Ipogeo di Via Dino Compagni is an early 4th century private hypogeum located at Via Latina 258, in the Appio Latino quarter.
This complex has been called the Catacomba di Via Latina, despite the presence of two other catacombs on this road: Catacomba dei Santi Gordiano ed Epimaco and Catacomba di Aproniano. This is because of the title of the write-up of the first discovery:
Antonio Ferrua: Le pitture della nuova catacomba di Via Latina, Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 1960.
The term ipogeo is now preferred for this complex, rather than catacomba. The first, "hypogeum", is Greek and simply means "underground" -here referring to a tomb, of course. The term catacomba is reserved for a funerary complex that functioned as a public cemetery, marked by sets of passages containing loculi.
Unlike in previous years, it is no longer believed that all catacombs were necessarily run by the Church as a social service. All of them started as private enterprises, and a few of them might have remained so. However, all ipogei were private -although some mutated into catacombs, especially if a martyr was entombed therein.
The complex has no documented history, and its accidental discovery in 1954 was a surprise. Unfortunately, despite the extreme richness of the fresco decoration, the original owners neglected to provide any identifying epigraphs underground so there is no historical evidence from that source, either.
The date of the complex was assigned by Ferrua to the first half of the fourth century, and he placed the fresco work between 320 and 350. This dating is still regarded as sound. Efforts to move the date to the previous century founder on the presence of the Chi-rho symbol in the fresco work.
The symmetrical nature of the layout demonstrates that the hypogeum was the result of a single project. There have been some guesses as to how many interested groups (presumably families) were involved, if more than one. The layout hints at two distinct groups, while Ferrua noted four different phases of fresco painting which hints at four episodes of patronage -or four different gangs of artists under one patron, of course. It seems easier to assume one extended family.
The most interesting historical detail is that some of the burial areas here have frescoes with Christian subjects, while others are entirely pagan. This has caused some scholarly embarrassment in the past, because of the (largely apologetic) idea that early Christians did not want to be buried with pagans. So, some have tried to argue that the pagan burials here were introduced during the reign of the emperor Julian (who sponsored traditional Roman paganism), or that the pagan themes had occult Christian meanings. Both arguments are forced, and it is better simply to admit that, at least within this anonymous wealthy extended Roman family, pagans and Christians were happy to be buried in the same complex in the earlier 4th century.
This is one of the most richly decorated private hypogea in Rome, with fresco work covering almost every surface in the actual burial areas. This extremely expensive status display was not simply for funerals, however, because the layout makes it clear that refrigeria or feasts in honour of the dead were held here on anniversaries.
Oddly, some of the arcosolia had loculi hacked into them, destroying frescoes. This sort of contemptuous re-use was common in public catacombs, but very strange here. Either the owning family fell on hard times and later members exerted a right of burial despite lacking the funds for a fitting interment, or the complex suffered from squatters. These intrusions seems best dated to the 5th century, as after that olive oil for lamps was hard to come by and burial underground fell seriously out of fashion.
Another oddity is that the first archaeologists found the tombs looted, and these intrusive loculi broken open but with the human remains left in situ. The original loculi in a dedicated side passage were mostly left alone, so it seems that the richer burials in the complex were targeted for possible jewellery. If this happened in the early Middle Ages, say, the plunderers would have known that the original loculi were for favoured slaves and freedmen, and that jewellery there would be unlikely.
The year that is usually quoted for the rediscovery of this complex is 1955. This is actually false, as it was discovered accidentally when workmen excavating the foundations of a new building in 1954 broke into a chamber.
What happened then was typical of Rome then and in the later decades of the 20th century, in that the work simply continued until the building was substantially complete. The engineer in charge then informed the Pontificia commissione di archeologia sacra at the Vatican in 1955, and an archaeological investigation was put in place by Fr Antonio Ferrua. Apparently he made his entrance by being let down by rope from a hole in the roof of Chamber I.
One can be grateful that the complex was not simply sealed off and left unknown, but the construction work caused serious damage. Also the clearing of the surface site beforehand removed any archaeological evidence associated with the original entrance, such as possible epigraphs in the remains of a mausoleum.
