All the Mystery Surrounding St Peter's Tomb
Book recounts the story of dozens of public and private events in the shadow of the dome
The following is a translation from Italian of excerpts from "Le orecchie del Vaticano", now on sale (Florence, Mauro Pagliai Editore, 2012, 252 pages, €18).
Because of a unique circumstance, in the dark years of the Second World War as the graves of soldiers, civilians, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals were increasing by the million, the excavations were resumed on the site where St Peter, another Jew who converted, was buried after suffering martyrdom. He was crucified upside down 19 centuries ago while Nero was on holiday in Greece.
The unusual circumstance which prompted the research was in fact a death: the death of Pius XI on 10 February 1939. Prior to that fateful year which marked the outbreak of the Second World War, some had gone to investigate with little or no results beneath the basilica. No Pope had ever permitted an exhaustive study, partly because a 1,000-year-old curse attested by secret and apocalyptic documents, threatened anyone who disturbed the peace of Peter's tomb with the worst possible misfortune.
A tomb had come to light at the beginning of the 16th century, while the foundations were being laid for the four twisted columns of the Confessio by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In this tomb,among other things, a wonderful bronze statue had been found, which Cardinal Maffeo Barberini had removed and put on view in his Palace on Via Quattro Fontane in the heart of Rome.
A certain Flavius Agricola, a bon vivant of the noble Flavian family, had had verses engraved on his sarcophagus in the family tomb inviting libations and love. The prelates of the time, shocked and horrified, at least according to their words, immediately had the marble slab removed and buried the whole thing.
In brief, every now and then some one stuck his nose in but always hastily and as an amateur. The first person to seek in a more serious manner in the mid-19th century was Giovan Battista de Rossi, the pioneer of Christian archaeology. He was the brilliant researcher who discovered the Catacombs of St Callistus. When Pius IX asked him whether he had found the tomb of Peter, he answered: "They are all dreams, Holy Father, all dreams!".
The Testament of Pius XI thus proved necessary. He had asked to be buried in the Vatican Grottos in an area he had pointed out to the German Canon Ludwig Kaas, Secretary of the Venerable Fabric of St Peter, the institution that has always presided over the never-ending and never completed work on the Basilica. In Rome there is a saying to describe a never-completed undertaking: "like the Fabric of St Peter".
With the first strokes of their pick-axes the sampietrini, the workmen of St Peter's Basilica, realized that they were demolishing a fake wall. It was at that moment that the history of Peter's tomb was born and the search for it coincided with the most dramatic years of the 20th century. It was a long and controversial history which my father followed from its birth, bequeathing to me the task of seeing it through, investigating new episodes.
In May 1942 Pius XII announced that in the process of excavating beneath the Vatican Basilica a monu-
ment had been uncovered that might possibly be identified with St Peter's tomb. Pope Pacelli then solemnly confirmed this in 1950, on the occasion of the Holy Year.
In spite of the war the 1942 announcement sparked many polemics, especially among Protestant historians. With the Frenchman Charles Guignebert, their most categorical colleague, they held that St Peter's martyrdom in Rome was a legendary event and that in his Letter to the Romans St Paul himself had never ever mentioned Peter's presence in the Empire's capital.
The excavations that lasted 10 years put an end to any doubt. It had been a difficult and delicate task for, to avoid the very real risk of causing the Basilica to collapse, it was also necessary to inject reinforced concrete beneath the pillars that bore its weight. The Renaissance architects had planted them on beaten earth but at an insufficient depth. Beneath one of the four pillars, the one that corresponds with the Loggia of Veronica, in those months of 1942 at least 4,000 bricks were laid. According to calculations made in Benedict XIV's Pontificate by the Slav Jesuit Boscovich and the French Franciscans, Leleur and Jacquier, St Peter's dome weighs 208,837 kg. and 460 gm. A crack that appeared at the end of 1636 gave rise to fear for its stability.
For 10 years, Canon. Kaas, Fr Engelbert Kirschbaum, a German Jesuit, and his Italian confrère, Antonio Ferrua, together with a group of engineers and sampietrini, dug down centimetre by centimetre, to a depth of 10 metres, their feet in water.
