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The St Peters Scavi Excavation at Vatican City
What is the Vatican's Scavi?
An Underground Tour - Uncensored Rome
We took up residence in the Palazzo Cardinale Cesi located just steps away from St. Peter's Square - a cool oasis directly on the grand procession road, the Via Conciliazione - and the best spot for easy convenience to all that Vatican City has to offer. While located on the western side of the Tiber river this part of the city is also accessible to wherever you wish to go in Rome, whether on foot over the many beautiful bridges crossing the river, or by a short walk to the Metro lines.
Emperor Constantine granted a large area which included the Vatican site to Pope Miltiades in the year 313. The current 109 acre Vatican City site was granted sovereign city state designation by an agreement between then Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, King Emmanuel III and Pope Pius XI in 1929.
The compound is walled on three sides with the fourth side being open for easy access directly to the street. A walk around the outer walls of the Vatican can take close to an hour across hills and through neighborhoods abutting directly up to the compound walls. This walk will give one a sense of the scale of the site and it's medieval fortifications. And a little known secret - there is an entrance to the Vatican museum on the north wall which is not publicized and affords minimal lines. We learned of this after we hired a local docent to educate us on some specific pieces of artwork within the museum.
But on to our Scavi story. The Scavi, or Necropolis, is the recent excavation directly below St. Peter's Basilica, three levels below present street level and one level below the burial chambers of the Popes. The excavation has uncovered the former street scene of the first century and consists of alleys and tombs of early Christians. An interesting twist of history occurred while digging the tomb for the same Pope Pius XI, mentioned earlier, in 1939. It is at this time that workers broke through into the Scavi (Necropolis) - rediscovering the tombs that had long been forgotten.
Access to the Scavi is extremely limited and consists of only up to 200 people per day. Access is only possible through a special concession given from time to time by the Fabbrica di San Pietro according to a fixed schedule (which means access may be suspended at any time). To gain entrance the Scavi office must be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org a few months before you travel. I was taking a group of 20 students on a recent Rome visit and needed to supply a few different dates, the language requested, names of all attending and ages (under 15 years old are prohibited). The request for the visit must be made by a person actually taking the tour - no proxies! The cost of the tour, including contribution to the guide, is 12 Euros - paid in advance. Be sure that all male visitors wear long pants - you will be denied entrance by Scavi officials. An interesting note - vendors close to the Vatican sell long pants made of paper!
The Ufficio Scavi was very accommodating to my group, which was an Episcopal youth pilgrimage. The Ufficio will supply an email with an access number - you will need this to show to the Swiss Guard on the left side of Saint Peter's Square ten minutes before your tour begins - don't forget the paper!
When you reach the Excavations Office an official will request your confirmation number and identification whereby he will issue you the actual tickets. Groups are taken twelve at a time by your personal guide. The tour can last up to 90 minutes. Before descending below your guide will explain the origins of the Vatican with models showing the original wooden structure which predates the magnificent stone buildings of the present day Basilica. The Scavi was filled with dirt around the year 300 to provide the foundations for the first basilica. You will be taken through a small door, down steep steps and through electronic sliding glass doors. The doors are designed to keep the humidity at a constant rate - it is humid and hot. You are eventually at first century street level in the city of the dead - claustrophobic alleys between ancient tombs. You are permitted to enter the tombs with their still visible decorations. These decorations are pagan with carefully intermingled and disguised early Christian symbols. Remember that first century Rome was just coming to grips with Christianity and many early Christians were persecuted and/or executed.
You wind your way through the maze of alleys traversing the contours of a hill that existed on this site 1,900 years ago, You eventually wind up at a spot where you are directed to look through a gap in the wall to an illuminated box in the far corner. This view is the reason you came to the Scavi - to see the bones of St. Peter - first Pope of Rome and disciple of Christ. The bones were sanctified by Pope Paul VI in 1968 - evidence being that a 'Graffiti Wall' above the tomb has words that roughly translate to 'Peter is buried here' and the fact that the bones are missing their feet. St. Peter was crucified in the year 64 or 67 ce by Emperor Nero and scripture states that he requested to be crucified upside down and not in the same way as the Savior (crucifixion was reserved for foreigners and not Roman citizens). The Romans, in order to remove St. Peter from the cross, severed and discarded his feet. According to legend the body was taken in secret by early Christians to the catacombs along the Appian Way. When Constantine converted the empire to Christianity St. Peters bones were disinterred and taken to this burial spot which incidentally is directly below the alter three levels above.
At this point we ascended a level into the catacombs of the modern Popes, magnificently adorned with artwork and gold leaf. My group had an extra treat as we had to exit through these gated catacombs - the usual exit was blocked by a group of dignitaries - our guide said 'please this way - but you must be quick as this area is forbidden to visitors'. We walked past some of the magnificent sarcophagi of the Popes interred below St. Peters Basilica - including Pius XI (1939), Innocent XIII (1724), Marecellus II (1555) and Callixtus III (1458). There were many more in naves and under monuments quickly seen while rushing through.
If you are a Christian pilgrim and are going to Rome - you must make the effort to gain access to this site - it will be a lifelong highlight.
Keep in Mind
- Arrive early at Vatican Square to get your bearings - the area is huge and the Ufficio Scavi is tucked in an obscure corner. If you miss your assigned time you are out of luck.
- Walk up to the Swiss Guard ahead of your scheduled visit to make sure you are in the right place. They will not grant entrance until 10 minutes ahead of your planned appointment but you will know where you eventually have to go. I had a rouge tour guide speak with me after I had checked everything out telling me that the entrance to the Scavi was clear across the square - not correct and could have cost me my appointment if I had not been diligent with my confimation.
- Men - wear long pants. Women - wear skirts below the knee. Both sexes must have shoulders covered. The Scavi Office is extremely serious about this.
- Don't bring any bulky items to the tour - they don't hold items at the Scavi Office and you will be denied entrance.
- No photography - ok adds to the mystery!