Visiting the Vatican - What to See and Do

Vatican necropolis, excavations below St. Peter’s Basilica

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Vatican Necropolis

The fascinating descent into the Necropolis  is one of the great experiences you can live in your visit to the Vatican.

It is possibly the least known visit, but those who have the chance to do it agree that it is one of the most exciting  moments of the trip. In this article we will get to the details.

Origin

We have to go back to Rome during the times of Emperor Nero, in AD 64 and to a disastrous date: the fire caused in the city and the executions of Christians in the Circus, counting apostle Peter as one of the victims. The old Via Cornelia served as a burial place for the saint and for hundreds of devotees of Christ, a number that grew year by year.

It was not until 319 that Emperor Constantine chose this place for the construction of a basilica. The existing catacombs were not destroyed but remained below the level of the temple and were covered with earth and forgotten for centuries.

Digging works

In 1949, with the support of Pope Pius XII  and Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, secretary of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the excavation of archaeological remains located under the present basilica were initiated, with the goal of finding the remains of Saint Peter.

The result was the discovery of a series of Graves , excellently preserved.

Levels underneath St Peter’s Basilica

Under the ground of the great Basilica of St Peter there are  two levels:

–  The Vatican Grottoes, in which we will find the tombs and chapels of kings, queens and popes from the tenth century onwards.

–  The Necropolis, one level down, from the time before Constantine as we have described, and further down to 11 meters below the Basilica.

Necropolis

Excavations which are open to the public include 22 mausoleums in an area of nearly 100 m. long. There we will find graves of wealthy commoners, with decorative elements and tombstones showing the name of the family. Do not forget that this necropolis remained through the transition from paganism to Christianity; therefore we’ll find pagan iconography, especially referring to Dionysus and Bacchus.

The visit will consist of a tour through each Mausoleum, communicated with a central corridor, up to a point known as    field “P”.

The point “P” is under the papal altar of the present Basilica  and is formed by a  small square  4×8 meters paved with mosaics. On the right side, after a hole in the wall in which a hollow cavity is observed; human remains and a fabric with gold threads were found. Beside him, an inscription dated from the year 160 reads “Petro Eni” in Greek: “Peter is here”.

How to visit the Vatican Necropolis

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Submit a request for yourself via Scavi Office

The procedure to book a tour has its peculiarities but it is relatively straightforward, provided the requirements established by the Office of Excavations are met   Fabbrica di San Pietro. The process can be summarized in these points:

– The daily number of visitors is restricted to 250 people, in small groups of about 12 people and always with a guide. The tour lasts one hour and a half and it is done in groups which share the same language.

– Access for children under 15 years is not permitted, nor is recommended for people with claustrophobia  or suffering from diseases that aggravates with moisture.

– The application for the tour is completed in a written form  to  scavi@fsp.va, fax +39 06 69873017, or in person at the Office of the Excavations at the south entrance (left side) just outside the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square.
The request must state the name of visitors, number, preferred language, date range for the visit and email, fax or postal address.

– The answer will be received in the medium used for the application the visitor will be given an exact day and time for his visit.

– The price of the visit is 13 euros, which can be paid in the way stated by the Excavations Office in its message.

Tips for visiting

– Visitors enter through the Excavations Office. 10 minutes before the scheduled time, you will access the entrance showing your ticket to the Swiss Guard at the door. Do not go further in advance, it is possible that you will not be able to enter, Essential!: take your booking voucher printed with you.

– The dress code should be suitable to the sanctity of the place (long trousers or long skirts, covered shoulders…)

– You are not allowed to enter with camera.

– The tour ends at the Vatican Grottoes.

– Take into consideration the age of visitors. Entry for children 15 and older is allowed. We recommend bringing official identification, especially in case of doubt due to the appearance of the child.

– The entrance to the Necropolis has nothing to do with the Vatican Museums. Their systems and offices are different.

– The visit is guided; you cannot walk freely around the area.

– On the map we mark the point where the excavations access office is located.

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