The torch cut through the darkness and rested on a pair of eyes. The year was 1974, and a small group of amateur cavers had entered the underground remains of a Dominican convent in the town of Narni, in central Italy. Below the convent the young men discovered a 13th century church cut into the soft rock, and the eyes that gazed upon them belonged to a St. Michael fresco painted on the wall. But the discoveries did not stop there. Continuing their explorations they uncovered prison cells belonging to the Dominican inquisition, active from the 1300’s to almost when the Italian state was founded in 1860.
After years of patient onsite restoration, Roberto Nini, one of those young explorers, now runs the underground rooms as a volunteer association open to the public. Narni Underground, as it is known, is part of a nationwide network of underground rooms and catacombs that speak of an unseen yet historically vital part of Italian culture. Most groups visiting Italy have heard of the catacombs in and around Rome, but they are only a small part of the thousands of sites that stretch from Milan to Matera. The majority of them are incredibly old and isolated, such as the Etruscan tunnels below the stunning ghost-town of Civita di Bagnioregio in Lazio, or the subterranean caves in the far northern region of Fruili Venezia Giulia that were used for secret cult worship. By far the greatest concentration of underground sites is in and around Rome. The catacombs here are not just the first examples of closet Christian worship, but of Christian art too. North of the city you will also find Jewish catacombs.
Right under the Vatican itself are catacombs that include a chapel to Rome’s first Pope, St. Peter, who was crucified in 67AD during the reign of Emperor Nero. Close to the Colosseum are the underground ruins of the Domus Aurea, where Nero would host lavish parties. A little further away is the intriguing church of San Clemente. From street level it is a lovely building from the 1200’s with a Baroque interior, but below the church you’ll discover two different ancient worlds. First are the ruins of a 4th century church built into the remains of a 2nd century ancient Roman home. Amongst the foundation of the Roman home is a small Mithraeum outfitted for the adoration of the ancient Persian god of light and justice, Mithra.
Italy is host to an amazing underground heritage waiting to be discovered. These mysterious and exciting worlds offer a new perspective on the antiquity of Italy. If you have free time on your tour ask your Tour Director what underground sites are close by. Dig a little deeper and your tour will come alive in ways you could never expect.