Ferrua published his findings in 1960, and his book is considered a classic in catacomb archaeology.
Ferrua gave a simple code to his description of the complex, labelling chambers alphabetically from the entrance (A to O) and passages with numbers (1 to 6).
Overall, the layout is L-shaped, with a shorter entrance axis off which a perpendicular main axis runs. Chambers open off both these axis passages, or are incorporated into them. Both passages end in what seem to be especially privileged cubicula, with a single burial each. The arrangement recalls high-status tombs of the ancient Egyptians, and that there are two separate axial foci on privileged burials is a hint that two family groups were involved here.
The entrance is a manhole in the pavement (sidewalk) right next to the main road. Because the 20th century building work had destroyed the original entrance stairway, this leads into a modern stairwell -"passage 1". At the bottom is a short passage, "2", which continues ahead past a set of stairs to a dead end. Just before the latter is an entrance on the right to a chamber labelled (confusingly) "2a". This is square, undecorated and has another passage, now blocked, leading from its far left hand corner.
2a seems to be part of the original entrance arrangements.
The first axis passage, "3", begins on the left just before the set of stairs mentioned. It goes down another set of stairs to a pair of doorways facing each other. To the right is the so-called "Chamber A'", which was a cubiculum also destroyed by modern construction. To the left is "Chamber A", its presumed twin. This pair of cubicula comprises Ferrua's first distinct zone of fresco work.
The walls of passage 3 here are mostly of modern brickwork, as is the vaulting. On the walling the 20th century archaeologists affixed such epigraph slabs as they found left loose by the original plunderers. These merely give some names, and apparently it was not feasible to match epigraphs to original tombs.
Chamber A Edit
The cubiculum A is a large square chamber, with three broad arcosolia. It is entirely frescoed, with a white background divided into panels by red strips. The smaller panels contain decorative elements, and the larger ones Biblical scenes. There are three loculi, and each one of these has had an intrusive loculus cut into its tympanum which seriously damaged the fresco there. The loculi in turn were broken open by looters, who also opened the original interments.
The entrance wall depicts The Original Sin of Adam and Eve, Daniel in the Den of Lions and The Drunkenness of Noah. The arcosolium to the left has its tympanum fresco depicting Isaac Blessing Jacob, and this is surrounded by scenes from the prophecy of Jonah. The far arcosolium shows Susannah Among the Elders, and the surrounding wall as Christ Among the Apostles. The right hand arcosolium has a pastoral scene, with Moses and the People of Israel and The Three Young Men in the Furnace on the arch underside.
The vault has The Good Shepherd in its centre, surrounded by Biblical scenes mostly destroyed by plaster falling off.
The archaeologists have left various loose items on display here.
From cubilcum A, passage 3 goes on to a pair of downward staircases separated by a short landing. From this landing, passage 4 goes off to the right. This is the complex's main spine passage. At the bottom of the second set of stairs, there is an arcosolium on the right before the entrance to cubiculum B.
Chamber B Edit
Cubiculum B is double, leading immediately into cubiculum C. It has two deep arcosolia, each with two burials with the back one higher than the front one. B and C together comprises Ferrua's second distinct zone of fresco work, with many Old Testament scenes which in B are not known in other catacomb paintings.
The chamber is square, with an engaged column in each corner from which the vault springs.
The left hand arcosolium has a tympanum fresco depicting Jacob Enters Egypt with his Family. The people are shown in carts, approaching Pharaoh's city. The Nile, with fish in it, is shown flowing below. The vault depicts The Despair of Adam and Eve (they are wearing leopard skins) and The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel. The latter is shown with a lamb, and the former with a sheaf of grain. Next to this is Lot in Flight from Sodom. He is shown with his two daughters, leaving behind the burning city and his wife as a pillar of salt. Also shown on this arcosolium are scenes featuring Samson, Moses and Joseph.
