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.
Guarducci's results, which she published in a steady stream of articles and books, were criticized by the scholarly community in tones ranging from derision to outrage. Her mystic cryptography was widely questioned, as was every scrap of logic and science she had used to link the bones in the box to Peter. Her most caustic critic was Antonio Ferrua, who subjected each of her publications to a withering (and frequently hilarious) review. "Thus one can either commiserate with or admire the illustrious Authoress for her immense exertions, carried out with commendable passion and ingenuousness, and indeed with a faith that ought to move mountains," he wrote of Guarducci's three-volume exposition of the coded graffiti at Peter's tomb. "But all this cannot suffice to make us accept a work that is fundamentally wrong." Some time after Guarducci announced that she had found Peter's actual remains, Ferrua wrote a ferocious memorandum to put Pope Paul VI on his guard. Having methodically dismantled Guarducci's account, he reviewed with high irony the contents of the famous box, which in addition to human remains held sheep, ox, and pig bones, and the complete skeleton of a mouse.
Paul VI apparently believed Guarducci, for he soon announced that Peter's authentic relics had been found. But Padre Ferrua had the last laugh. Shortly after Paul's death, in 1978, Guarducci was banned from the necropolis, and subsequently from the basilica archives. The presumed relics, which had been reinstalled with great fanfare in the masonry surrounding the aedicula, were removed. In later writings a bitter Guarducci criticized Paul's successor John Paul II for his lack of attention to Peter's remains, and implied that the forces of darkness, in the person of Antonio Ferrua, were sabotaging her work in the necropolis—her "apostolate," as she called it. Nonetheless, Vatican guides today refrain from reading mystical meanings into the graffiti on Peter's grave, and make no comment about his bones.
This is only the most recent episode in the age-old mystery of Peter's tomb. In 1624 Pope Urban VIII ordered that the deep foundation work for Gianlorenzo Bernini's towering bronze canopy over the high altar begin. No sooner had ground been broken, however, than the excavators started dropping dead. Urban himself fell ill, and all Rome whispered of Peter's curse, said to strike down those who disturbed the Apostle's rest. Meanwhile, horrified eyewitnesses watched a steady stream of pagan relics issue from the Church's holiest soil, some so scandalous that the Pope ordered them dumped in the Tiber. One of the finds, a funerary statue of a man reclining bare-chested on a dining couch with a gentle epicurean smile, fortunately survived the papal wrath, together with its inscription:
Tivoli is my home town, Flavius Agricola my name—yes, I'm the one you see reclining here, just as I did all the years of life Fate granted me, taking good care of my little self and never running short on wine. Primitiva, my darling wife, died before me, she too a Flavian, chaste worshipper of Isis ... Friends who read this, do my bidding. Mix the wine, drink deep, wreathed in flowers, and do not refuse to pretty girls the pleasures of sexual intercourse. When death comes, earth and fire devour all.
In Urban's time speculation about what lay beneath the high altar was already a thousand years old. Writers of the early Middle Ages mentioned the terrifying apparitions that haunted those who dared to meddle with the Apostle's tomb. Others alluded to caves and secret passageways beneath the church, and to the odd notion that Peter lay buried in a pagan temple. Such ideas may have stemmed in part from chance discoveries in the pagan necropolis that we now know underlies the basilica. But they also arose from a deeper uncertainty about where Peter died and was buried that is rooted in the Bible itself.
The New Testament, which contains the only roughly contemporary account of Peter's life, makes no reference to his having been in Rome or to his martyrdom. In the Acts of the Apostles, which chronicle the Apostles' deeds after Jesus died, Peter last appears around A.D. 44, in a Jerusalem jail, from which he is released by an angel. He then disappears from the biblical narrative, with such finality that some scholars take the delivering angel to be a euphemism for death. Paul, writing to and from Rome in the years Peter was reputedly there, omits him from the lists of Rome's prominent Christians that conclude his letters. I Peter, an epistle attributed to Peter himself, is addressed from "Babylon," which may mean Rome. The obliquity of the reference aside, however, the epistle's theology and high Greek style are wrong for Peter, an unschooled fisherman from Galilee. Many scholars reject his authorship.
