Displaying the sacred past: Ancient Christian inscriptions in early modern Rome

  • Ann Marie Yasin


This article looks at the history of collecting early Christian inscriptions from Rome and its relationship to the study and presentation of classical epigraphy. The epigraphic collection gathered by Marco Antonio Boldetti at the church of S. Maria, in Trastevere exemplifies the increasing visibility of Christian inscriptions both in academic writing and in the actual walls of churches around the city. Yet, the motivations for collecting and the mechanisms for displaying the early Christian inscriptions were fundamentally conditioned by their perceived value not only as historical documents, but also religious objects.


Eighteenth Century Classical Tradition Historical Document Fifteenth Century Ancient History 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Abbreviations used


Corpus basilicarum christianarum Romae, Città del Vaticano: Pontificio istituto di archeologia cristiana, 1937–77


Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, Paris: Letouzey & Ané, 1907–51


Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1960-


Rivista di archeologia cristiana


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  1. 1.
    General descriptions of the church include: Carlo Cecchelli,S. Maria in Trastevere [Le chiese di Roma illustrate, n. 31–32], Roma: Danesi-Editore, 1933 (on the inscriptions in the portico Cecchelli writes, “È senza fallo il primo museo epigrafico cristiano e, come tale, merita molta attenzione…” p. 77); Mariano Armellini,Le chiese di Roma dal secono IV al XIX, vol. II, Roma: Ruffolo, 1941, pp. 783–96.Google Scholar
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    The Einsiedlensis collection provides a well-known early example of Roman inscriptions complied by an anonymous traveler to Italy. On the Einsiedlensis manuscript specifically, plus older bibliography, see Gerold Walser,Die Einsiedler Inschriftensammlung und der Pilgerführer durch Rom (Codex Einsidlensis 326). Facsimile, Umschrift, Übersetzung und Kommentar, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1987. This and other compilations of inscriptions which have come down to us are discussed by Marucchi who links them to a broader revival of learning in the Carolingian period (Orazio Marucchi,Christian Epigraphy: An Elementary Treatise with a Collection of Ancient Roman Inscriptions Mainly of Roman Origin, trans. J. Armine Willis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912; reprint Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1974, p. 38ff.; orig:Epigrafia cristiana. Trattato elementare con una silloge di antiche iscrizioni cristiane principalmente di Roma, Milano: Ulrico Hoepli Ediroe, 1910, pp. 35ff.). For a more comprehensive treatment of the medieval and humanistic manuscript tradition of epigraphic texts, see G. B. De Rossi,Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae septimo saeculo antiquiores, vol. II.1, Roma: P. Cuggiani, 1888.Google Scholar
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    The sporadic visitation of the Roman catacombs in the medieval period was inspired more by religion than scholarly pursuit (see J. Osborne, “The Roman Catacombs in the Middle Ages,”Papers of the British School at Rome 53 [1985]: 278–328). In contrast, after several centuries of relative neglect, by the end of the fifteenth century the catacombs began to be frequently visited and explored by members of the Roman Academy. See especially G. B. De Rossi, “L’Accademia di Pomponio Leto e le sue memorie scritte sulle pareti delle catacombe romane,”Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana ser. 5.1 (1890)881–94, and G. Ferretto,Note storicobibliografiche di archeologia cristiana, Città del Vaticano: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1942, chap. 6, “Le catacombe romane nel secolo XV e l’Accademia Romana,” pp. 73–80. W. H. C. Frend provides an overview of the history of Christian archaeology in this period inThe Archaeology of Early Christianity. A History, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996, pp. 1–40.Google Scholar
