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Catacomba di Pretestato is an early set of catacombs, perhaps begun in the early 3rd century, at Via Appia Pignatelli 11. This is in the Appio Latino quarter.


Remote origins[]

This set of catacombs, like those at Catacombe di Priscilla, began by re-using previously existing underground facilities belonging to a villa complex. These elements seem to date from the mid 2nd century.

In the second century AD, the location was either part of or very near the so-called Triopion of Herodes Atticus, a very large country estate (see Sant'Urbano alla Caffarella). This became part of the emperor's portfolio perhaps at the death of the owner in AD 177, and the use of the site as a cemetery began soon after this.

The original layout involved a very large high-status surface (sub divo) cemetery, with no initial trace of a Christian presence. The archaeologists found evidence of a rectangular funerary enclosure containing many graves.

The Imperial connection might be shown by the discovery of the smashed burial sarcophagus of the emperor Balbinus, who was killed in AD 238 and who must have been buried here if his sarcophagus wasn't scavenged from elsewhere and reused. This is one of a group of very high-quality sarcophagi found here, dating from the latter part of the 2nd century AD into the early 3rd century.


Two brick pagan mausolea marked the site through the centuries, dating from this time. They survive reasonably well as ruins. The Mausoleo dei Cerceni has a square plan, with three shallow rectangular apses for sarcophagi. The plan thus forms a cross, and the building influenced Baroque church architects such as Carlo Rainaldi.

The Mausoleo dei Calventi has a basic circular plan, but with six semi-circular apsidal niches rather like the petals of a flower. The structure used to be domed, but this fell in long ago.

Christian origins[]

The extant catacombs had three foci of origin. The oldest nucleus of the underground cemetery is the so-called Spelunca magna of region A, which is thought to have originally been a cistern or water conduit but was converted into a place of burial and then became the spine gallery of the complex.

The other two nuclei lie just to the west, within the old pagan funerary enclosure. They are marked by separate entrance stairs, called the Scala maiore for region G and Scala minore for region F. It seems that the stairs originally accessed individual pagan hypogea, from which passages were later cut.

These burial areas are thought to have been begun in the early 3rd century, and this marks the definite beginning of the Christian presence at the site. Region G seems to have been a more high-status locality than region F, as the former had decorated cubicula from the start and the latter started with a set of loculi passages on two levels.

"Praetextatus" was almost certainly an original proprietor of the catacomb complex. His name indicates that he might have been an ancestor of the 4th century Vettius Agorius Praetextatus. The latter was a determined proponent of traditional paganism, which is perhaps why a Christian legend didn't evolve around the name.

Working catacombs[]

At the end of the 3rd century, consolidation of the three nuclei and expansion into the so-called region P took place, apparently using pre-existing tunnels for the old water supply system belonging to the Spelunca magna.

The complex was massively enlarged in the 4th century, on the two levels already provided by region F. The high-status nature of the complex seems to have continued, as the decoration of some of the cubicula is very elaborate.

In the same century, two shrine-churches were built above ground for the veneration of martyrs. One contained the shrine of SS Tiburtius, Valerian and Maximus and the other, that of St Zeno (see below).

Burials continued into the 5th century, with a famous epitaph dated AD 405:

Hic requiesit Superbus, tantum in nomine dictus, quem innocentem mitem qui sancti novere beati, in quo miserabilis pater, optaverat ante iacere, depos[uit], V kal[endis] Aug[usti mensis], Stlichone v[iro] c[larissimo] bis c[onsule].

("Here rests Superbus ["Proud"], only called that by name, whom those blessed saints know to be innocent and meek, whom his miserable father placed in his own tomb which he had wished to be put before him. Fifth calend of August, during the second consulate of Stilicho the famous man.")

Pope St Damasus (366-84) restored the saints' shrines here, and provided at least one poetic epitaph.



After the catacombs had been abandoned for burials, they continued as a pilgrim destination.

The 7th century pilgrimage itineraries give witness to six separate shrines in the complex which pilgrims could visit. The facilities had been restored by Pope John III (561-74), who is on record as having taken up residence here owing to civic disorders in the city. This hints that a monastery had already been founded to administer the complex and to provide accommodation for visitors.

SS Tiburtius, Valerianus and Maximus[]

The revised Roman Martyrology (2001) (RM) has this entry for 14 April:

"At Rome, in the cemetery of Praetextatus on the Appian Way, [the commemoration of] the saints Tiburtius, Valerian and Maximus, martyrs. Uncertain date."

These three martyrs had their shrine in a surface church over the basilica. Their names were co-opted into the romantically fictional legend of St Cecilia (see Santa Cecilia in Trastevere), which is not now regarded as historical.

