Feeling drained from the Roman heat? No sweat! Take a trip to northern Rome and explore the “cool” (both literal and figurative) Catacombs of Priscilla. While not as popular as the Catacombs of San Sebastiano or San Callixtus, the Catacombs of Priscilla prove well worth any savvy traveler’s time, an especially satisfying outing for ancient-art lovers. The fact that many people don’t know about these catacombs only means you’ll enjoy a more intimate experience.
Located above the park Villa Ada, the Catacombs of Priscilla are a network of some 40,000 tombs measuring about 5 miles dug out of volcanic rock. These remarkable catacombs, which include narrow passageways and a few spacious tomb areas called “cubiculum,” are best known for housing some of the world’s earliest Christian frescoes.
Who Was Priscilla, Anyway?
Good question. Although we don’t know for certain, most historians believe Priscilla was the wife of a prominent Roman senator. Apparently, Priscilla donated this plot of land as a burial area for the Christian community sometime in the 2nd century. Due to the high number of popes and martyrs buried here, the Catacombs of Priscilla are sometimes referred to as the “Queen of the Catacombs.” The two most famous popes interred at the Catacombs of Priscilla were Pope Marcellinus and Pole Marcellus I.
But don’t worry if you’re squeamish. Grave-robbers removed all the bodies in these catacombs long ago.
Don’t Miss the Frescoes!
Anyone who visits the Catacombs of Priscilla should keep their eyes peeled for Christian frescoes and symbols like the fish and anchor. Unfortunately, many guests miss the famous niche containing world’s first etching of the Madonna and Child, so be sure to ask a guide where to look before descending into the catacombs.
One cubiculum of particular importance is known as the Greek Chapel. Inside this cubiculum, you’ll find many colorful frescoes depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments.
Another cubiculum that gets a great deal of attention is named after a fresco depicting a veiled woman holding up her hands. Some scholars believe this striking image suggests women were allowed to be priests in early Christianity, but others believe this is just a symbolic representation of the woman’s ascent to heaven. You can decide what interpretation you believe once you see this fresco for yourself.
How to Find the Catacombs of Priscilla
For those traveling by Metro, get off at either the Libia or S. Agnese/Annibaliano stops. Both of these stations are about a 20-minute walk to the Catacombs of Priscilla. If you’re trying to pack in another attraction, the Borghese Gallery is only a 20-minute walk southeast of these catacombs. Please keep in mind, however, that you must make an appointment to visit the Borghese Gallery well in advance.
The Catacombs of Priscilla are open between 9AM – 12PM and from 2PM – 5PM every day except Monday. Sometimes, however, they close for restoration work, so always check the official website for special notices.