Basilica e Catacomba di San Valentino is a 4th century pilgrimage complex comprising a ruined basilica and a set of catacombs. It is at Viale Maresciallo Pilsudski 2.
The dedication was to the famous St Valentine.
See Catacombs of Rome for an overview on the catacombs in general.
The boundary between the Pinciano quarter and the Parioli quarter runs along this road. The extant remains, consisting of the sanctuary end of the church to the south and a small set of catacombs a few tens of metres to the north, are in the former and are tucked into a steep slope at the top of which is the Salita del Parioli. Look for a gate with brick gateposts in a railing fence.
However, the nave of the church is under the road and the entrance façade was just beyond the avenue of trees on the other side -in the Parioli quarter.
The Roman martyrology used to list two saints of this name on February 14th, one martyred on an uncertain date at the second milestone on the Via Flaminia and another on the same road at Terni sixty miles north of the city. The argument has raged for centuries as to whether these were originally the same person, but the revised Roman martyrology (2001) has decided for the former and deleted the latter.
The saint's legend, which is romantic fiction, places his martyrdom in the year 269.
Why St Valentine's Day became a celebration of romantic love is (surprisingly) uncertain. The Roman Catholic church is officially not interested in it, since the feast of SS Cyril and Methodius is prescribed for that date instead.
Overview of remains Edit
For the latest revisionist view of the chronology of the extant remains, see
Cinzia Palombi: La basilica di S. Valentino sulla via Flaminia. Nuove ricerche sull'assetto della zona presbiteriale, and Nuovi studi sulla basilica di San Valentino sulla via Flaminia.
The extant remains of the church are puzzling. They suggest at least three separate building campaigns, and probably five (Palombi's Fase A-E). The last intervention resulted in a long rectilinear transverse crypt, which is mostly intact, but behind the central portion of this are the remains of two semi-circular apses, one within the other. The smaller one is older. The plans of these two nested apses focus on a rectangular niche halfway along the crypt in the far wall, which Palombi identifies as the oldest structure on the site and the probable first tomb of the saint. She refers to this as vano N, and this nomenclature will be used below.
Fase A -Origins Edit
The archaeological evidence indicates that the site of the church was first occupied by part of a large open-air pagan cemetery on the east side of the Via Flaminia.
Some time in the mid 3rd century perhaps, a small brick box tomb or open-fronted memorial (only three walls are extant) was built against the steeply-sloping hillside on the eastern boundary of the cemetery, an outlier of the Pincian Hill. This vano N is plausibly identified as the original burial place of the saint. The location was rather out of the way, on the edge of the cemetery and away from the road.
Fase B -Memoria? Edit
In the early 4th century, two rectangular mausolea were built flanking vano N. The left hand one had a semi-circular apse, and the right hand one a rectangular. These mausolea were carefully aligned, with their back walls in a single line, their major axes parallel and vano N midway in between. This respect for the latter hints at Christian occupation of the site and a veneration for the tomb.
Vano N was altered by removing the front wall (if there ever was one) and adding two angled side walls. These were either the far corners of a mausoleum, or formed an open-air shrine or memoria. The surviving archaeology does not permit a choice between these options.
A terrace of at least four other mausolea was traced to the left of the far side of the church.
The set of catacombs, which is rather small, is thought to have been begun at about the same time or slightly earlier, towards the end of the 3rd century. Because of the steepness of the slope of the hill, it was a simple matter to tunnel straight into it to form a set of passages.
Fase C -Erection of first basilica Edit
According to the Liber Pontificalis, Pope Julius I (336-356) built a basilica over the tomb, which incorporated the two pre-existing mausolea just mentioned. These became the far corners of some sort of church, but it is unclear whether it was basilical in plan or basically a transverse rectangle (earlier commentators assumed that the present layout was created then). Vano N was backed by a semi-circular apse, the first and smaller of the two nested ones found, and this was joined to the two mausolea by a pair of transverse walls.
The right hand mausoleum, however, had a short length of longitudinal return wall paralleling its left hand side and this seems to suggest some sort of back entrance door and passage here. This new wall ended in a square brick engaged pier which is extant.
Fragments of carved marble plutei or screen-slabs for enclosing specially sacred areas were found in excavation and assigned to this basilica, because some were re-used as walling when the church was rebuilt.
Pre-existing surface graves dating from earlier in the century were apparently left intact in the construction.
