Time Lords

Anthony Grafton

  • BuyHeavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris
    Thames and Hudson, 189 pp, £18.95, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 500 25195 9

On 31 May 1578, vineyard workers on the Via Salaria in Rome found a tunnel which led them to an early Christian burial site. They had opened the catacombs: the vast network of passages cut through the volcanic tuff outside Rome in which thousands of Christians, as well as Jews and pagans, were buried. The vineyard workers were not the first to spelunk in these artificial caves. In the 1460s, avant-garde scholars in the circle of Pomponio Leto had met in the catacombs. They had formed an academy of antiquaries, and left Latin graffiti on the walls. Though they paid for their audacity when they were arrested and tortured by the suspicious Pope Paul II, they were back at it by the 1470s. Underground Rome continued to tempt explorers, especially the buried Golden House of Nero, where artists discovered ancient Roman decorative motifs, which they christened ‘grotesques’ and used to decorate Vatican loggie. Antiquaries took a serious interest in the Cloaca Maxima and other sewers.

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