Far beneath St Peter’s lies a fascinating subterranean world that few get to see. Looking up through those floor grills (above), we saw the many feet of pilgrims and tourists thronging St Peter’s. The main church is so full of awesome art and giant-size altars and sculptures (not forgetting the largest dome in Christendom), that most eyes naturally zoomed up. With most craning their necks upwards in awe, few suspected that we were beneath, literally looking up their pants. Even fewer realise the significance of that underground world. It was not easy to get an appointment to enter St Peter’s basements and sub-basements but I’m glad we did. This is about as close as anyone could get to the bones of the man himself. It began three months before our trip with an email to the Ufficio Scavi. Scavi means, if you haven’t guessed by now, excavation. The number of visitors were limited and if you wrote too late, too bad. So I was really happy when they replied yes (in English too!) and for me to send payment to confirm our places on the tour. It cost €12 per person and the rules are strict – dresscode was no shorts, no exposed shoulders etc, shoes with good grip, no one under 15, punctuality, no bulky bags, no cameras etc.
We were told we had to be at the Scavi entrance 10min before our allotted time slot. It was a bit of a rush from the Vatican Museum tour (more on that in another post) and we had to skip lunch but it was worth it. First though, we had to make it past the Swiss guards, in all their toon-like finery. Hey we understand the tight security and we don’t mind our bags checked but in all honesty, the two guards manning the entrance were really a pair of a**es with their supercilious attitude. But I guess this is what you get when you are stuck under the hot sun in 16th century gear.
Finally we make it past the gates and into the backlot of the Vatican! This is the entrance:
We were with a funny American mother-and-son duo. The mum was obviously very enthusiastic and knowledgeable, she had done her homework and she was bringing her son to see something she was very interested in. He was mildly amused but resigned, happy to humour her. I think this is how Isaac and I would be like in a couple of years – long-suffering son humouring over-enthusiastic mum!
Right on the dot, we were greeted by our guide and I was thrilled that there were only four of us on the tour – now we had the guide to ourselves! Pity that halfway through, the rest sauntered in.
The tour started here (below), as the guide explained the stone panel in the ground marked the site of the obelisk which now stands in the centre of St Peter’s Square. In the time of Nero, more than 2000 years ago, this was here at this spot, in the middle of a huge circus where the emperor enjoyed watching Christians being thrown to the lions, Christians being executed etc. And one of those was a man called Simon Peter: fisherman, fiery evangelist and apostle of Christ.
The story of Peter’s bones is like an exciting whodunnit which spans 2000 years. Parts of it on how they literally lost the bones and found them again is like something out of the Keystone cops.
As historians know, in AD64, Simon Peter was executed by being crucified upside-down. The early Christians then secreted his body away to the pagan cemetery nearby, worshiping it as a secret shrine. About 300 years later, when the emperor Constantine decided to order the construction of a church over the site of Peter’s burial ground, he could not know exactly where it was. So he ordered the entire hill literally bricked up and filled in with earth, effectively burying (and keeping in excellent condition) the ancient 1st century cemetery that exists today.
With the foundation laid, Version 1.0 of St Peter’s basilica was built. It was believed that the altar was placed somewhere above the grave’s actual location. By all accounts, it was a grand, lavish, over the top affair (not far off from its current style). But through years of warfare and degradation, after numerous sacking by invaders, the church fell into ruin.
The decision was made to demolish it and start anew in the 16th century with Version 2.0. The only feature kept intact from Old St Peter’s was the altar. The new altar and bronze canopy by Bernini (below) was built directly over the old altar.
So imagine this. Somewhere beneath this altar (above) stacked like chairs one above the other, is the altar of an older church, and beneath that, covered in earth, nestled in a tiny half-forgotten alcove, is the grave of St Peter’s.
As 2000 years went by, no one was the wiser for where exactly his bones were. It was only during an excavation started during the second world war that uncovered the first part of the mystery: the discovery of an intact, well-preserved Roman necropolis.
Our tour took us underground, through climate-controlled glass doors that whooshed open and shut. No pictures allowed. Far below, it was very dim, slightly humid but cool around 23deg. Stepping past the glass door, I realised that I was literally stepping back in time, walking on a first-century Roman street. The air, still and silent seemed thick with the years of history and with the significance of what we were about to see. I thought that was really, really cool. My sense of reverence was not so much for St Peter, but for the witnessing of history.
The necropolis was made up tiny houses or halls with hollows and niches for ashes (for some did practise cremation) and others with stone coffins. Some had mosaic floors (still intact!) and sculptures depicting Roman life or with pagan gods. Richer families had a double-story plot with stairs leading to the flat roof-top terrace. There, during the festival of the dead, they would eat, drink and celebrate the life of the one who passed.
That’s really not a bad way to do it – far better to toast the life than to mourn the dead, I say. Across cultures, there are similarities. The Japanese celebrate Obon, and Taoist Chinese believe in the 7th month when offerings are made for the souls of the dead.
Almost at the end of the tour, we came to a corner, behind a small glassed opening. The guide’s laser pointer flashed briefly. There they were: St Peter’s bones. I squinted hard but it was really dim. I couldn’t see anything but I’ll take her word for it. Them’s the bones right there.
Are they, aren’t they? Let the historians, archaeologists and theologians duke it out. I’ll just take it on sheer faith – like everything else I believe in.
We ended the tour in the chapel with the altar of the Old St Peter’s ver 1.0, and from there, drifted past the tombs of popes out into the sunshine of a Roman afternoon and back into the 21st century.
I first read about the scavi and the discovery of St Peter’s bones in a book called “When In Rome” by Robert J Hutchinson. It was – is – a great fun read. It sparked my interest in the scavi and I couldn’t understand how anyone could literally lose The Bones. But they did. The story is really one for the Vatican blooper library.
If you’re going to the Vatican, it is worth the hassle of advance emails, reservations etc and worth planning your visit around the date they give. Just don’t do what we did – tried to cram the Vatican museums, itself a blockbuster 5-star sight and worth at least an afternoon (or day!) to browse, with a walk-through of St Peter’s basilica and the Scavi tour. Give yourself plenty of time.
If you’re not going to the Vatican but just want to read about the Scavi and the bones snafu, read Hutchinson or visit the following sites: