovered!
Unfortunately, it was discovered to be empty.
During the course of excavations, other graves were found, and in one of the walls adjacent to the tomb, some human remains were discovered. In 1942 the rector of the basilica took it upon himself to move these without going through the archaeologists working in the area, to preserve these possible relics of some unknown saint. Years later they were “rediscovered” by one of those working on the excavations, and testing confirmed they fit the demographic profile of St. Peter at the time of his death and are presumed to be his remains, moved from the original grave to the adjacent ossuary in the wall for veneration, perhaps.
Talk about innovation and continuity, the story of the Church! Consider the layers built one on top of another to mark the apostle’s martyrdom:
- A first century grave (c.70AD)
- A second century shrine, the “Trophy” of St. Peter (before c. 160AD)
- Constantine’s monument then basilica (c.315)
- The altar of Gregory the Great (c.600)
- The altar of Callistus II (c.1120)
- The altar of Clement VIII (c.1600) – the current high altar
- Bernini’s Baldachino
- Michaelangelo’s Dome
Nancy and i were fortunate enough to find space on a tour just a few days ahead, and joined two families (one from Portland!) who had reserved their tours weeks in advance.