Thursday, September 5, 2019

Venosa, Italy: Jewish Catacombs a Reminder of a Thriving Late Antique Community

Venosa, Italy. Entrance to the catacomb at the Collina della Maddalena today. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019.
Print of the Collina della Maddalena in 1876.
Venosa, Italy. Jewish catacombs. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019.
Venosa, Italy. Jewish catacombs. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019.

Venosa, Italy: Jewish Catacombs a Reminder of a Thriving Late Antique Community 

by Samuel D. Gruber

Earlier this summer I spent a day and night with my sister Ruth Ellen Gruber in the charming town of Venosa, Basilicata and we visited one set of Jewish Catacombs dug into the Collina della Maddalena, about a mile north-east of the ancient town. Ruth has already written about this.

Afterward, despite the incredible heat, we also located some of the Hebrew funerary inscriptions now in the walls of the "Imcompiuta" church which is included in the Roman-era archaeological park. Despite knowing of Venosa for more than a few decades, this was my first visit–-and hope not my last.

Jewish communities were common throughout Southern Italy from antiquity until the expulsions in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Researchers are just beginning to investigate this history and even to locate many of the sites of settlement. The Jewish catacombs of Venosa (ancient Venusia), however, have been known since at least 1853 when the first of these were discovered by local shepherds grazing flocks on what is now known to be a vast cemetery hill, riddled with Jewish and Christian catacombs and other burial chambers created and used from the 4th through 6th centuries of the Common Era.

Venosa, Italy. Jewish catacombs with inscribed and painted menorah. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019.
A print from 1876 (see above) shows a much wilder landscape than we see today. Even given Romantic license, it probably accurately reflects the seemingly remote and historically barren location.

The types of catacomb graves vary throughout the vast complex of thousands of known burial spots – with undoubtedly many more still hidden in the hill. In the part we visited the graves are grouped in separate vault-like sections with many graves cut into ground level. Hard to say who was buried where. Were these family groups, or just dug this way for convenience with burials on a first come- first served basis? Did one buy or reserve a spot, or did the community provide for all equally? These are very different from the Roman examples I'm more familiar with.

Margaret Williams maintains that the way in which burial space was utilized was:
“clearly Roman …while the poorer members of the community were interred in simple slots in the gallery walls (loculi), the rich and well-connected were laid to rest in impressive arched recesses (arcosolia). She writes "That these arcosolia were opened up only gradually along the galleries is to be inferred from what we know about Roman methods of developing catacombs: in general, these were not neat, preplanned affairs filled systematically from their innermost parts outwards but untidy, rambling complexes, which were extended from the entrance inwards (and particularly downwards) as need arose....Within individual arcosolia at Venusia, graves were probably hewn out of the tufa on the same ad hoc basis. The unstandardised character of the arcosolia is indicative of that. Not only does the number of graves in them vary enormously but their layout is sometimes different too. While in the majority of arcosolia the graves simply lie one behind the other, their long sides parallel to the gallery wall, in a few, some are also to be found with their long sides at right-angles to the main row of graves in what are clearly side extensions to the original burial recess."
Venosa, Italy. Map of the catacomb at the Collina della Maddalena. Section D is at the far right. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019.
Most of the catacomb inscriptions are now believed to date from the fifth and (to a lesser extent) sixth centuries CE. Margaret Williams has been able to link many of these inscriptions together to create a “stemma” of family connections that extend over seven generations and chart “ how a single family changed economically, socially and culturally in the course of two centuries.”  So we do know that certain sections did indeed contain the remains of related family members, and that theirs often spanned decades. (See Margaret Williams, “The Jews of Early Byzantine Venusia: The family of Faustinus I, the Father,” Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol 50:1 (spring, 1999).

Williams demonstrates that “That some, if not all, of these arcosolia were family tombs … D6 is a case in point; its surviving epitaphs all relate to members of the same family: Phaustinos, chairman of the synagogal board (gerousiarch) and chief medical officer of the town (archiatros), his wife Asella (in Jewish Venusia, an aristocratic name), and their baby son, also named Phaustinos.
Painted inscriptions in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew are conserved, though in a fragmentary state, especially in the section "D," which was closed off when we visited.  Some images of these can be seen here.  The texts of these have been published in English in D. Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe, vol, 1, Cambridge, 1993. Seen here is an inscription entirely in Latin from D7, believed by Noy to latest fo all the inscriptions from D. This year Naples-based scholar Giancarlo Lacerenza published an extensive article: “Painted Inscriptions and Graffiti in the Jewish Catacombs of Venosa: An Annotated Inventory.” (In Annali Sezione Orientale vol 79, 1-2 (2019) pp 275–305.

Venosa, Italy. Jewish catacombs, painted Latin funerary inscription from section D. Photo: e-borghi.
A well-preserved long inscription, all in Latin and thus suggestive of a late date, is above the graves of Gesua and Agnella, descendants of the of  Phaustinos (Faustinos), about whom Williams and others write.

"hic requiscet Gesua cum oxore sua Agnella. | et Gesua fuet filius Marcelli et Annes, nepos p(atris) p(atrum) Mar[e]clli et mortuos est | ann(orum) pl(us) m(inus) LX. et Agnella Gesues | fuet filia Iositis et Maries ||  et nepos Sarmatanis p(atris) p(atrum) et mortua est ann(orum) I pl(us) m(inus) XLIIII." (transcription by Noy)

"Here rests Gesua with his wife Agnella. And Gesua was the son of Marcellus and Anna, grandson of the father of fathers Marcellus, and he died aged more or less 60. And Agnella the wife of Gesua was the daughter of Joses and Maria, and granddaughter of Sarmata the father of fathers, and she died aged more or less 44." (translation by Noy).

Discovered in another collapsed section of the catacomb in 1974, and not accessible, is a painted arcosolium shown here. This is the most pictorial of all the paintings known from Venoas, and depicts the Temple Menorah and various well-known ritual objects associated with Temple festivals, and is thus reminiscent of wall paintings in the Jewish catacombs in Rome.

Venosa, Italy. Jewish catacomb catacomb at the Collina della Maddalena. Painted arcosolium discovered in collapsed section of the catacomb in 1974, and not accessible. Photo: International Catacmob Society.
Later, there was another Jewish cemetery where inscribed stone markers commemorated the dead, presumably buried in individual inhumation graves. The exact location of this cemetery, probably in use for some time in the 7th(?) to 9th (?) centuries, is unknown, but it is believed to have been located near the ancient Roman amphitheater. Jews, too, had reused ancient architectural stones for their new matzevot, and then some of these gravestones were reused again by local Christians beginning in the late 11th century in the building of the never-finished massive Abbey church expansion of the Santissima Trinità, which mostly used stone from the nearby Roman amphitheater. This unfinished church – known as the “Incompiuta” is not really a ruin since it was never fully sued as intended. It is, however, a not-to-miss site in Southern Italy. Leonard Rutgers and others have recently been using laser technology to better read the often very faint inscriptions many of which are located high in the walls.

Venosa, Italy. Jewish funerary incription with stylized menorah on matzevah resued in construction of incomplete church of Santissima Trinità. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019.
Venosa, Italy. Jewish funerary incription with stylized menorah on matzevah resued in construction of incomplete church of Santissima Trinità. The inscrpiton is hard to read, but the menorah is clear. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019.

Venosa, Italy. Incomplete church of Santissima Trinità. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019.

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