The necropolis underneath the central nave of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome contains the tombs of Saint Peter, plus another 11 Popes. It consists of a dirt road, lined with monuments an ending in the small square where Saint Peter’s tomb is located. This necropolis can only be visited by making a reservation through the website of the Vatican itself.
Vatican Necropolis Rome
Address, opening hours and admission
Address: Piazza San Pietro – Vatican City – Rome. Opening hours: Monday till Saturday from 09.00 till 15.30. Closed: Mondays; January 1, 6; Movember 1, 2; December 1, 8, 24-27. Admission: 13 Euros. Minimum age for visitors is 15. Only around 250 visitors, divided into groups of 10 to 15 people, are allowed entrance per day. Reservation: Obligatory. How to book: Via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or fax (+39 06 69873017), or through the Ufficio Scavi (Via Paolo VI, to the left of Bernini’s colonnade on Saint Peter’s Square). On the request you have to indicate how big your group is, the components’ names, the days you are in Rome, your preferred language for the tour and an e-mail address. You will then be informed of the exact time and date of your visit. On the day itself you need to be at the Ufficio Scavi 15 minutes before the start of your tour.
Necropolis and Saint Peter’s Tomb
The tomb containing Saint Peter’s relics is right below the main altar. Until the year 1979, when Pope John Paul II started allowing visitors, it was impossible to see the tomb.
It was Pope Pius XI who started the excavations. His motive was rather selfish, since he wished to be buried as close as possible to Saint Peter himself.
Carlo Maderno created the confessio where the Apostle Peter can be found and which also contains a 9th century mosaic depicting Christ. In order to reach the tomb one passes underneath an arch with the inscription “Sepulcrum Sancti Petri Apostoli“, which means “The Grave of the Holy Apostle Peter”.
The necropolis underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica consists of a number of mausoleums along a street. The oldest, 2nd century, ones are found on the northern end, while the ones on the south side stem from the 3rd century.
The tombs are decorated inside with paintings and stucco. The names of the deceased are inscribed on the outer walls. Some of the tombs have black and white mosaic floors.
The tomb of Popilius Heracla has part of his will inscribed on its wall, claiming that he wants to be buried in the Vatican, next to the Circus. It is thanks to this inscription that the Circus of Caligola has been identified.
The tomb of the Giulii contains Christian paintings, such as the “Good Shepherd” and “Jonas in the Belly of the Whale”. The vault is decorates with a mosaic depicting “Christ on the Chariot of the Sun”, comparable to depictions of the pagan God Apollo.
Later more tombs were added, mostly on the west side of the necropolis, around a square centered around what has been identified as Saint Peter’s Tomb.
Around the middle of the 2nd century the monument on top of the tomb was constructed. It consisted of a niche with two columns supporting a a marble slab with another niche on top. The tomb itself was in an underground niche, as a Greek inscription mentioning the apostle’s name confirms.
In the 4th century the Emperor Constantine had the first basilica constructed on top of the tomb. Construction started around the year 320 and the inauguration took place in 326. The basilica itself was not finished until 349, however.
The basilica consisted of five naves, separated by columns. A transept separated the naves from the apse. The main part of the basilica was preceded by an atrium.
Saint Peter‘s funeral monument was placed in the center of the transept. An aedicula in the middle of the presbytery was placed on top of the sepulchre. The aedicula was in turn crowned by a baldachin, with spiral columns and depictions of cupids.
There was no altar in Constantine‘s basilica, since it was not meant for mass but for funerary use.
In the 4th century, in order to be able to celebrate mass and protect the tomb, the presbytery floor was raised and a row of six spiral columns was added.
The tomb was reached by means of two sets of stairs on the sides.
Constantine‘s basilica remained intact until the 15th century, when Pope Nicolò V had the present Saint Peter‘s built. This was deemed necessary because of the precarious conditions of the old building. Eleven of the columns of the first basilica can still be seen in the present church.