Little by little they uncovered the remains of a vast necropolis, resting on Nero's Circus. They discovered on the door post at the entrance to a burial vault the marble testament of a certain Popilius Heracles who imposed on his heirs an obligation to build a monument to him in the Vatican ad Circum. There were plenty of dramatic moments. In 1949, when almost all the mystery surrounding the first Apostle's tomb had been clarified, a real river of water and mud, 80 centimetres deep, threatened to submerge all the excavations, calling to mind the 1,000-year-old curse supposed to strike anyone who profaned it.
Those responsible for the damage were immediately traced. A year earlier, with a view to the Holy Year of 1950, work had begun on the construction of an enormous building to house the headquarters of Italian Catholic Action on Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue which leads from Castel Sant'Angelo to St Peter's Square, and which — let us not forget — was completed after the "spina del Borgo" had been pulled down precisely for that Holy Year. While digging in order to lay the foundations, the engineers came
across a real pond. Moreover, all the borghigani (inhabitants of the Borgo), knew well that a subterranean river flowed beneath their cellars. Instead of deviating the water to the Tiber, a few dozen metres away, they blocked its course with tons of sand causing the re-flux to flow towards St Peter's.
The Vatican archaeologists sounded the alarm with a report that is still under secrecy today but that my father managed to hear about. The report was sent to Pius XII by Enrico Josi, an archaeologist working with Kaas and Kirschbaum. Pope Pacelli addressed the Italian authorities privately and, acting with great discretion, they organized a new system to channel the water from the area.
In the end it was possible to save the famous Trophaeum Gaii or Trophy of Gaius [Caius], the priest who in the year 200 had written in a letter to a certain Proclus that he could show him the "trophies" namely, the triumphal tombs where Peter and Paul had been buried in the Vatican and in Rome, on the Ostian Way, on the site of the present-day Basilica of St Paul's (ego autem Apostolorum tropaea possum ostendere...).
Thus Pius XII announced the discovery, confirming the historical certainty that the remains of the Trophy of Gaius had been found.
In that period historians and archaeologists were doing all they could to respond to the many doubts expressed. For example, why didn't the Emperor Constantine translate Peter's body and dedicate a church to him in a safer place? The answer was that in the time of Constantine a very strict law, respected by all, including the Christians, forbade the translation of bodies and the demolition or removal of cemeteries. For Christians, in addition, it was inconceivable to build a church in honour of a martyr anywhere other than upon his tomb — or in vary rare cases, on the site of his martyrdom. This is confirmed in a canon of a later African Council which stated: "A shrine in honour of martyrs must not be built anywhere other than in the place where their body or relics are found".
Then there was another mystery. In the Basilica of San Sebastiano, built over the catcombs on the Appian Way, there are various graffiti that confirm an ancient tradition testifying to the presence of the bodies of Peter and Paul. There is even the sentence of an unknown member of the faithful who, in the third century, announced that he had held the refrigerium there for the two Apostles. The refrigerium was the funeral banquet celebrated in honour of the dead, something similar to what still happens today in Manila where relatives go on Sunday to have lunch "together" with their deceased in perfectly equipped house-tombs.
The most credible answer is that in 258, following the sequestration of cemeteries ordered during Valerian's persecutions, the relics were translated from the Vatican to the Catacombs of St Sebastian and returned to their place a few months later when Gallienus returned the relics.
All this translation of relics naturally could not but raise doubts and fuel mysteries. We are not still in the dark times of the Middle Ages when princes, dukes and lords invited bishops and mitred abbots to dinner and at the end of the meal had a splendid tray brought in, piled with holy relics, tibias, hair, foreskins, fingers and so forth, which they generously distributed to the prelates.