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    That sculpted sarcophagi (and some small precious objects such as decorated lamps) were however coveted and collected at this time is immediately apparent from Bosio’s book (e.g. “Questo Pilo fù ritrovato nel cauare i fondamenti della Basilica di S. Pietro l’anno 1592 & hora si vede in vna Casa priuata à Monte Giordano, nella quale habitaua già Mondigno Giusto, Auditore di Rota; & hora vi stà l’Ambasciatore di Bologna…,” Roma sotterranea, p. 65; “Dal Vaticano fù trasportato questo Pilo al Giardino delli Serenissimi Medici, nel Monte Pincio; doue hore si vede posto in vn viale per vso fontana…,” Roma sotterranea, p. 103).Google Scholar
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    Ciampini was also interested in the funerary markers and burial practices of the ancients, and even includes transcriptions of several funerary inscriptions in his book. In the second volume ofVetera monimenta (Roma, 1699), he deals exclusively with early Christian material and devotes an entire chapter to tombs (cap. III, “De antiquis Christianorum Sepulchris,” including a plate illustrating Ravennate sarcophagi [Tab. III]).Google Scholar
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    This office was established by Clement X in a brief of 1672: “Diversae Ordinationes circa extractionem Reliquiarum ex Coemeteriis Urbis, et Locorum circumvicinorum, illarumque custodiam, et distributionem” (Bullarium Romanum, Roma: H. Mainardi, 1733 [reprinted as:Magnum bullarium romanum. Bullarum privilegiorum ac diplomatum romanorum pontificum amplissima collectio, Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1965], vol. 7, pp. 161–2). For a history of the office and transcriptions of relevant documents, see G. Ferretto,Note storico-bibliografiche di archeologia cristiana, Città del Vaticano: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1942, pp. 201–05.Google Scholar
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    Other efforts include Clement XI’s 1701 renewal of earlier decrees which prohibited the export of antiquities from Rome (see Ludwig Pastor,History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, vol. 33, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1952 (reprint s.l. [Wilmington, N.C.]: Consortium Books, n.d. [1977?]), pp. 508–09; orig:Geschichte der Päpste seit dem Ausgang des Mittelalters, vol. 15, Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder & Co., 1930, pp. 367–68). A subsequent edict of 1704 stressed both early Christian and pagan antiquities and mandated that all new discoveries of paintings, stuccos, mosaics, inscriptions and other materials be reported to specific officials (printed in Carlo Fea,Dei diritti del principato sugli antichi edifizi publici sacri e profani in occasione del panteon di Marco Agrippa, Roma: Fulgoni, 1806, pp. 76–8).Google Scholar
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    So comfortable was Boldetti in his positions asCustode and canon of S. Maria in Trastevere that he reputedly turned down Clement XI’s offer of a bishopric (Giammaria Mazzuchelli,Gli scrittori d’Italia cioé notizie storiche, e critiche intorno alle vite e agli scritti dei letterati Italiani, vol. 2, pt. 3, Brescia: Giambatista Bossini, 1762, pp. 1449–51); for general biography see Leclercq,DACL, vol. II, 1 (1908) s.v. ‘Boldetti (Marco Antonio),’ cols. 974–76, and N. Parise,DBI, vol. 11 (1969), s.v. ‘Boldetti, Marcantonio,’ pp. 247–49.Google Scholar
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    Full title:Osservazioni sopra i cimiteri de’ Santi Martiri ed antichi Cristiani di Roma. Aggiuntavi la Serie di tutti quelli, che sino al presente si sono scoperti, e di altri simili, che in varie Parti del Mondo si trovano: con alcune riflessioni pratiche sopra il Culto delle Sagre Reliquie, Roma: Presso G. M. Salvioni, 1720. The publication of Boldetti’s book was announced in theGiornale de’ Letterati d’Italia, vol. 33, part 2 (Venezia, 1722), pp. 504–05, and a summary provided in theActa Eruditorium (Lipsia, 1722), pp. 513–24.Google Scholar
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    Mabillon cited a particular incident in which pope Gregory IV was forced to decline a request for relics by the Archbishop of Mainz, due to a shortage of holy remains in the catacombs (Leclercq,Mabillon, vol. 2, pp. 713–15).Google Scholar
