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De Rossi defined it as "the most magnificent of the underground cemeteries" in all of Rome. It preserves the tombs of the first popes and other martyrs, including Saint Cecilia. To visit during the Holy Year

by Talia Casu

A law of the ancient code of the XII Tables ordered that no corpse should be cremated or buried in the City. For this reason, large and evocative necropolises developed just beyond the city walls of Rome, along the road routes.

Leaving Porta San Sebastiano, through the Aurelian walls, we walk along the Via Appia Antica; past the small church of Quo vadis, between the second and third mile, we find ourselves in the territory where some of the largest Christian cemeteries originated and grew, as well as some private hypogea and two Jewish catacombs. On the right side we find the catacombs of San Callisto, «the most magnificent and gigantic of the underground cemeteries not only of the Appian Way, but of our entire suburb», as the great archaeologist Giovanni Battista De Rossi (1822-1894) defined it.

The area of ​​San Callisto extends over a vast area between the Via Appia, the Via Ardeatina and the Vicolo delle Sette Chiese: thirty hectares of land of which fifteen are catacombs. The underground cemetery is made up of four levels of tunnels (for a total of 20 km) and numerous burials, around five hundred thousand; at the time of its maximum expansion it was presumably the largest cemetery in early Christian Rome. Initially it was divided into several regions independent of each other: three excavated during the XNUMXrd century, others built during the XNUMXth century, at the end of which the nuclei were connected. The oldest nucleus of the catacomb is that of Area I, the crypts of Lucina, the region of the Crypt of the Popes and of Santa Cecilia; the regions of San Milziades, San Gaio and Sant'Eusebio, Occidentale and Liberian, in which there are important crypts.

The cemetery area owes its name to the pope martyr Saint Callixtus I (217-222) who, at the time he was first deacon of Pope Zephyrinus (his predecessor), was given the task of guarding and administering the cemetery from him.

Above ground you can see two small basilicas, called "Tricore"; in the western one, most likely, Pope Zephyrinus and the young martyr Tarcisio were buried, remembered only in an inscription by Pope Damasus and in the Itineraries.

The entrance staircase introduces us to the route reserved for pilgrims who go to San Callisto in search of the roots of faith. Following the tunnel you reach the Crypt of the Popes, the "little Vatican": the collective burial of the bishops of Rome, probably built after the death of Pope Callistus. The current environment is probably the result of the adaptation of a double cubicle: due to the various interventions, in particular the monumentalization desired by Pope Damasus and the restorations by De Rossi at the time of the rediscovery, it is almost impossible to identify its original condition.

Nine bishops of Rome were buried here - the first was Antero (+236) - and three from North Africa. The martyr Pope Sixtus II was placed on the back wall, whose tomb was enriched with a Damasian epigraph in honor of him, together with that dedicated to the martyrs of the catacomb.

A passage created in the back wall, next to the tomb of Sixtus II, allows access to the Crypt of Santa Cecilia, excavated in the 4th century as back sanctos to the Crypt of the Popes, enlarged by Damaso and, over time, embellished with paintings and mosaics. In the lower part of the left wall there is a large niche in which was placed the sarcophagus which welcomed the body of the young martyr Cecilia until 821, when Pope Paschal I moved it to the basilica dedicated to her in Trastevere. In its place today there is a copy of the statue sculpted by Maderno in 1599, who wanted to reproduce the position in which Cecilia's body was found at the time of the reconnaissance. He highlighted the position of the fingers: three open fingers in the right hand and one finger in the left. Tradition states that the martyr thus testified to her faith in the Unity and Trinity of God. Saint Cecilia, depicted twice in a prayerful attitude, is remembered as a martyr only starting from the fifth century, to which a passion which locates the tomb in the area close to the Crypt of the Popes. From that date the cult of him around the place of his burial experienced great success. A sign of this devotion are the decorations that adorn the room: the image of Christ Pantocrator and next to Saint Urban, pope and martyr, contemporary of the saint. In the skylight you can admire the Cross between two sheep and the image of the martyrs Polìcamo, Sebastiano and Quirino.

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