Secret Monteverde

Beside the Doria Pamphlij park, off a busy road through Monteverde, lies a sacred bower. Here lies the barn-like 17th-century church of San Pancrazio and a religious nucleus that has later Roman origins.

The church lies close to or occupies a Roman cemetery south of the Via Aurelia, outside the north-western city limits. Apparently a mithraeum was discovered close by the in park itself, suggesting an eastern accent to Roman religious practice in these extra-mural parts (along with the Santuario Siriaco on the slope of the Gianiculum). Several inscriptions also commemorate others from the eastern Empire.

San Pancrazio - a haven with a catacomb

These oriental connections may explain the San Pancras story. The lad was aged 14 and said to be from Phrygia in central Turkey when on 12 May AD 304 on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian he was executed for Christian beliefs. Decapitated outside the Porta Aurelia, his body and head were apparently rescued by a Roman matron, Ottavilla, and buried in the beginnings of a catacomb hereabouts.

The martyrdom of San Pancrazio

This became a spiritual point for the subsequent cult when Pope Symmachus (498-514) built a basilica here. The church was remodelled in the 12th century as a fragment of grand sculpture plastered into the south aisle shows. The baroque successor church emits a warm, welcoming light thanks to its huge windows.

Rich remnants of the 12th-century basilica

The catacomb is open for several mornings a week when a volunteer leads guided tours. Rather discretely entered by a steep staircase from the north aisle which plunges down to the labyrinth of sub-terranean passages. Dozens of tombs perforate the dark tufa walls. Amazingly, despite the palpable humidity way under-ground, the principal remains are brightly frescoed mausolea, faux garden pergolas, belonging to the tradition of Middle Roman high-status burial practice. (I surveyed similar mausolea at Butrint in Epirus.)

The steep entrance to the catacomb

The catacomb has an association with later popes and grew, so my genial guide informed me, to extend all the way to the Porta Aurelia – scene of San Pancras’s demise. This may explain a graffito in favour of Pope Pius IX, dating from the French battle to oust Garibaldi in 1849.

In a stroke the graffito places the catacomb as well as the cult within the battlefield which in the spring of 1849 engulfed the Gianiculum and consumed the lives of many recalled around Garibaldi’s equestrian statue a kilometre away. Treasures like this deserve to be better known, but wandering the dark passages, it was a real privilege to visit a very intimate Roman world away from the madding crowd.

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