This legend states that Cecila was a young noblewoman who had taken a private vow of virginity before marrying a pagan called Valerian. With the help of her guardian angel, actively involved in her case, she persuaded him to agree to respect the vow and to go down the Appian Way to find a bishop called Urban living in the catacombs. He did so, was baptized and was hence martyred together with his brother Tiburtius and a soldier involved in their detention called Maximus whom they converted. Cecilia was later ordered to be killed by being suffocated in her own bath-house, but survived and then suffered a botched attempt at beheading which left her lingering for three days. In this period she donated her house to become a church, and after her death Urban buried her in the Catacombs of Callistus (Catacombe di San Callisto).

St Urban[]

Pope St Urban I (223-30) has an entry in the revised RM for 19 May:

"In the cemetery of Callistus on the Appian Way, Pope St Urban I who, after the martyrdom of St Callistus, faithfully ruled the Roman Church for eight years".

This entry conceals an impossible problem of identity concerning the St Urban venerated at the Catacombe di Pretestato. The Itinerarium Salisburgensis lists him as a "bishop and confessor" (not a martyr) in his own shrine here in the Spelunca magna, while the Notitia Portarum lists him as a martyr -and the biography of Pope Adrian I lists him as a pope. The first mentioned seems to hark back to the entry in the legend of St Cecilia just quoted.

However, a fragment of the epitaph of an Urban was found in the Crypt of the Popes at Catacombe di San Callisto when it was first excavated. The RM has followed this evidence to put the burial of the pope in the Crypy, which would presumably make the Pretestato Urban a separate person. The question impinges on the identity of the patron saint of Sant'Urbano alla Caffarella down the road.

A further twist is that not all those buried in the Crypt were popes, and there is a hint in the sources that the Urban in Callisto was regarded as a bishop from elsewhere. An early list of the occupants of the Crypt was drawn up, and Urban is mentioned not with the popes but with a group of non-papal names.

SS Felicissimus and Agapitus[]

SS Felicissimus and Agapitus were two of the deacons of Pope St Xystus II, not martyred with him at the catacomb of St Callistus in 258 but across the road in the same punitive action by the imperial government. Hence their separate shrine was established at Pretestato.

Pope St Damasus composed a metrical poem for a tablet that he had affixed to their underground shrine during its remodelling. Weirdly, it ended up in three pieces as part of the floor of the church of San Nicola dei Cesarini, and was recovered when that church was demolished in 1927. It reads:

Aspice et hic tumulus retinet coelestia membra sanctorum, subito rapuit, quos regia coeli hi, crucis invictae comites, pariterque ministri rectoris sancti, meritumque fidemque secuti aetherias petiere domos regnaque piorum. Unica in his gaudet, Romanae gloria plebis quod duce tunc Xysto Christi meruere triumphos. Felicissimo et Agapito, Damasus.

("Have a look. This grave contains the heavenly limbs of the saints who were suddenly seized. The companions of the unconquered cross as well as the ministers of the holy rector [Pope Xystus], following worthiness and faith they sought the heavenly dwellings and the kingdom of the pious. The one glory of the Roman people rejoices in them because they deserved the triumphs of Christ, Xystus being the leader.")

St Cyrinus[]

St Cyrinus, about whom nothing is recorded, had his own underground shrine. His name is Eastern, and the Notitia Portarum mutated it into the Latin name Quirinus. This led to confusion with other martyrs, which may be why he has never been in the RM.

St Januarius[]

St Januarius was, for an unknown reason, co-opted as one of the seven sons of the St Felicity buried in the Catacomba di Massimo on the Via Salaria Nova. The other six were martyrs enshrined in other catacombs on the same road, so it is a minor mystery as to why the author of St Felicity's romantic fictional legend borrowed St Januarius as well.

His true story is lost, and he is merely listed with the other six on the 10 July in the revised RM. Pope Damasus seems to have been unsure of it back in the 4th century, for his shrine epigraph (which survives) is very brief:

Beato martyri Ianuario, Damasus episcop[us] fecit.

("Damasus the bishop made this for the blessed martyr Januarius").

Unfortunately the epigraph tablet was found loose, and there is uncertainty about the location of his underground shrine.

He seems to have had a church near San Lorenzo fuori le Mura.

St Zeno[]

The revised RM lists St Zeno on 14 February, and as being of uncertain date. The old RM describes him as the brother of St Valentine -see Basilica e Catacomba di San Valentino. This is almost certainly the result of a confusion with another martyr called Zeno in St Valentine's catacombs.

The Pretestato Zeno had a surface shrine, in his own church.


Pope Gregory III oversaw another restoration of the complex in 731, and the final known intervention was by Pope Adrian I (772-95). The entire complex was abandoned in the 9th century.