About the same time, and perhaps in the same campaign, the catacombs were extended by the addition of a second level, above the first, and a small third level. An entrance oratory was also excavated as part of this work -this is the only set of catacombs in Rome where you don't have to go down a set of stairs to enter.
Pope St Damasus (366-84) must have restored the shrine, although there is no documentary record, because five fragments of epigraph tablet(s) commissioned by him were found in 1888 and 1905. These, very usefully, confirmed that the church actually belonged to a martyr (the ending ...yr to an otherwise lost word is fairly conclusive). Another fragment found in 1928 mentioned the presence of a head-priest or presbyter attached to a burial shrine or sepulchrum.
The basilica was used for burials into the early 6th century, with a concentration between its opening and the mid 5th. Eight graves were found in the sanctuary, and two are still to be seen. Three epitaphs provided the final proof of the identity of the site by referring to the saint by name.
Armellini 1898 has a transcription of an extant epitaph to one Pastor, a medical doctor (the right hand side is missing):
Hic Pastor medicus monumen..., [F]elix dum superest. Condidit l..., Perfecit cumcta, excoluit qui..., Cernit quo iaceat poena n..., Addetur et tibi Valentini gloria sancti, Vivere post obitum dat Deus.
Fase D -Rebuilding of basilica Edit
There were two significant structural interventions recorded in the 7th century, although it is debated as to what these entailed. The first was by Pope Honorius I (625-38), and the second by Pope Theodore I (642-9). Given their proximity in time, these two projects might have been linked. The earliest fresco work in the catacomb oratory was possibly done about this time, too.
The older scholarly understanding of the ruins is that Pope Theodore demolished the apse (which would have already been rebuilt as a larger version), raised the sanctuary and created the present transverse crypt.
However, the revisionist theory suggests that this campaign provided the present layout with a central nave having side aisles. The sanctuary area had the apse rebuilt as larger (the second of the two concentric apses), and a schola cantorum or choir provided in front of it. The longitudinal foundation walls for these survive. At the far end of this choir was an odd little square brick enclosure with a raised platform attached to its right, and this was originally identified as the saint's second shrine -in other words, his relics were transferred from the vano N to here. However, the revisionist suggestion is that he was never transferred but that the platform is the foundation of an ambo or pulpit which cuts across an earlier grave to make it square.
The apse had a niche for a bishop's throne.
Pilgrimage shrine Edit
In the pilgrimage itineraries of the early Middle Ages, the shrine is listed as the first to be visited in a tour of the suburban catacomb martyrs' shrines. A monastery was probably taking care of it by the 7th century, although documentation is lacking -the first reference is from the late 9th century. The brethren were possibly Byzantine-rite monks who worshipped in Greek, refugees from the iconoclast persecution at Constantinople. Monastic life at Rome in this century was dominated by refugee monks from the East.
The Itinerarium Salisburgense of the 7th century has this:
Sanctus Valentinus martyr quiescit in basilica magna, quam Honoratus reparavit, et alii martyres in aquilone plaga, sub terra. ("St Valentine the martyr rests in a great basilica which Honoratus restored, and other martyrs in a place to the north, below the ground").
This indicates that St Valentine was enshrined in the church, but that other un-named martyrs were in the catacombs. It is uncertain as to who these were. St Zeno, later enshrined in the church, was possibly one of them but SS Marius, Martha, Audifax and Abacchum (ditto) would probably still have been in their original shrine at Santi Mario e Marta.
The legendary story of the martyr was almost certainly written by one of the monks of this monastery in order to edify pilgrims.
There was a restoration of the complex by Pope Leo III in 809. A tentative suggestion has been made that he provided the rectilinear crypt (this might have been done even later), and some of fresco work in the catacomb oratory was possibly done at about this time.
Fase E -Rectilinear crypt Edit
The final building programme is not easy to date if the earlier assumption that it was 7th century is questioned. What the work involved was a demolition of the schola, the raising of the level of the sanctuary and the provision at the back of the present rectilinear crypt incorporating vano N.
The new location of the high altar is a problem, since no remains were found of it by the archaeologists. Presumably it was moved forward, over the two tombs now visible in the sanctuary area.
The crypt's layout with two entrances would have allowed for an easy one-way traffic of pilgrims and devotees.