The right hand arcosolium features The Ascension of Elijah, and scenes featuring Abraham Isaac and Jacob. The vault has Noah in the Ark, Samson Fighting the Lion (mostly fallen off), Absalom in the Oak Tree and Jacob's Ladder.
Chamber C Edit
The terminus of passage 3 is a privileged cubiculum with only one arcosolium burial. Over the actual tomb here is not a fresco, but a little rectangular apse niche which looks as if it was intended for a statuette of the deceased. The arcosolium vault is dished, emphasising the focussing effect of the ensemble.
The vault has two deep side arches (not arcosolia). The one on the left has a main scene showing The Resurrection of Lazarus, with The Sacrifice of Abraham on the right had side wall. The former shows Moses Receiving the Law and The Pillar of Fire at the top. The latter shows Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, with his servant with the donkey at the bottom.
The arch on the right shows The Crossing of the Red Sea. The arcosolium is decorated with peacocks, and features The Expulsion from Paradise and scenes from the lives of Moses, Job and Jonah.
Chamber D Edit
Passage 4 runs in a straight line, down a short flight of steps to Chamber D. This is a rectangular hall with a pair of engaged columns in the near corners and a broad staircase of four steps exiting in the far wall. It has separate cubicula opening off each side wall (E and F), accessed by two steps down in both cases.
This chamber looks like a refrigerium hall, where a small group of people could hold a remembrance meal in honour of the dead in the cubicula.
The fresco work in D, E and F are Ferrua's third distinct zone of fresco work.
Chamber E Edit
Cublculum E is to the left. It has a single arcosolium occupying the far wall, flanked by a pair of engaged columns in the corners which are rendered to resemble red marble.
This is the first of the two pagan cubicula. The tympanum of the arcosolium features a semi-nude reclining female figure now identified as the Earth-goddess Tellus Mater. Ferrua thought that the depiction shows The Death of Cleopatra because the goddess is holding a snake, and this (now rejected) opinion is still being quoted.
The other fresco elements involve winged Victories, animals, flowers and female dancers. Two peacocks eating from what looks like a stemmed bowl of heaped grain are depicted over the arcosolium.
It is striking that the fresco work in here seems to have been painted by the same artists who executed the Christian decoration of Cubiculum F.
Chamber F Edit
Cubiculum F has a very unusual plan, in the shape of a squat pear with the narrow end at the entrance. It has three arcosolia, one at the far end and two diagonally facing near the entrance. The arcosolia are flanked by engaged columns painted to resemble pavonazzetto marble.
The far arcosolium features Samson Routing the Philistines with the Jawbone of an Ass, another unique subject in catacomb painting. The left hand one has Christ with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well. He is shown as a young, beardless man with sandals -the bearded Christ only came later- and she is shown wearing buttoned-up boots. The right hand arcosolium shows Balaam's Donkey; Balaam on his animal is confronted by an angel with a drawn sword. Note that the angel has no wings -these came later in iconography, too.
Chamber G Edit
The exit staircase from Chamber D leads immediately into a little square vestibule. To the left, corridor 6 runs off in a straight line to terminate in a dead end. This is where the original loculi for privileged slaves and family clients such as freedmen were provided with loculi. To the right, another corridor (5) goes down a fairly long flight of rock-cut steps to end in a well-chamber still containing water (the level has risen since ancient times). The staircase has a ledge on each side acting as a hand-rail.
Such wells are common in Roman catacombs, and romantics of previous centuries imagined that they were used for baptism. This is mistaken. In public catacombs their main use was to provide water for cement used to seal tombs, but the work necessary to cut the stair passage here seems excessive for the relatively limited amount of water needed for the burials here. Rather, this well is evidence for refrigeria in that it provides a ready water supply for those feasting.
Over the exit into chamber H is a fresco of a fossor or catacomb digger.
Chamber H Edit
The far side of Chamber G has a pair of engaged columns in the corners, flanking the entrance to a long hall which is basically a widened section of passage 4. This narrows before it reaches the next chamber. Its function is unclear, but seems to have been to do with refrigeria as well because the following chamber was the main refrigerium hall in the complex.