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    Protesto poi, aver io intrapreso una tale fatica altrettanto più volontieri, quanto mi giova sperare, che la verità, che in essa si prendono a discoprire, potranno facilmente capirsi da persone eziandio di minore intelligenza, come dedotte dalla pratica di fomiglianti materie: non ostante qualunque sinistro concetto, che contro le Sagre Reliquie de’ Cimiterj di Roma avessero queste formato a cagione di una Epistola (divulgata anche fra noi) scritta già dall’Eruditissimo P. Gio. Mabillone sotto nome di Eusebio Romano a Teofilo Gallo sopra il Culto de’ Martiri Anonimi, da molti o non capita, o in altro senso diverso da quello dell’Autore interpretata” (unpaginated, 2–3rd page of “L’autore a chi legge”). That criticism still raged over Boldetti’s incorporation of antiquities, including certain inscriptions believed to be pagan, is evident from Marangoni’s defensive text of 1744,Delle cose gentilesche e profane transportate ad uso e adornamento delle Chiese (Roma). This entire book reads as a justification for the use of paganspolia (broadly defined) in Christianity. Marangoni cites precedents from Scripture and early Church history for appropriations of all sorts (e.g., cap I, “Che il trasferirsi le Cose Gentilesche al culto del Vero Dio, è conforme alla Ragione ed alla Divina Scrittura”), from symbols (cap. XII ff.), feasts and rituals (cap. XXIV ff.), to the title ofpontifex maximus (cap. XXXVII), and physical monuments such as obelisks and the Vatican’s bronzepigna (cap. LXIX).Google Scholar
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    Osservazioni, lib. I, cap. XLVI, pp. 248–49.Google Scholar
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    Cf.Osservazioni lib. I cap. XXXIII: “Che gli antichi Cristiani, per collocarvi il Sangue de’ Martiri, adoperarono ogni sorta di vasi e di vetro, e di terra, e d’ altra materia, e i loro frammenti quantunque fossero fattura de’ Gentili, ed avessero già ai loro usi servito,” Osservazioni, 162ff. Boldetti’s view supported the decree of the Congregation of Rites from 1668 which declared that a grave marked with palms or small vessels stained with blood could be considered to contain (or to have contained) the remains of a confessor of the faith. Mabillon’s challenging of this decree was deemed risky by his colleagues and caused him to delay publication of his views for nearly a decade. Mabillon was not however alone, as Daniel van Papenbroeck and others had also begun to question the role of the palm as clear-cut symbol identifying a martyr’s tomb (Leclercq,Mabillon, vol. 2, pp. 715–16; Bergkamp,Dom Mabillon, pp. 85–98). Mabillon’s caution is especially understandable in light of the violent criticism Papenbroeck suffered for his writings, including an accusation of heresy by the Spanish inquistion (Leclercq, DACL, vol. XVII, 1 [1937], s.v. ‘Papenbroeck (Daniel van),’ cols. 1345–58).Google Scholar
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    Osservazioni, lib. II cap. III, p. 345 (emphasis mine).Google Scholar
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    Leclercq translates portions of these letters inMabillon, vol. 1, pp. 406 and vol. 2, p. 712 (Leclercq’s catalogue of correspondence nos. 553 and 554); on this incident see also Knowles, “Jean Mabillon,” p. 230.Google Scholar
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    Ad illud quod mihi concessum est corpus ex gratia eminentissimi Cardinalis Carpinei, nullum nomen exstabat, sed tantum vitrum cum ferreo instrumento dentato, quod martyrii instrumentum esse putant” (Iter Italicum, p. 136, translated in Leclercq,Mabillon, vol. 1. pp. 405–06).Google Scholar
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    Questo S. Corpo con l’Iscrizione fu conceduto dell’Eminentissimo Signor Cardinal di Carpegna al Sig. D. Claudio Rivet per la Chiesa Parrochiale di S. Giuliano del luogo detto S. Giuliano nella Contea di Borgogna” (Osservazioni, lib. II, p. 343).Google Scholar
