American scholar Jessica Dello Russo earned her Ph.D. in January of 2022 from the Vatican's Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome. Her thesis, “Devout Curiosity and Dissenting Results: Configuring the Necropolis of Vigna Randanini and Its Catacombs of Jews,” incorporates new data and archival materials into a close study of an underground cemetery of the Late Ancient era on the via Appia Antica just outside of Rome.

Dello Russo says that the so-called “founder of the discipline of Christian archaeology,” Giovanni Battista de Rossi, became a veritable protagonist of her on-going research. She points out how archaeological excavations of Jewish identity in Rome were important to Christian archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, she says that de Rossi believed that “Jewish antiquities are intimately connected to (those that are) Christian.”

The extent of Dello Russo’s scholarship about the Jewish catacombs in Rome is astonishingly impressive, but she herself finds inspiration from trail blazers in the field before her, including Giovanni Battista de Rossi, Harry J. Leon, and Estelle Shohet Brettman.

In your current thesis, you say that De Rossi, the so-called “founder of the science of Christian archaeology”, became the veritable protagonist in your study, even if he has published very little regarding the Jewish catacombs? Can you elaborate on that statement in more detail?

Very early on in my graduate studies at the PIAC in Rome, I was fortunate to have access to de Rossi’s epigraphy notes for the project he conceived of as a young man and worked on for all of his life - the Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae. Among these records are hundreds of individual transcriptions, drawings, and squeezes of Jewish epitaphs that de Rossi had assembled for an index on Jewish epigraphy. Unfortunately, this part of de Rossi’s project was not realized before his death in 1894, and the new ICUR series in 1922 was organized, whenever possible, by where inscriptions had been found, rather than by the presence of certain words and other distinguishing features. Around this time, de Rossi’s notes on Jewish epigraphy were turned over to the Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Frey, whose Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum, beginning with the publication of the first volume on Europe in 1936, made de Rossi’s records on this material, with some exceptions, widely available.

I was aware that these handwritten notes had been looked at numerous times already by expert epigraphists, obviously Frey, but also Antonio Ferrua, and Danilo Mazzoleni. For that matter, de Rossi himself had shared at least some of the information with colleagues during his lifetime, including Abraham Berliner and Nikolaus Muller. Even so, my approach was not simply to data mine, but also to look more broadly at how de Rossi had set about recording and later organizing the evidence, especially as regards to artifacts that have since gone missing from the site. In the end, it was clear that De Rossi had been consistent in obtaining the latest results from Randanini’s dig, and later, more sporadic finds. Epitaphs from another Jewish catacomb discovered in the same area of the Appia in 1866, in what was then the “Vigna Cimarra” behind the Church of San Sebastiano actually ended up in his house at the base of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, although de Rossi, as a rule, preferred to have inscriptions remain in the general setting in which they had been found. The Cimarra site was an exception because of its poor condition due to flooding and proximity to a quarry. De Rossi knew that if he did not take immediate action to move these mostly fragmentary texts offsite, they would in all probability be lost or sold to collectors as his then rival in Jewish catacomb studies, Raffaele Garrucci, was open to doing. So I give credit to de Rossi for using his influence and fame on an international scale to advocate for Jewish catacomb preservation whenever possible - despite the limited funding available at the time to promote such efforts in Rome, not only during the reign of Pius IX but also under the Savoy. He also encouraged the study of these cemeteries by Jewish and Protestant scholars (English archaeologist John Henry Parker, who commissioned photographs of the catacomb of Vigna Randanini, was one of the few deeply critical of de Rossi, mostly for not agreeing with his theories about catacomb chronology). The ancient Jewish cemeteries provided an opening for non-Catholics to get their hands dirty in the field, so to speak, and the first catacomb excavation in Rome under Protestant supervision in 1885 was that of a catacomb presumed to be Jewish in light of its location almost directly across the street (via Appia Pignatelli) from one of the entrances into the catacombs of Vigna Randanini.

The dig revealed a number of interesting tomb features, but no conclusive evidence of Jews. It was on property of the Torlonia family, whose name comes up again and again in the archaeology of Jewish Rome. De Rossi published only a few articles specifically dedicated to Jewish archaeological finds in Rome, the most well known being the announcement of the discovery of the catacomb of Vigna Cimarra in 1866 and that of a fragment of a gold glass vessel containing the image of a building and grounds which he believed to represent the Jerusalem Temple. His interest was guided for the most part by what this material could contribute to the development of Christian institutions. Of course this is a limited and supersessionist view of the Jewish presence in Ancient Rome, but de Rossi’s stamp of approval meant something, and inspired others to try their hand in documenting this distinctly Jewish identity, leading to more discoveries.