Most expatriate monastics of eastern rites in Rome went home or elsewhere over the course of the late 9th century. As a result, Pope Agapetus II (946-55) donated the Byzantine-rite monastery of San Silvestro in Capite to the Benedictines -they had recently established themselves in Rome (and were then to pretend that they had been there since the late 6th century). The monastery and shrine at San Valentino became part of this abbey's portfolio.
Pilgrims were still visiting the shrine in this century. As well as St Valentine, in the basilica they had the opportunity to venerate St Zeno and SS Marius, Martha, Audifax and Abacchum in side chapels (the converted mausolea). The former featured in the legend of St Valentine as a deacon, and was seriously confused with his namesake in the church of Santa Prassede. The latter four were originally enshrined at Santi Mario e Marta on the present Via di Boccea, and were brought here in the 9th century.
It should be noted here that the shrine survived the massive, well-planned and expensive campaign of the Roman Church in the 9th century to strip and abandon its suburban shrines. The areas outside the walls had become the prey of marauders, including Muslim pirates, and the safety of pilgrims could not be ensured. So, most of the known catacomb martyrs were re-enshrined in intra-mural churches. Exceptions were, however, made for San Paolo fuori le Mura, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, San Pancrazio, San Sebastiano fuori le Mura -and San Valentino.
Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury in England, was here in 990 and wrote about it.
Abbot Theobald ordered a major restoration of the church over ten years from 1050, which is commemorated in an extant epigraph at San Silvestro. Marucchi noted in 1888 the remnants of figurative frescoes in the apses of the two side chapels (the former mausolea), and these might have been executed then. This is an alternative date for the rectilinear crypt as well.
There is documentary evidence for an atrium or entrance courtyard in this century, although no trace has been found.
The complex functioned as a dependent priory of the abbey of San Silvestro for as long as this existed.
Together with most Benedictine monasteries in the city, the one at San Silvestro failed in the 13th century. Serious corruptions had entered the lifestyle of the monks, and as a result they were dispossessed. The abbey and its property were handed over to the Poor Clares in 1286.
However, for some unknown reason the nuns were not interested in San Valentino and neither, apparently, was anybody else. The martyr's relics were transferred to Santa Prassede (Chapel of the Pillar) in the reign of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-2), and the church was listed as in ruins and without clergy in the Turin Catalogue of 1313. The nuns arranged the planting of a large vineyard to occupy the locality, and this seemed to have been a speculation because they sold it on in 1351.
Santa Prassede was chosen because the legend of St Valentine described him as a priest with a companion deacon called St Zeno, and it was an easy confusion to equate the latter with the martyr enshrined in that church.
One surmise attempting to explain this odd and tragic abandonment is that the unstable geology of the site caused the church to become hopelessly compromised structurally. Whatever, if it had survived for only a few more decades it is very unlikely to have been abandoned and would still be with us now.
Most of the church's masonry was pilfered in the 14th century, although the site was not actually forgotten -it was just that nobody cared. Much of it would have gone into the vineyard's wall.
Interest returned when an antiquarian investigation was made by Antonio Bosio in 1594. He actually lived nearby, and was very careful to note what he found. His published record indicates that some walls of the church were still standing in his time.
He also took the trouble to include engravings depicting the frescoes decorating the catacomb oratory. It was good that he did, because the landowners in the 18th century decided that the oratory and the adjacent part of the catacombs would make a good wine cellar for their vineyard, so knocked down several walls to increase the space and destroyed much of the fresco work in the process.
The indignation expressed in print over this vandalism since the 19th century has been paralleled by a rather embarrassed reticence concerning the identity of those responsible. They were the Augustinian friars at Sant'Agostino in Campo Marzio. They had bought the vineyard by 1435, and remained in possession until they had their landed property sequestered by the Italian state in 1873.
The site began to be investigated archaeologically in 1877, with with a survey by Orazio Marucchi. Traces of the church's foundations were discerned by him, and the frescoed underground room being used as a wine-cellar was noted. He returned in 1886 to dig out the crypt. Many carved marble fragments were discovered (several subsequently "mislaid"), and the plan of the church recovered. The barrel vault of the crypt was constructed in 1888.
Fragments of an inscription by Pope St Damasus were found in the process and other bits of it in 1905, and these are on display (or were) in the catacomb passage near the entrance. Marucchi also found most of the epitaph tablet to Pastor, the medical doctor, which mentioned St Valentine -this was rediscovered in storage only in 2003.
