Rome is now filling up with Angels & Demons tours inspired by the book and upcoming film, but the best one is kept secret. Debi Lander recently took that tour and shares the experience with us below.
Emperor Constantine believed. Michelangelo trusted. Pope Pius was hopeful.
And every realtor I know swears by it. “Location is everything,” they say.
And apparently the same holds true, even deep below the Vatican.
Back in ancient Rome, a cemetery rested near Circus Maximus, now the location of the Vatican Gardens. During the fourth century, Emperor Constantine built a basilica there, blanketing the graveyard with dirt. By 1447, that church fell into ruins, and gradually a massive new St. Peter’s arose on the same site. However, until recent times, the ancient burial chambers lay preserved, frozen in time much like Pompeii.
In 1939, Pope Pius XII allowed a clandestine dig of the Basilica necropolis. Against incredible odds, he prayed the workers would find the bones of St. Peter. Was the sacred burial site of the first Apostle only a legend?
Only 150 visitors each day
Archeologists, restricted by existing structures, tunneled down, then burrowed toward the nave, before beginning their upward exploration. Their astonishing discoveries are on view to just 150 visitors a day. Those who can secure a ticket for the Vatican Scavi tour receive more than a glimpse of underground marvels; they walk through the foundations of Catholicism to touch the very heart of Vatican City.
Controversy and media hype will once again stir the devout when the movie Angels & Demons is released in May 2009. The fictional story, by bestselling author Dan Brown, pits Tom Hanks as Professor Langdon against an ancient secret brotherhood based in Rome.
Attendance at sites depicted in the book will undoubtedly soar: St. Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel, Castle Sant’Angelo, the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, and the statue of St. Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria. The most sought after ticket will be the Scavi excavation’s tour.
The price is not exorbitant; a mere €10 buys entry, but reservations must be requested months ahead. Only a lucky few can talk their way past stoic Swiss Guards, to ask the Scavi office about cancellations.
I participated in the exceptional tour last spring, following a guide into the side entrance of St. Peter’s, past visitors exiting the Papal grottos. My group of twenty pressed together and descended a narrow marble staircase on foot. The guide hesitated, letting a scanner read her palm print, then in James Bond style, the glass partition opened.
Unlike Saint Peter – whom Nero crucified upside- down – I crouched over and passed through an arch in the 16th-century wall, about the height of a child’s playhouse. The air, three floors below street level, was moist, a tad musty. The passageway smelled of ancient history and felt as smooth as a path shorn by the soles of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.
A dark single-file walkway required me to grope along, shuffling my feet and fingering the walls for balance. Turning left, I emerged into a dimly lit room lined in thin, symmetrical red bricks.
“You’re standing on the Street of the Dead,” announced our tour leader. Our heads swiveled, eyes squinting to see. But we found no skeletons or apparitions; no glass- enclosed coffins with petrified bodies, like those of former popes lying in the Basilica above.
Instead, I stared into a dusty room resembling a classical tragedy set. Frescoed walls surrounded curved niches recessed in stucco. Their surfaces were dabbled with dainty flowers, vines and birds. The floor was tiled in a complex pattern created from half-inch black and white squares. A carved chair in the corner made this appear as a rather inviting living room, had it not been for the ash-filled urns.
Wealthy pagan families entombed their dead in pseudo-houses, a place where they could continue their lives. We were looking at Etruscan mausoleums, built by some of the earliest inhabitants of Rome.
Ducking in and out of colorful rooms was rather like strolling through a designer’s showcase or as Professor Langdon put it in Angels & Demons, “like running through the pages of history.” While not wanting to disclose the movie’s plot, I can promise an important scene takes place in these subterranean tunnels.
Stepping into Christian History
The chambers progressed from pagan to early Christian times. I was drawn to a ceiling mosaic of Jesus riding in a chariot. He looked like Helios, the Greek sun god, carrying the light of the world. According to my guide: “Other mosaics in this tomb depicted Jonah and the whale and the good shepherd carrying a lamb. These encouraged its interpretation as a Christian tomb.”
Indeed, the story of Christianity is complex and uncertain. Early believers lived under hostile governments, fearful of persecution. Roman’s witnessed the Apostle Peter’s crucifixion and burial on the hilltop of the Vaticum cemetery. From that time onward, devoted followers came to honor him, secretly at night, in defiance of those who prohibited their beliefs.