In a lecture you delivered at Harvard in 2011, “A Harvard Student’s Journey through the Jewish Catacombs of Rome”, you talked about reading Harry J. Leon’s 1927 doctoral dissertation “De Judaeorum Antiquorum Sepulcreits Romae Repertis Quaestiones Selectae,” a collection of about 500 epitaphs from the Jewish Catacombs in Rome, accompanied by a short introduction to further scholarship on the subject. In light of your familiarity with Leon’s experiences and methodology, what do you see as his legacy to Jewish catacomb studies?

Leon’s “Jews of Ancient Rome” (1960) was a labor of love, worked on for four decades of his career. His academic training in Harvard in the early 1900s was in what we would call philology, or the critical study of texts. This means that while Leon was passionate about Jewish Studies, he was employed at the University of Texas at Austin to teach Greek and Latin literature. Cross-disciplinary work was not the institutional priority it is today, so while putting out annotated commentaries of literary texts, as a professor of Classics was expected to do, and earning high accolades for his teaching and instructional methods, Leon kept up his interest in Ancient Judaism by doing slide lectures of the Jewish catacombs to Texas synagogues and other Jewish groups and initiating the study of Hebrew on his university campus. He was also a small-scale collector of antique artifacts, mostly coins, I think, but I don’t have many details about his collection. After two decades of teaching, Leon won a Fulbright to return to Italy, and in the course of the fellowship year he returned to many of the Jewish sites he had studied as a Harvard doctoral student in the early 1920’s, in the process making new discoveries as well. The book that came out of this experience, The Jews of Ancient Rome (1960), really did provide a fresh look at the material because as a lay rabbi, Leon was flexible in his thinking about Jewish practices, and considered all types of source material as well as secondary literature in his work. Like Frey’s CIJ, Leon’s book was annotated and reprinted decades after its release: it’s the rare work that you might see as dated today in many of its conclusions, but still refreshing to read because of the way Leon is able to transform statistics and other data back into real people. No wonder his legacy lives on.

My thought has always been that archaeology should be used as a tool to unveil history instead of being locked up in an ivory tower for the knowing few. Also, that it should arouse interest in preserving the precious vestiges of our past before they vanish.

This comment above is by Professor Estelle Shohet Brettman, founder of the International Catacomb Society in 1980. Professor Brettman was received by Pope John Paul II on July 2nd, 1979, during a private audience for her interfaith museum exhibition “Vaults of Memory: Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome.” This exhibit was mounted in 1979 at the Boston Public Library. It then traveled to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Ann Arbor Michigan in 1981, the National Museum of Castel S. Angelo in Rome in 1985. In 1987, it returned to the Boston Public Library. The last public showing was at the Spertus Museum in Chicago Illinois in 1989. This institution is today known as the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where I continue my advanced studies in Jewish history.

In 2017, I presented my thesis in historic preservation at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, A Mitzvah in Historic Preservation: The Need for Conservation of Roman Jewish Stone Epitaphs. I focused on the path-breaking research of Professor Estelle Shohet Brettman (1925.-1991) and Professor Bernadette Brooten (now retired), two American women scholars who have brought forth the earliest efforts in the historic preservation of the Roman Jewish Catacombs and Jewish stone epitaphs in the 1970’s, when you and I were children.

I now would like to take this opportunity to ask you this question:

Included in the “Vaults of Memory” exhibit were casts of Jewish stone epitaphs from originals now in the Jewish Lapidary of the Vatican Museums. Other casts of these inscriptions are seen in the Jewish Museum of Rome. What are your thoughts on the arrangement and accessibility of these displays?