Marucchi proposed that the saint had initially been interred in the catacombs and only later transferred to the basilica. He based his opinion on the early mediaeval attention paid to the frescoing of the so-called "catacomb oratory", but there is actually no proof for the hypothesis in the evidence and it is no longer in favour.
The present Viale Maresciallo Pilsudski was already being proposed across the church nave during this campaign -the plan published by Marucchi labels the nave as nuova passaggia Flaminia. He did not excavate the west front, but Armellini writing a decade later (published post mortem in 1898) mentions that the full plan was traced when the road was actually built.
The tradition was then established of celebrating Mass and opening the catacombs to visitors on one day a year, 14 February (St Valentine's Day).
Another 4th century epigraph fragment mentioning the shrine was found in 1928, when the road was re-laid and given its present width after suburban development began in earnest. The engineer in charge was interested enough to make plans of what was found.
The second major archaeological excavation was in 1948, by Bruno Maria Apollonj Ghetti. This located the two concentric apses, and the information gathered was presented as a chronological fabric-plan by Richard Krautheimer. This provided the historical consensus for the church's remains until recently.
The steep hillside behind the site demonstrated its instability in 1986, when a landslide after heavy rainfall buried the exposed remains of the church. Major collapses also occurred in the catacomb passages, because the whole hill apparently shifted sideways slightly here, and scaffolding has been used to prop up other sections.
The site has been closed to visitors ever since. Unfortunately, books subsequently published as well as online information are still advertising the 14 February opening. This is not likely to re-occur at any time soon.
What hasn't helped is that treasure-hunters have been conducting illegal excavations and causing significant damage.
The issue with the hill-slope would be best dealt with by providing a concrete revetment, but this would involve the certain destruction of the catacombs and the probable destruction of the church remains. So, after some delay when nothing was done, an attempt is being made (2017) to stabilise the slope using wooden stake and plank revetting. The archaeological remains have also been tidied up, although the catacombs themselves are still unstable.
Apart from the very complicated sanctuary end, the church was a straightforward basilica with a central nave of eleven bays with side aisles. Apparently the plan recovered when the road was built had indications of three entrances, one for the central nave and two for the side aisles.
The aisles were separated by colonnades, with ten re-used ancient columns on the left hand side but only nine on the right hand side -the tenth, furthest column here has been shown in published plans (e.g. Matilda Webb: "The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome" 2001, p254), but there is no archaeological evidence for it and the surmise is probably a mistake. The capitals of the columns were a mixture of Ionic and Corinthian.
Attached to the lower left hand side of the nave was a rectangular ancillary block containing a suite of rooms of various sizes. This might have been the pilgrimage reception centre or sacristy accommodation, and a transverse wall running across the bottom of the left hand aisle might have created a custodian's chamber (this would have sequestered the left hand aisle entrance if so).
The eleventh and last bay is backed by the front wall of the crypt, the floor of which is only slightly lower than the present ground surface (the church's floor when it was in use must have been higher). Building it meant the loss of the apse, as well as the presumed previous site of the high altar in front of vano N. The altar must have been brought forward, but no trace of it has survived.
In front of this wall are two parallel longitudinal walls running forward in the last three bays of the nave, with a doorway gap on each side in the tenth bay. These walls look like the foundations of an early mediaeval schola cantorum or choir, provided when the church was rebuilt. Just before the door-gap in the right hand wall, a transverse wall runs across to join the ninth and last column of the right hand arcade, and this is part of the odd layout of the church's top right hand corner (see below).
In the middle, just in front of the crypt wall, is a puzzling collection of low walls. In the middle is a square aperture surrounded by walls except to the right, where an obviously later longitudinal brick platform cuts across. To the right of the latter, in between it and the schola wall, is a longitudinal rectangular aperture. The two apertures were once lined with marble slabs, and some of the bottom ones remain.
These apertures are thought to have been high-status tombs belonging to the first basilica, before the 7th century. There were six others between them and the crypt wall when the area was excavated in 1888, but these are now not visible. The question as to whether the square aperture contained the relics of St Valentine at any stage cannot now be settled with any certainty. However, the platform is thought to be a plinth for an ambo or pulpit associated with the schola, and if so then the relics would not have been here.
