The Holy See
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Historical Notes


The Commission for Sacred Archaeology was created through an idea of Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the Roman archaeologist who laid the scientific bases of Christian archaeology and studied and excavated the Roman Catacombs following a modern topographical method that takes the historical sources and the monuments into consideration simultaneously.

De Rossi suggested to the Supreme Pontiff Pius IX to create the Commission in order to improve the organization of the excavations, the restorations and the protection of the great catacomb complex of St. Callixtus that was coming to light again on the Appian Way. The news was divulged on February 7, 1852, even though the actual institution referred to January 6th when at last a Commission was created “for the more effective protection and surveillance of the cemeteries and ancient Christian buildings of Rome and its suburbs, for the systematic and scientific excavation and exploration of the same cemeteries, and for the preservation and upkeep of what was found or brought to light again by the excavations”.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI declared that the Commission was Pontifical and its competencies were defined in detail and reaffirmed recently in the conventions between the Holy See and the Italian State whereby, “The Holy See maintains the availability of the Christian catacombs of Rome and the other parts of the Italian territory with the resulting responsibility for their care, maintenance and preservation (Motu Proprio of Pius XI. Della Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra e dal nuovo Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, Vatican City 1925 = Acta Apostolicae Sedis. Inter Sanctam Sedem et Italiam Conventiones initae diebus 18 febr. et 15 nov. 1984, Vatican City 1985).

From that moment on, the activity of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology has never ceased, not even during the grave circumstances of World War II. Immediately after the war, Father Antonio Ferrua gathered up the few human forces and the minimum economic resources to retrieve the precious Paleo-Christian archaeological patrimony constituted by the more than 140 Christian catacombs scattered over the Italian territory.

In recent times, the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology has received a great impulse regarding both its archaeological and conservationist activities, which are carried out according to the most modern excavation and restoration criteria, as well as its technical, documentary and operational organization in order to offer an ever more valid and effective support to knowledge and protection of the valuable monumental and spiritual patrimony entrusted to it.