Not until 312 AD were they safe; when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and issued an edict permitting religious freedom. To honor Jesus, the Emperor chose to erect a basilica, choosing the cemetery site to protect what he believed were Peter’s remains
My Tour Continues
By the time my tour was about halfway through, I felt mildly claustrophobic in the darkened labyrinth, my nose twitching from dust. The group advanced up an incline and approached sacred ground. The guide pointed out a diagram of the original structure, then a brick wall and marble columns from the early altar built by Constantine.
This is where the story and history get confusing. Graffiti scratchings on the brick wall were decoded to convey “Peter is here.” Yet, no coffin was ever found, just an unusual arrangement of marble columns forming the altar. What had Constantine done with St Peter’s bones?
Everyone was spellbound, sensing they were standing in a place venerated by the faithful since the first century. The guide further explained, “The Apostle Peter’s real name was Simon, but Jesus called him Peter, which means “rock.” Jesus states in the Bible: ‘And I tell you, that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.’” The Catholic interpretation is that the church was founded with Peter, as the first pope.
We proceeded a little further, then the guide stopped again and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen: this is the rock.” A hushed moment followed, the group rooted like lifeless statues. Chills cold as marble rippled through my body. They etched deep into my cellular memory; the kind of moment that initially stuns, but later can be rekindled with ease.
Past and present history merged in the earthy chamber; touched by the sanctity, the tears and prayerful promises of those who had come before. I inhaled their faith and the pain of their human struggle. Was the simple hole in the wall she mentioned really the final resting place of St. Peter?
Location, location, location
Moving forward cautiously, as if we were easing open the gates of heaven, one person at a time stepped forward. During my opportunity, I peered into the cramped space below the current High Altar—at Peter grave. Then, I rotated my body, turned my head upward, and gazed directly into the sunlit eye of the Basilica dome, 390 feet above the main floor. A view of gold shimmering splendor I’ll never forget.
Even though historical facts were sketchy and no evidence existed, Michelangelo designed the huge dome of the current basilica exactly over what he considered the grave. He trusted Constantine, who revered that location as the true burial place of St. Peter.
The Truth of Discovery
So, the remarkable crypt area had remained hidden until Pope Pius XI’s death in 1939. As preparations proceeded for his burial, in the grottos beneath the main altar, the ancient mausoleums were accidentally uncovered. The new Pope then agreed to the archeological dig.
Anticipation grew when skeletal bones were uncovered. However, after scientific analysis, the remains proved to be a combination of male, female and animal bones; not likely St. Peter. This problematic outcome confounded the experts and slowed the hush-hush project for another ten years.
Eventually, one of the scholars, Dr.Guarducci, studied the graffiti and a simple wooden box taken from inside the marble column supporting Constantine’s altar. She theorized its importance, why it had been hidden, and then requested new Papal permission to continue the examination.
The painstaking process took many more years. Finally, a forensic specialist was asked to date and identify the bones in a blind test: fragments from various parts of a human body except the head and feet. He confirmed that they derived from a first-century strong and robust man, about the age of 65-70. Saint Peter matches the description.
The possibility increased with the understanding that Peter’s upside-down crucifixion caused many to presume his feet were severed and lost when he was cut down.
At long last, Pope Paul VI was satisfied. He accepted the identification and in June 1968, proclaimed the discovery as the authentic remains of St. Peter. The Pope retained fragments for his private chapel and reinstated the container under the ancient altar, as seen on the Scavi tour.
Upon returning to daylight, Anne Clippinger, a member of my group stated: “The tour left room to reflect, contemplate and feel the place. I got shivery; the emotional power was strong enough to make me take note.” She continued, “I don’t feel I need historical proof; the circumstantial evidence is strong enough. I believe it.”
While the bones may or may not belong to St. Peter, the location of the grave speaks profoundly. Yes, Constantine believed, Michelangelo trusted, Pope Paul confirmed, and I accept.
And now, whenever I think of the Vatican, my mind first returns, not to the Pietá, Sistine Chapel, or grandeur of the immense marble sanctuary, but 30 feet underground —to the hallowed Street of the Dead and St. Peter’s tomb.
Information on how to book the Scavi Excavations Tour of the Vatican
For further information:
The Bones of St. Peter. It’s out of print, but copies are available at Amazon’s used book sellers.