Something must have happened, since in accordance with the Tradition, the heads of St Peter and St Paul continue to be venerated in the Basilica of St John Lateran where they are kept in a Gothic ciborium at the centre of the high altar. To compensate for the absence of the First Apostle's head, the head of St Andrew, his brother, used to be kept in St Peter's Basilica instead. It had been donated to Pope Pius II in the 15th century by Prince Thomas Palaiologos, a brother of the last Emperor of the Greeks. Pope Piccolomini, weeping after kissing it, set St Andrew's head on the tomb of his brother Peter, celebrating a Mass for the moving retrouvailles after 18 centuries. This was a touching reunion that involved members of the extended family since close by were also the remains of Petronilla, St Peter's daughter — hence St
Andrew's niece — to whom her father had written on the first tomb in the Cemetery of Domitilla filiae dulcissimae, "to my sweetest daughter".
Perhaps not everyone remembers that France is the "eldest daughter of the Church", thanks to Petronilla who became patroness of the Franks in the times of Pépin le Bref and Pope Stephen II. It was precisely to adorn the chapel of St Petronilla that the French Cardinal Villiers de la Groslaye, Ambassador of Charles VIII, presented Michelangelo's Pietà to the Vatican Basilica.
After becoming increasingly enthusiastic about the excavations, the Vatican archaeologists came across the funerary monument built in honour of Peter in the year 150. The aedicula stood against a wall, later called the Red Wall because of the colour of the plaster.
At this point a strange "mix-up" gave rise to further investigation. A niche was discovered in the wall next to the aedicula that was identified as the famous Trophy of Gaius. It held a marble casket without a lid, hence was deemed of little importance. This contained, among other things, a coin of Limoges that had been given to Camillo Serafini, Governor of the Vatican (from 1929-1952). The story ended with Pius XII's announcement in 1950.
However, that was not all. Three years later Margherita Guarducci, a scholar who lectured in epigraphy and Greek antiquities at the University of Rome, became interested. And among the graffiti she succeeded in deciphering on the Red Wall was one which said in Greek Petros eni, "Peter is here".
She began to investigate like a real Sherlock Holmes and found Giovanni Segoni, the sampietrino who had actually directed the excavations. After much insistence, Giovanni Segoni remembered that Mons. Kaas had given him the remains in the casket and that he had put them in a shoe box left in a broom cupboard in a corner of the Fabric of St Peter. Margherita Guarducci managed to recover this box with the remains. The first analysis showed that they were the remains of human bones that belonged to at least one male individual of between 60 and 70 years of age and of a robust constitution.
Although there seem to be no doubts concerning Peter's tomb, much mystery surrounds his relics. One even involves the conclusions of Dino Correnti, a Sicilian professor of anatomy who was able to analyze them at the end of the 1950s. He maintained that they were the remains of two men because he found traces of a double set of limbs.
There were fragments of purple and gold fabric, the remains of a cock of the same epoch (perhaps a symbolic creature), and also, dating to about 200 years later, the remains of a mouse; unfortunately it may be presumed that the sacred relics were not treated with great respect.
Guarducci reported her discoveries to the press in 1959 in great detail. What she said was immediately curtly denied by the Kaas, Kirschbaum and Ferrua Commission. Ten years later, Paul VI listened to her and on 26 June 1968, proclaimed, once again in a year full of tensions, that "the relics of St Peter have been identified in a manner we may consider convincing".
Margherita Guarducci, proud of her triumph, so many years later, over Fr Ferrua, the only survivor of the first investigators, was able to publish a new edition of her exciting research.
The story does not end here, in spite of the death of almost all the protagonists. The historical and archaeological litigation continued at least until 1995, with Guarducci insisting on her discovery and Ferrua denying it. Even though it could be said that there may have been a certain amount of carelessness regarding the human bones found in the niche and which later disappeared, Fr Ferrua actually wrote in 1995 that Paul VI had had nine small fragments of the bones found by Guarducci enclosed in an artistic reliquary, on which was engraved: B(eati) Petri Ap(ostoli) esse putantur. He kept the reliquary exposed in his private chapel.
"In current language' , the Jesuit archaeologist wrote in La Civiltà Cattolica, this means: "it is an opinion; others believe in it, I do not". John Paul II never brought the matter up. And so far, neither has Benedict XVI.
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29 August 2012, page 6
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