It was death, aptly enough, that brought me back to the necropolis. Sitting against the obelisk in the center of St. Peter's Square, I saw the decorous black crosses in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, announcing the passing of Padre Antonio Ferrua, age 102, the grand old man of Christian archaeology. In a series of heartfelt obituaries Ferrua's fellow scholars and Jesuit confreres took their leave of him, commending his intellectual rigor and his remarkable scientific output. In a longer article a former student remembered with obvious affection the generosity of his maestro, the iron constitution that kept him working into his nineties, and the precise little notes he used to write, in a clear but tremulous hand. The accompanying photograph showed Ferrua in a cassock, holding his thumb and index finger together like a conductor with an invisible baton as he explained some fine point of his art. The jutting jaw suggested a truculence that no one had mentioned, and the searching, melancholy eyes were those of a man who had looked deep into the follies and foibles of mankind, and often laughed at them. Here was someone I wished I had met.
The article described Ferrua's many discoveries in the Roman subsoil, one of which was directly beneath me: a vast Roman cemetery that underlies St. Peter's Square and the basilica itself. Ferrua's excavations there had unearthed some twenty pagan mausoleums along with a grave thought to be Peter's. The former student also mentioned a "diatribe with other scholars that dragged on for years, concerning the delicate question of the Apostle's remains and their identity."
Beneath the finely tuned phraseology bigger things lay buried—and I had an idea what they were. I lived in Rome in the mid-1990s, and had researched and explored many of the hundreds of archaeological sites beneath the modern city. In the process I had learned of Ferrua's dramatic discovery of the pagan cemetery beneath St. Peter's, and of the resulting bitter controversy with the epigraphist Margherita Guarducci over the identity of bones found in Peter's supposed tomb. According to many Vatican sources, this quarrel had cost Ferrua a cardinalate.
I decided to revisit the necropolis, and with a guide and a small group of visitors, I once again descended into the underworld of St. Peter's that Antonio Ferrua had revealed. As we walked down a long, dark stairway, the air grew moist and deep-earth cool, pungent with mold. We found ourselves on a twilit roadway fronted by stately little mansions of the dead, with two-story façades of thin Roman brick. Within were walls of lush frescoes and stuccowork, and an exotic profusion of the old gods: falcon-headed Horus with his sacred ankh, Venus rising fair and perfumed from the waves, Dionysus and a drunken rout of nymphs and fauns brandishing phallic wands. Our guide, a young archaeologist with clear blue eyes, a blonde bob, and a patter polished by many tours, explained that these mausoleums had once stood beneath the open sky. Some had courtyards for graveside banquets, with terra-cotta pipes leading down into the graves, through which banqueters poured wine to slake the thirst of the dead. As we proceeded, grates overhead revealed a distant, luminous ceiling of coffered gold. I realized that we were directly beneath the nave of the basilica, approaching the high altar.
At the end of the roadway, under the altar itself, was a rough block of masonry. Through a crack in the brickwork a slender column of white marble could be seen, like a bone laid bare. "This is the tomb of the Apostle Peter," the guide announced, "marked by the so-called aedicula, a memorial to Peter with two marble columns, raised in the second century." The other side of the masonry block was covered with a web of ancient graffiti, she said, left by pious visitors to the tomb. She indicated the strata of stonework built up over the aedicula, a neat core sample of the site: the fourth-century masonry of Constantine the Great, who built the first church of St. Peter; an altar of the seventh century; another of the twelfth; and finally the present high altar, raised in 1594, after Constantine's original church had been demolished and New St. Peter's had been built in its place.
"We should not be surprised that Peter's grave is surrounded by pagan tombs," our guide said. "Remember that in 64 A.D., when Peter died, Rome's Christians were an obscure Eastern cult, a tiny enclave in a predominantly pagan population." In that year Nero, the reigning emperor, rounded them up in the Vatican circus. Striding among them dressed as a charioteer, he watched as some were wrapped in animal skins and savaged by dogs, others crucified and set alight, human torches to illuminate the spectacle. Peter, their leader, died that hellish night, she continued. He was buried on a slope of the adjoining Vatican Hill, which once rose where the basilica now stands; in time an extensive pagan necropolis grew up around his simple grave. Two hundred fifty years later, when Constantine decided to erect a basilica over Peter's grave, his workmen buried part of this necropolis in a million-cubic-meter landfill, to create a level foundation for the church. This was the area, preserved beneath a thick blanket of earth, that Ferrua's excavation had revealed.
The guide's story matched the official Vatican account of Peter's martyrdom and grave. But she had never mentioned the question of Peter's bones.
In 1939 workmen preparing a tomb below the high altar for the recently deceased Pius XI unearthed a stretch of ancient masonry, part of a sumptuous Roman building. The scholarly new pontiff, Pius XII, ordered a systematic excavation of the site by Antonio Ferrua and three distinguished colleagues. It was a courageous decision (previous popes had prohibited such exploration), though courage had its limits. All four excavators were Vatican habitués, who worked under a vow of secrecy. The decade-long investigation, which brought to light, along with the necropolis, the aedicula thought to mark Peter's grave, was closely overseen by Pius XII's longtime collaborator Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, and the actual digging was done by the sampietrini, the hereditary corps of Vatican City workmen. It was an inside job.
In 1951, after twelve years of silence from the excavators and feverish speculation in the world outside, Ferrua and his colleagues published their official report. It caused an immediate uproar. Critics accused them of faulty and haphazard archaeology and the loss of valuable artifacts. Evidence emerged of a running feud between the four excavators and Monsignor Kaas, and of nocturnal meddling at the work site. Kaas had even begun cutting the power to the dig when he and the sampietrini were absent, to prevent the archaeologists from making any unsupervised discoveries.
Given the inherent difficulty of the site, Ferrua and his colleagues had in fact worked with remarkable objectivity: despite intense pressure from the Vatican community, they reported no trace of Peter—not one inscription that named him, not even amid all the graffiti on his supposed tomb. Strangest of all, they discovered that the earth directly beneath the aedicula was empty.
Pius XII soon authorized further research in the necropolis by Margherita Guarducci, an eminent classical epi-graphist and another fervent Catholic. Guarducci rapidly overturned the previous findings and admitted a sultry breeze of Italian-style polemica. She discovered inscriptions and drawings in Peter's honor that Ferrua and his colleagues had, in her view, inexplicably omitted from their report; the most important of these, an inscription near the aedicula that she read as "Peter is within," she claimed Ferrua had removed from the site and secreted in his monastic cell. In the snarl of graffiti on Peter's tomb she discerned a "mystic cryptography," with countless coded messages about the Apostle. At length she even produced Peter's remains. A sampietrino had shown her a wooden box of bones, she explained, which were inside the masonry surrounding the aedicula when the archaeologists first discovered it. Somehow they had overlooked the precious relics, and Monsignor Kaas later tucked them away for safekeeping. Scientific tests arranged by Guarducci indicated that the bones had been wrapped in a cloth of royal purple stitched with gold, and were those of a man of sixty to seventy years and a robust physique—the bones, she argued, of the Apostle.