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    The passage continues, “…ad effetto d’illustrare con esso una delle sette Chiese esistenti nel Castello di Monselice nella Diocese di Padova Padronato della sua Nobilissima Famiglia; alle quali la sa. me. di Paolo V. concedette con Bolla speciale le stesse Indulgenze, e Privilegj, che godono le sette Chiese di Roma; Per secondare poi le divote brame del mentovato Signor Cavalier Duodo, oltre le numerose Reliquie, e Corpi Santi, che da molti anni si venerano nel Santuario di quelle sette Chiese, nel tempo della sua gloriosa Ambasciaria in Roma, è stato anche onorato di varie altre Reliquie, e Corpi de’ Martiri da molti Porporati, e Vescovi di varie Diocesi”Osservazioni, lib. II, cap. III, pp. 339–40).Google Scholar
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    Osservazioni lib. II. cap. I, p. 330.Google Scholar
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    Osservazioni lib. II, cap. I, p. 330. Cf. “…per lo spazio di molti anni ho avuto in forte di ritrovare, ed estrarre dalle tenebre de i Sagri Cimiterj” (ibid.) (Osservazioni, lib. II, cap. III, pp. 339–40).Google Scholar
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    Boldetti originally arranged the inscriptions in the portico and chapel of the sacristy of sta. Maria in Trastevere (Mazzuchelli,Gli scrittori, vol. 2, pt. 3, p. 1450). The early Christian antiquities Boldetti arranged in the sacristy, together with many medieval and renaissance tombstones from the interior of the church, were moved to the portico after the excavations under the pavement of the church conducted by Vespignani in 1865–69. SeeCBCR vol. III, p. 67–8; G. B. De Rossi, “Scoperte nella basilica di S. Maria in Trastevere,”Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, ser. 1, 4 (1866): 76. Vincenzo Forcella lists the eleventh-through nineteenth-century inscriptions from the church, many of which are now also housed in the portico:Inscrizioni delle chiese e d’altri edificii di Roma dal secolo XI fino ai giorni nostri, vol. II, Roma: Fratelli Bencini, 1873, pp. 335–79. Not only was the inscription collection in the porch subsequently augmented by these inscriptions from the church interior, but many of the examples installed by Boldetti (approximately 50) were also removed for transfer to the Vatican epigraphic collections during the course of the nineteenth century (Giandomenico Spinola, “Nascita e sviluppo della sezione epigrafica cristiana dei Musei Vaticani,” in:Index Inscriptionum Musei Vaticani, 1.Ambulacrum Iulianum sive ‘Galleria Lapidaria’, ed. Ivan Di Stefano Manzella, Città del Vaticano: Officina Libraria Pontificia, 1995, p. 26).Google Scholar
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    Apparently for reasons of economy, Fontana’s first design included sculpted Albani monti as the main feature of the upper part of the façade. These, however, were replaced with the statues of the saints when Clement XI reallocated an additional 21 travertine blocks from the campanile project of S. Peter’s (Braham and Hager,Carlo Fontana, p. 78, and esp. cat. no. 136 [fig. 112]).Google Scholar
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    On S. Giovanni in Laterano in general, seeCBCR vol. V, pp. 1–92. On the medieval cloister see Francesca Pomarici, “Medioevo Architettura,” in:San Giovanni in Laterano, ed. Carlo Pietrangeli, Firenze: Nardini, 1990, pp. 60–87; Arthur L. Frothingham,The Monuments of Christian Rome. From Constantine to the Renaissance, New York: Macmillan, 1908, pp. 203–05.Google Scholar
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    The fragments from the Constantinian apse and the Leonine portico were added to the cloister collection between 1876 and 1884. Subsequently, in 1939, the entire collection was systematized and it was recently reorganized in 1970 under the direction of Conti Bernetti, official of the Direzione Generale dei Servizi Tecnini del Governatorato Vaticano (Enrico Josi,Il chiostro Lateranense: cenno storico e illustrazione, Città del Vaticano: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1970, p. 5).Google Scholar
