The Vatican Necropolis: ritual, status and social identity in the Roman Chamber Tomb
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This dissertation examines the second and third century chamber tombs of the Vatican Necropolis in terms of form, function and ritual. The Vatican Necropolis is the modern name given to the two rows of tombs, single-chambered brick-faced monuments now underneath St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City. These monuments--the best preserved examples of this important tomb typology--lay undisturbed from the fourth century until 1939, when an excavation team working on the authority of Pius XII cleared a total of twenty-two tombs. Untouched for centuries, the painted and stuccoed interiors of these tombs, with their mosaic floors and sarcophagi and urns lining the walls, are the most remarkable examples we have of Roman funerary art in its original architectural context. The examination includes the relationship of the necropolis to the topography of the Vatican plain, memory and ritual activity tomb side, and the relationship of these tombs to civic euergetism in Rome. An important goal is to show how the tombs worked to secure remembrance for the dead, while also giving status and affirming a desired social identity for the surviving family and heirs. The re- insertion of a Roman viewer allows a reading of the monuments that includes the architectural form and the interior artistic program of wall paintings, decorative stucco, mosaic, and sculpture. In addition, there is a strong emphasis on the under-examined aspect of the experiential quality of these tombs for the living, the family and friends who made repeated visits annually to the monuments during Roman festivals such as the Parentalia and the cena novendialis. This group was the principle audience for the tomb’s interior program, and through ritual activity and banqueting they periodically animated the tomb, transforming it from a passive monument into an active space for entertainment and reception.