St. Peter's Necropolis ☆☆☆

A Roman-era tomb in the necropolis below St. Peter's, St. Peter's Necropolis, Rome, Italy (Photo Fabbrica di San Pietro)
A Roman-era tomb in the necropolis below St. Peter's

The Scavi—an ancient necropolis underneath St. Peter's Basilica—supposedly contain the burial site of Saint Peter alongside other Roman-era tombs

The necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica, St. Peter's Necropolis, Rome, Italy. (Photo Fabbrica di San Pietro)
Christ, represented as Sol Invictus (3/4C) in the Vatican Necropolis, St. Peter's Necropolis, Rome, Italy. (Photo Public Domain)
Interior of a Roman tomb a few meters away from the site of (alleged) St Peter's tomb in the Vatican Necropolis, St. Peter's Necropolis, Rome, Italy. (Photo by Blue 439)
General view of the path leading to (alleged) St Peter's tomb through Roman cemetery in the Vatican Necropolis, St. Peter's Necropolis, Rome, Italy. (Photo by Blue 439)

Below the crypt is the the famous sub-crypt, or "Scavi di San Piatro" contains tombs dating from the origins of Christianity.

St. Peter was probably martyred in the Circus of Nero, which lies under part of the current St. Peter's, but the actual site of his grave was argued over for centuries. Most thought the stories of him being buried here were apocryphal. It was just too neat and perfect.

After all, in giving his chief disciple Simon Cephas the new name of Petrus ("Rock"), Jesus supposedly said: "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." (Matthew 16:18) That's meant to be a metaphor, right? Christ certainly didn't mean that Peter's bones would literally be in the foundations of the motherchurch for all Christendom.

Then, in 1941, excavations in the Vatican Necropolis uncovered what many had thought was merely a medieval myth: the Red Wall, behind which St. Peter was fabled to be buried and upon which early Christian pilgrims scratched prayers, invocations, thanks, or simply their names in Latin.

Sure enough, behind this wall in 1950 they found a small pocket of a tomb and a box filled with bones that church doctrine now holds once belonged to Jesus' right-hand man and the first bishop of Rome—and, by extension, the world's first pope and vicar of Christ on Earth.

The remains were moved and are now reverently housed under the main altar of the church up above.

Of course, nothing exists independently in the historical or archaeological record to confirm any of this—just belief and a few Bible passages. Then again, the church is not actually built upon a rock or a man or a legend at all, but rather upon faith, so proving such things is really beside the point.

Note: Do not confuse this with the similar, nearby, and newly opened Vatican Necroplis of the via Triumphalis, another set of ancient tombs accessed on a compeltely different tour via the Vatican Gardens. » more

This set of escavations is one is a pain to get into, and only available via a guided tour (which have gotten infinitely harder to secure, ever since Dan Brown set part of Angels & Demons here; see below), but can be worth it. 

» Take a virtual tour of the St. Peter's Scavi necropolis

Photo gallery
  • A Roman-era tomb in the necropolis below St. Peter
  • The necropolis under St. Peter
  • , St. Peter's Necropolis, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Interior of a Roman tomb a few meters away from the site of (alleged) St Peter
  • General view of the path leading to (alleged) St Peter
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Tips

How long does the St. Peter's Scavi necropolis take?

Figure on the tour taking up at least 90 minutes.

How to get tickets to the Vatican Scavi

In order to get into the sub-crypt St. Peter's Scavi—only 250 visitors allowed per day, in groups of 12, over age 15 only—you have to book ahead at the Vatican Excavations Office (Ufficio Scavi— Fabbrica di San Pietro).

A visit costs €13.

You can either email them (scavi@fsp.va), fax them (tel. 06-6987-3017) or apply directly at the Ufficio Scavi, located through the Holy Office Gate off the colonnade to the left on Via Paolo VI (cool bit: you get to ask the pompously costumed Swiss Guards for directions).

You will need to provide:

  • The number of visitors
  • Your names
  • Name/nature of group (if any)
  • Language for the tour
  • Dates available (they determine when exactly you will tour)
  • Your contact info (email, fax, or postal address)

Don't call them; they'll contact you (though for info: tel. 06-6988-5318, Vatican.va—Click on the the "Vatican Museums" link).

Before arriving for your tour, make sure you drop off any bags, bakckpacks, daypacks, or large purses at the "deposito bagagli" office toward the right end of St. Peter's facade.

If a virtual tour will do just as well, the Vatican web site has posted one of those.

Dress code

The same dress code that applies in the church above holds for the Necropolis: no shorts, no skirts above the knee, and no bare shoulders. I am not kidding.

They will not let you in if you do not come dressed appropriately. Again, I am not kidding.

If it is a hot day and you want to walk around the city in a tank top and/or shorts, just pack and carry a light shawl to cover up when you get to St. Peter's (and other churches).

If you roget—or in a pinch—guys and gals alike can buy a big, cheap scarf from a nearby souvenir stand and wrap it around legs as a long skirt or throw over shoulders as a shawl.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).