The restorations and final abandonment were in response to the suburban areas of the city being overrun by plunderers and marauders who were liable to kidnap pilgrims for sale as slaves. The Lombards were traditionally blamed for a lot of this, but Muslim pirates from North Africa were also a threat as well as home-grown predators.

When the catacombs were rediscovered, they were in a vandalised state. The systematic smashing of sarcophagi seemed to have been motivated by more than the simple wish to scavenge jewellery on corpses (why not simply remove the lid?), and it is obscure as to why.


Like the Catacombe di San Callisto nearby, the catacombs here were never actually forgotten about to the extent that nobody knew they were there. Rather, very few cared in the later Middle Ages. We know that "recyclers" were entering then, however, because of the Damasene epigraph tablet that found its way to the floor of San Nicola dei Cesarini.

Antonio Bosio visited at the end of the 16th century, but thought that the passages were part of the Catacombe di San Callisto across the road. Marcantonio Boldetti also paid a visit, in 1720, and called the complex the Catacomb di Sant'Urbano. In this century the underground areas suffered serious damage from looting and the searching for spurious relics of "martyrs".

19th century[]

The first investigation that could be called scientific began in 1848, when the early area associated with the Scala maggiore was discovered. The Scala minore was uncovered in 1852, and the Spelunca magna in 1857. Giovanni Battista De Rossi worked here up to 1872, and correctly identified the complex as Pretestato.

These catacombs were exceptionally rich in epigraphs and sculptural fragments, including allegedly over two thousand bits of smashed sarcophagi. Unfortunately the mid-19th century explorations involved some dispersal of moveable items. The foundation of the Museo Cristiano Pio-Lateranense, specifically to house catacomb finds among other early Christian objects, was in 1854 and this was partly in response to the danger that such dispersal presented to the historical record.

The surface area remained as a vineyard, the Vigna De Romanis, well into the 20th century. The proprietors were unwilling to allow further investigations from 1875 or to allow visits, and Mariano Armellini expressed his frustration in writing in 1875. Perhaps as a result, a limited scheme for visiting was finally agreed in 1896 -although tragically Armellini died in that year. Back then, the ruins of the original 2nd century funerary enclosure and the round mausoleum were still visible, but no trace had survived of the two shrine churches known to have existed here.

The proprietors seem to have been influenced in part by the stealing of epigraphs and sculptures which went on throughout this century.

20th century[]

In 1920, the Holy See purchased the plot of land containing the two original staircases -although not the entire area over the catacombs. This was before the Lateran Treaty of 1929 deeded to the Holy See the possession of all Rome's catacombs, although not any surface areas associated with them.

In 1925, it was decided to found a museum dedicated to the catacombs, the Museo delle Catacombe di Pretestato to house in one place the various epigraphs and sculptures recovered. This was provided with a dedicated set of premises, which were opened in 1931. The surface remains were also scientifically excavated -unusual for Roman catacombs, unfortunately.

Much work was subsequently done in cataloguing and transcribing, and also in assembling sarcophagi from extant fragments. Some effort was also made to source and obtain dispersed items. This work was substantially complete by the Seventies.


It seems that it was the original intention of the Holy See in 1920 to run the catacombs as a pilgrimage attraction. However, this has never happened. Further, the museum has not been open to the public for decades and by the end of the 20th century there were concerns that the collection and its housing were at risk of neglect.

Disgracefully the private land north of the museum, between it and the Via Appia, was developed in 1970 with houses which stand over the catacombs. One was slotted in between the two famous ancient mausolea, those of the Calventii and the Cercarii. This was done completely illegally, no building permit having been applied for. A demolition order was issued by the city in 1972, but the houses are still there. Those walking down the Via Appia will be very aware that a lot of this sort of thing went on along the road in this period.

A project to restore the museum premises and conserve the artefacts was initiated in 1992, and the Pontificia commissione di archeologia sacra commissioned the architect Luca Berretta to produce a scheme in 2007.

Nothing much seems to have happened since. The catacombs and museum remain closed to the public, although one guided tour was advertised in 2016 (another was cancelled).


Museum building[]

The entrance on the Via Appia Pignatelli is guarded by a locked sheet steel gate between brick gateposts, and there is no sign up advertising the museum's existence.

The single-storey premises were built in 1931, and apparently extended and restored twenty years later. The plan is based on a quadriporticus or atrium, comprising four covered walkways around a central square open court off which rooms open. Various items are on display in the walkways, and others in the rooms.

The style is in a very restrained neo-Classicism. The entrance façade has six blind pilasters melding with the architrave of a simple entablature with a projecting roofline cornice. The corner pilasters are doubled. The five recessed panels thus created in the façade have simple beading around their edges, except for the central one containing the entrance door.

The quadriporticus has two square Doric piers on each side and one in each corner, supporting a roofline entablature with a simple trabeation as an architrave. The courtyard had a central fountain, but the 2007 proposal involved installing a glass roof over the void and converting the courtyard into a meeting area.