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    The medieval cloister, which is now encrusted with archaeological fragments, was apparently unadorned in 1645 when Cornelio Margarini published its inscriptions (Inscriptiones Antiquae Basilicae S. Pauli ad viam Ostiensem, Roma: F. Moneta, 1654). Margarini’s book lists the inscriptions in the church and monastery by location, and the author gives no indication of reappropriation or relocation of earlier tombstones (p. XXXXVr., nos. 620–22). With the exception of three pagan inscriptions serving as conventional garden ornaments, the inscriptions Margarini records seem to bein situ, marking original tomb sites in the church. For example, in the chapter on the central nave (“Navis media a porta usque ad gradus”) a typical inscription entry reads, “38. Inter 2. & 3. columnam. An. Chr. 424. DEPS. EST. IN. PACE. FILIO./CASTINO. VC. COS.” (Margarini, p. IV). For a history of the epigraphy collection see Ivan di Stefano Manzella, “La raccolta lapidaria,” in:San Paolo Fuori le Mura a Roma, ed. Carlo Pietrangeli, Firenze: Nardini Editore, 1988, pp. 266–81.Google Scholar
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    Quisquis es aut civis aut exterus/ fauste vivas/ et veterum lapidum/ inscriptis notis insignium/ lautissima pulcherrima/ supellectile/ fruere merito libens./ publico enim bono et commodo/ ex adiacentis basilicae pavimento,/ ne longo incedentium attritu/ diutius deperirent/ plerisque adiectis undique conquisitis/ in hoc peristylium/ vetustate et artificio admirabile/ translati dedicatique sunt/ an(no) sal(utis) MDCCLVI (Manzella, “La raccolta,” p. 267).Google Scholar
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    For an interesting discussion on the “voice” of ancient epitaphs and their strategies for attracting the attention of the passer-by, see Helmut Häusel,Das Denkmal als Garant des Nachruhms: eine Studie zu einem Motiv in Lateinischen Inschriften, Zetemata 75 München: C. H. Beck, 1980, section C, “Das Denkmal und sein Leser”, pp. 41–63.Google Scholar
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    Giovanni Marangoni,Il divoto pellegrino, guidato ed istruito nella visita delle quattro basiliche di Roma, per il giubileo dell’anno santo MDCCL, Roma: Chracas, 1749. Only the Lateran cloister’s antiquities collection is briefly mentioned (pp. 318–19). On Marangoni’s defense of Boldetti’s work see above n. 32.Google Scholar
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    Osservazioni, p. 330.Google Scholar
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    Marangoni too in his guidebook description of S. Maria in Trastevere draws the pilgrims’ attention to both the inscriptions and the statues of saints adorning the portico (Il divoto pellegrino, pp. 169–70).Google Scholar
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    See Johns,Papal Art, pp. 36–38.Google Scholar
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    See Angelo Mai,Scriptorum veterum nova collectio e vaticanis codicibus edita, vol. V, Roma: Typis Vaticanis, 1831, pp. v-ix. On the history of the “Museo Ecclesiastico,” see Carlo Pietrangeli,The Vatican Museums: Five Centuries of History, Vatican City: Quasar and Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1993 (orig.:Musei Vaticani. Cinque secoli di storia, Roma: Quasar, 1985), p. 37, and the useful review of the history of the papal collections of Christian epigraphy by De Rossi, “Il museo epigrafico cristiano pio-lateranense,”Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, ser. 3, 1 (1876): 120-44. For the museum’s contents, see the inventory published by Christian Hülsen, “Il ‘Museo Ecclesiastico’ di Clemente XI Albani,”Bullettino della Commissione Archeologica Communale di Roma 18 (1890): 260–77.Google Scholar
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    Giovanni Pietro Chattard provides a contemporary description of the layout and collection of the Museo Cristiano inNuova descrizione del vaticano o sia del palazzo apostolico di San Pietro, vol. III, Roma, 1767, pp. 54–58. For a brief sketch of the history of the Vatican museums in English, see Carlo Pietrangeli, “The Vatican Museums,” in:The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982, pp. 14–25.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ann Marie Yasin
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Art HistoryUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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