The walls here were simply rendered, and painted to resemble ashlar stonework.
Chamber I Edit
Chamber I is spectacular, being in the form of a hexagon stretched slightly along the major axis. It has pairs of engaged columns flanking the entrance and exit at the near and far ends, and another pair on little plinths in the side corners. These six columns "support" the vault, which is in the form of a shallow dome in six sectors.
This chamber has two very deep arcosolia in the far diagonal sides, and two short passages opening in the near diagonal sides. The right hand passage leads to a square cubiculum containing a single arcosolium, while the left hand passage leads to a regular hexagonal chamber.
These two side chambers are not distinguished by letters, but are labelled Ib and Ia respectively. This is because they were very seriously damaged by the modern construction work, and are not readily examinable. Also, obvious to any visitor, the work left concrete piers passing through the chamber and piercing both floor and vault. As a result, much of the latter has collapsed and been replaced with cement render.
The arcosolia are very deep, with three tombs each The top one is an inserted marble sarcophagus, with strigillate decoration. The left hand tympanum depicts Christ in Majesty Between SS Peter and Paul on the tympanum, with Moses and Job flanking. The right hand one displays an exceptional subject: An Anatomy Lesson Over a Cadaver (there are other interpretations of this scene, but this seems to be the favoured one nowadays).
The vault depicts the bust of a man with a scroll in a central tondo, while the sectors have other portraits with scrolls and codices. Boxes of scrolls separate these. It seems that this decoration has no explicitly religious significance, but is an exaltation of philosophy. Unfortunately, as elsewhere, there are no epigraphs identifying those depicted. The walls of the chamber have the same theme.
Chamber L Edit
The far pair of columns flank a short passage leading into a little square chamber with The Sacrifice of Abraham on one side wall, and Samson Slays the Lion on the other. This chamber seems basically to be an antechamber to the following funerary cubicula, of which there are three in succession.
Chamber M Edit
The first cubiculum has a wide entrance from L, flanked by a pair of columns. It has two side arcosolia, occupying the entire side walls. The right hand one has The Original Sin, flanked by scenes from the prophecy of Jonah. The left hand one has Two Soldiers Casting Lots (possibly an allusion to the Crucifixion), flanked by further scenes from the same prophecy. The vault has a central tondo of The Good Shepherd, surrounded by birds.
Chamber N Edit
The second cubiculum is very impressive, and is the second entirely pagan one in the complex. It has four columns in the corners and, although these are cut from the native rock like the others, the Ionic capitals and bases are of marble and are inserted. The columns support triangular pediments
There are two arcosolia, with two tombs each, and their frescoes come from the legends of Hercules.
The left hand one shows Hercules with the dying Admetus, with the slain Cacus next to him. Also, Hercules with Athena. The right hand one depicts Hercules bringing Alcestis back to Admetus from Hades (Cerberus in the background), flanked by Hercules with the Hydra and the Apples of the Hesperides.
The vault features garlands of wheat, framing cherubs engaged in harvesting it.
Chamber O Edit
The final cubiculum in the complex has a single arcosolium, and like the comparable cubiculum C contains a statuette-niche as well as having more detailed decoration overall. The niche here is apsidal, and contains a frontal view of a peacock raising its tail. On the arcosolium vault-springers are The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and The Three Young Men in the Furnace, and on the sides in front of these are Noah in the Ark and an Orans. The left hand side wall has The Resurrection of Lazarus and scenes from the life of Moses, while the right hand one has The Flight from Egypt and The Crossing of the Red Sea.
The arcosolium vault has a tondo portrait of a pretty young woman, and this is thought to be the only depiction of an occupant of the tombs in the complex. The head has a nimbus, which looks like a Christian iconographic halo.
Unusually, this cubiculum has two transennae or pierced marble screen slabs at the entrance. This and the tondo portrait would have been enough to identify the tomb as the shrine of a martyr had it been discovered in previous centuries. However, it is now known that the nimbus or halo was not reserved to saints at the period when the portrait was painted. You can see this in cubiculum N, where Hercules is with a halo in some of the depictions.