I last saw many of the inscriptions from the Vatican in Ferrara at the MEIS in 2018, in the exhibit “Jews: An Italian Story. The First 1,000 Years”! They were displayed so that you could not only see the front, but also the sides and back of the slab. Every piece had a label and a listing in the catalog for the show. Not only that, there were also a series of spaces designed to be exact-scale facsimiles of Jewish catacomb environments that had been elaborately painted. The Jewish Lapidarium at the Vatican is arranged in similar fashion: epitaphs are no longer fixed onto the walls like paintings, but almost free standing. The curators of the collection are putting much of this material online. It’s really like having a free digital catalog at your fingertips, or, rather, on your smartphone, as you visit the gallery. They are not alone in moving away from the “tombstone” approach to labeling pieces in a museum - an ironic term in this case, but it means a label affixed to the wall or another nearby surface with basic information about the work on display. Most people barely glance at these, and in particular settings they distract from the experience. In an example like the Vatican Lapidarium, the texts are the display! Imagine adding over a hundred labels, even QR codes - it would detract from the objects themselves.

As you note, the Jewish Museum of Rome has plaster casts of a number of the epitaphs in the Vatican collection - taken directly from the originals. These are arranged in more of an “old-school” fashion right in a niche in the wall, strikingly painted red, to emphasize the size and contours of the individual pieces. But there are now original artifacts in the collection as well, above all, the epitaph to the Fabii Longii, Jews in Ostia in the first century CE. It may be the oldest testimony of Jews in all of Italy. The success of this long-term loan might pave the way for similar arrangements in the future, although past efforts to reach out to the Vatican to obtain artifacts from the Jewish Lapidarium have not been successful.

The International Catacomb Society’s “Vaults of Memory” exhibit also incorporated casts of Jewish artifacts, but this was done deliberately to have a tactile element to the show for the visually impaired. Society founder Estelle Brettman was a longtime volunteer with the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Her work to create audio recordings of books and descriptions of works of art informed her decision to make the “Vaults” exhibit universally accessible, long before the principle became standard practice in the museum world. The exhibit is now perpetuated in digital form.

My compliments to you for having successfully revived the legacy of Giovanni Battista de Rossi, Harry J. Leon, and Estelle Shohet Brettman. Brettman’s work now lives on through the non-for-profit International Catacomb Society she founded, which remains dedicated to the preservation and documentation of the Jewish catacombs and other rare vestiges of history illustrating the common influences on Jewish, Christian, and polytheist iconography and funerary practices during the time of the Roman Empire. With this being said, I understand that following the 1984 revision of the 1929 Lateran Treaty, in which the Vatican relinquished all control over the Jewish catacomb sites, and the ratification of March 8th, 1989 of an “Intesa tra Repubblica Italiana e Unione della Communità Israelitiche Italiana (art. 18101), the Italian government must now collaborate with representatives of Italy’s Jewish communities to determine the best practices for administering and conserving the Jewish catacombs of Rome. How did the cemetery of Vigna Randanini come into the hands of a private owner, and who is the current owner?

The catacomb of Vigna Randanini extends below the grounds of an estate known today as the “Villa S. Sebastiano”. Because of the archaeological restrictions on building construction, the property generates income primarily from villa rentals for weddings and other events and from the restaurant on the outskirts, the “Ristorante Cecilia Metella”. There is also a landscaping/greenhouse business registered at the address, the Agricola Roccagiovine SRL. Until recently, the breaking up of this area into different lots was not possible, but it appears that the longtime proprietors, the del Gallo di Roccagiovine, successfully petitioned to do this in 2017 in order to sell parts of the estate to other parties, identified as the marquis Roberto Clavarino and a real estate company, the Societa’ Val Immobiliare. In no way should this partitioning alter the legal requirements to conserve the essential characteristics of the site.

On the flip side, since the government of Italy does not own the property, there has been little investment in study and conservation of the Jewish catacomb of the Vigna Randanini on the scale of what those below the municipal park of Villa Torlonia have received. Since the very moment of their discovery in 1859, the catacombs of Vigna Randanini have been managed privately, and there is no signage for the site or visitor facilities, like public restrooms or parking. People tell me they have a hard time even figuring out where the entrance is because it is not labeled or numbered. There are travel agencies which make all the arrangements for a private tour upon request, but no regularly scheduled tours, like at a number of Chrstian catacombs around the city. We’ve spoken about this before - it is not the ideal solution for what is currently the only Jewish catacomb accessible to the public, although the cemetery of Villa Torlonia is predicted to open for tours by 2025. More broadly, the Appian Way in its entirety from Rome to Brindisi is in the running this year to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The archaeological site of the Vigna Randanini is an integral part of the historic route’s candidacy for this prestigious award, and should be better represented in any subsequent program of monument recovery and conservation.

I would like to thank Jessica Dello Russo for taking the time for this interview.