The high altar of the church was in this position after the crypt was built. A carved marble slab showing two peacocks drinking from a cup looks as if it belonged to its baldacchino.
Side chapels Edit
At the far end of the ninth bay, the aisle walls widened out. These locations marked the near outer corners of the original pair of mausolea incorporated into the first basilica. The left hand wall seems to have had an appreciable longitudinal portion across the original mausoleum frontage here, but the right hand wall only had a slight and rather messy curved section instead of any angles.
The left hand chapel has a little semi-circular apse, and the brick base of an altar survives in it. Fresco decoration of a floral nature has left very scanty traces. The back wall turns at the top right hand corner to run forward slightly, and to the left of this is the left hand staircase into the crypt.
The right hand chapel is more complicated. The lack of a tenth arcade column suggests that this area was L-shaped. A matching crypt staircase is here, but it is occupying the line of the left hand wall of the original mausoleum. The brick pier to the left of the stairs is part of the first basilica, so there seems to have been an exit passage here originally.
This chapel has a rectangular apse. Some figurative fresco fragments found in excavation were too separate to reconstruct the scene, which involved the depiction of several people -two high-status women suppliants and a young man apparently standing in an excavation were noted.
The two short sets of stairs just mentioned run down longitudinally to a narrow transverse barrel-vaulted crypt that is parallel to the extant back wall of the basilica's sanctuary. This crypt has a cubical niche (vano N) in its back halfway along, which is enclosed by the nested foundations of the two historical apses. This is the presumed location of the saint's shrine.
The crypt was floored and the walls originally revetted with scavenged ancient marble slabs. The wall ones have almost all gone. Opposite vano N is a square aperture in the sanctuary back wall, which is fairly certainly a fenestella confessionis or a viewing-port for people in the sanctuary.
The other apertures in this wall were knocked through either by archaeologists or treasure-hunters. The barrel vault was erected in 1888.
Layout and contents Edit
The catacombs are small, in a neat rectangular zone. There are three levels, the first being mostly a single L-shaped passage with short blind side-passages, and the other two being neat grids fitting within the rectangle delineated by this L (front and left) and the entrance oratory at the near right hand corner.
The oratory and this main front passage have been used to display various bits of carved stonework found either in the catacombs (a few epigraphs, not many) or in the church (several assorted architectural fragments in marble). There are also, apparently, some early epigraphs relating to the original pagan cemetery.
Notable is a high-status carved marble sarcophagus featuring scenes from the life of St Peter, one of two sarcophagi found.
No evidence was found for any remains of saints' shrines in the catacombs, or of any original liturgical furniture in the oratory.
The early mediaeval (7th and 8th century) fresco work was very badly damaged when the friars converted the oratory into a wine-cellar for their vineyard in the 18th century.
The left hand side of the far wall has a Madonna and Child in a Byzantine style, with the Child standing on Our Lady's lap. The image is labelled "Holy Mother of God". Bosio's engraving shows that this used to be the centrepiece of a much larger composition. To the left of this is a faint depiction of The Visitation, and to the right was a lost depiction of The Bathing of the New-Born Christ. The baby was also depicted, wrapped in swaddling-clothes, over the niche.
On the right of the same wall, adjacent to the portal into the catacombs (widened by the cellar builders) is a fragment of a Crucifixion. This might be 7th century, and is one of the earliest surviving depictions of the subject in Rome. The entire scene was sketched by Bosio in the 17th century, and it showed Christ dressed in a full-length tunic accompanied by Our Lady and St John the Evangelist. The latter survives, accompanied by what looks like a city wall (Jerusalem?). There are very slight traces of an earlier fresco cycle peeping through the rotting plaster.
The left hand side wall has the lower part of a fresco that featured seven saints -only their feet survive. This is above paintwork imitating marble wall revetting.
The right hand side wall has a depiction of two saints, the left hand one possibly being St Lawrence -Bosio transcribed some lettering interpreted as his name. The right hand saint used to hold a crown and was dressed in a tunic, and so was a martyr.
The right hand side of the entrance wall has an unidentified scene.
None to the general public.
The catacombs are theoretically under the aegis of the scheme for "Catacombs not open to the public" run by the Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra, but the dangerous state of the passages means that permission to visit will not be granted until some guarantee of stability can be given by the engineers. There is a fear that this will never happen.
Scholars are being given permission to inspect the church remains, but this seems to be entirely discretionary.