Literary evidence for Peter's presence and martyrdom in Rome remains ambiguous through the late second century. Some researchers see hints in I Clement, probably written in Rome about A.D. 96, and in the letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans, composed a few decades later. But these references are extremely vague, in contexts that seem to demand clarity. And no one ever mentions Peter's grave.
Probably with good reason. Even if we grant that Peter was martyred in Rome, his body is unlikely to have been recovered for burial, or his grave ever marked. The Neronian persecution made Christianity a capital crime. Under Roman law the body of such a criminal, particularly a foreigner like Peter, was often denied burial, and might be summarily dumped in the Tiber. To recover it, someone would have had to petition the Roman authorities, thereby identifying himself as a Christian—tantamount to suicide.
What is more, few of Peter's fellow Christians would have troubled about his bones. Christians around A.D. 64 anxiously awaited the parousia, Jesus Christ's imminent Second Coming. Martyrs' relics and graves seemed of little moment in a world about to be consumed by fire. It wasn't until a century or more after Peter's death that the cult of the martyrs developed in the West.
The first explicit mentions of Peter's Roman sojourn, martyrdom, and grave appear around this same time. From 170 to about 210 three authors—Dionysius of Corinth, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Gaius of Rome—state that Peter and Paul founded the Roman Church. Since Paul clearly denies this in his letters, these authors' testimony is problematic. Yet it is intriguing. Dionysius adds that Peter "gave witness," evidently through martyrdom. Still more significant, Gaius claims that a tropaion ("trophy" or "memorial") to Peter stood in the Vatican in his day. Many scholars, including Ferrua and his colleagues, have equated this with the aedicula at the heart of the Vatican necropolis, dated by archaeological evidence to circa A.D. 170, making Gaius' the first reference to Peter's tomb.
Gaius, however, wrote 150 years after Peter's death. Christianity was no longer an isolated sect but an empire-wide movement. The hope of an impending parousia had faded, and the cult of the martyrs had arisen, presumably from a desire for tangible links with a heaven that had come to seem more distant. But there were practical reasons as well. Church unity had for some decades been threatened by mystical, speculative heresies practiced by Gnostics and Montanists, who claimed access to new divine revelations. Against these dangerous innovators, conventional Christians like Dionysius, Irenaeus, and Gaius insisted that the only valid beliefs were those taught by Jesus and his hearers. They compiled bishops' lists for the major churches, to demonstrate an unbroken chain of leaders back to an illustrious early founder. The presence of an Apostle, confirmed by his tomb and relics, became an ideal pedigree of orthodoxy for a local congregation, and a source of enormous prestige. The remains of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, were the most prestigious pedigree of all.
Sitting in St. Peter's Square, I imagine the Vatican before all this—before the Baroque basilica with Michelangelo's soaring dome, before the majestic edifice of the papacy. I picture Constantine's original church, age-worn and austere, and then look back further still, to the Vatican as Constantine first saw it, in A.D. 312, punctuated by great monuments in various stages of decay: the ruined circus, with the obelisk still standing at its center; the neighboring Vatican Hill, with its noble house tombs and silvery grove of olive trees at the summit; a white marble pyramid more than thirty-five meters high; a watertight stadium for gladiatorial sea battles; and the enormous white drum of Hadrian's mausoleum, long before it metamorphosed into the Castel Sant'Angelo.
Above all I imagine the temples for which the Vatican was famous. In ancient times, Roman historians tell us, this swampy region beyond the Tiber was an eerie borderland of fevers and giant snakes, where the voices of the gods could be heard. These historians derived the name Vaticanum from vates, a holy seer who understood these voices. Pliny described an ancient oak, still standing there in his day, on which were bronze Etruscan letters of religious significance. Later, extravagant temples and sacred compounds rose here to Eastern deities. The ecstatic rites celebrated there fascinated the Romans, but were too exotic to be held within the city itself. Small wonder that Peter, hero of another marginal Eastern cult, was believed to have come here in the end, or that Constantine built a glorious new temple in his honor. The Vatican has always been sacred soil.