The entrance to the Spelunca magna is in a room off the right hand walkway, and that of the Scala maiore in a room off the left hand one.

Museum exhibits[]

The 2007 remodelling proposal would involve exhibits being moved about, of course. The brief description below is of the previous arrangements.

On display are epigraphs, re-assembled sarcophagi and bits of the same. The sarcophagus of Balbinus and his wife is in the middle bay of the far walkway, and is a fantastically carved work in fine white marble showing scenes from the emperor's life in high relief on the sides (sadly, he lasted only a few months before being assassinated). The couple are depicted reclining on the top.

Two other 3rd century sarcophagi in the quadriporticus are worth noting, one depicting a lion hunt and the other, a procession in honour of Neptune. Two Christian sarcophagi are on display in the room containing the stairs down to the Spelunca magna.

Sarcofago dei Tre Pastori[]

The Vatican Museums have at least two Christian sarcophagi on display from these catacombs. One has Biblical scenes. The other is the famous "Sarcophagus of the Three Shepherds" (online catalogue page here). The high-relief fine marble carving of this shows three figures of The Good Shepherd on the front, surrounded by putti harvesting grapes from two enormous vines.

Padella bronzea[]

The most precious item recovered from the catacombs is in the museum of the Crypta Balbi, and is a large bronze one-handled hand-wash basin or acquamanile. A photo of it is here. It is 4th century, and bears incised decorations in honour of the god Neptune, who is depicted in the middle. The depictions include people in boats, Tritons, fish and cephalopods.

Spelunca magna[]

The right hand entrance leads down into the Spelunca magna, which is a long (100 metres) and wide passage rather than a cave. It has transverse brick support arches and piers

The entrances of the cubicula leading off it are reinforced in brick, some of it decorative. For example there is an impressive large portal to the right near the stairs, having a triangular pediment with decorative molding.

Just beyond to the left here, the Damasan epigraph in honour of SS Felissimus and Agapitus has been affixed to the wall. Beyond this on the same side is another monumental brick cubiculum portal and then the short Damasan epigraph to St Januarius. These two epigraphs were found lying on the floor.

On the right here is the Cubiculum of the Four Seasons, claimed without proof to have been the shrine of St Januarius. The saint was pretty certainly enshrined in the Spelunca, but we cannot be certain where because his epigraph was found loose. The Cubiculum has three arcosolia, and a vault in the form of a steep-sided pyramid topped by a lucinarium or light-shaft. Very unusually, the lower register of the walls was revetted with very high-status giallo antico marble from a quarry in what is now Tunisia. The upper register is frescoed with intricate floral decorations on a white background, in several horizontal bands on the vault. The archivolts of the arcosolia show four frescoes depicting the seasons. Putti are engaged in appropriate tasks -picking flowers for spring, wheat for summer, grapes for autumn and olives for winter.

Further on, there is a semi-circular apse in the wall on the right. This looks like a pilgrims' gathering place for a shrine on the left, which is an arcosolium with a pair of columns in porphyry. Which martyr was here cannot be said.

Down a passage to the right, just beyond this shrine, is a cubicle with three large arcosolia which has been badly damaged by rock falls but which was once decorated by having its walls revetted in polychrome marble opus sectile.

Another side passage leads to a large staircase leading down to a well-chamber which supplied water for making mortar and plaster.

Some frescoes in the cubicula have unusual themes. One of The Good Shepherd seems to show Christ defending his sheep from what seems to be a wild ass. Pope Liberius is depicted in an arcosolium, which is interesting because he is not a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. A sheep between two wolves is an allegorical expression of the story of Susanna -we know this because of a helpful explanatory epigraph.

Scala maggiore[]

At the foot of the Scala maggiore stairway, on the left, is a cubiculum dating to the earlier 3rd century. The fresco work in here, unfortunately not well preserved, is unusual in its careful attention to detail and colouring. (Most catacomb fresco painting was done quickly, usually with talent but sometimes not.)

The scenes depict The Resurrection of Lazarus, Christ and the Samaritan Woman and The Healing of the Woman with a Haemorrhage. A third scene is controversial. This depicts two figures with cloaks and bare legs, plausibly taken to be soldiers. One of them is holding a leafless tree-branch over the head of a third figure, with a longer tunic and facing the viewer. The head of this figure has something on it which has been interpreted as the Crown of Thorns. If this is so, then this is possibly the earliest depiction of a Crucifixion event known. However, this figure seems to be wearing a laurel wreath and to be holding a branch himself.

The Roman guide David Macchi has provided an online photo of this fresco here, so you can judge for yourself.

External links[]

Italian Wikipedia page

Info.roma web-page

"Romapedia" blog page