Roma Sotterranea

  Crypt of the Church of Santa Maria Scala Coeli, Rome Copyright: © Tobias Glitsch  

Roma Sotterranea. Form, Function and Message of Underground Structures in Early Modern Roman Churches

Ever since late antiquity, Christianity’s sacred architecture has, as a matter of course, included the area below ground level in the spatial and functional conception of the resulting ensembles. The churches and chapels of early modern Rome, too, regularly featured underground spaces; indeed, in Rome such elements even played a more prominent role than usual, given that in this case the buildings in question retained a particularly close connection to the burial places of the early martyrs and given that the ancient remains of the city lent themselves particularly well to becoming the structural or figurative foundations for new buildings.

Nevertheless, there still is no comprehensive study on the use, form, and semantic connotation of those underground structures, and – unless already visible from the main level of the church – even the mere existence of such chambers and spatial systems is often only known to the conservation authorities and the immediate users of the buildings, while hardly receiving a mention in the scholarly literature. The present project is therefore aimed at examining more systematically than has hitherto been attempted the subterranean parts of the sacred buildings of Renaissance and Baroque Rome and at capturing them in all their functional and iconological complexity.

Research will focus equally on individual burial chambers accessible only via floor hatches, burial galleries consisting of several interconnected spatial cells, and underground settings for devotion such as confessio enclosures, revitalized and newly constructed crypts, or fully formed complementary church and chapel spaces. Special attention will also be paid to the crossover of the aforementioned typologies, which frequently made it possible to imbue the subterranean spaces with additional layers of meaning. Beyond the mere gathering of relevant examples, at least some of the key compounds will moreover be examined from a building archaeology perspective and better placed in the overall context of the respective churches and chapels through an examination of the associated archival sources.

In this way, the study will not only help to raise awareness for the importance of underground structures within the spatial, functional, and iconological programs of the churches and chapels in question. It will also add significantly to our understanding of sacred architecture in early modern Rome in general.



Dr.-Ing. Tobias Glitsch