Colloquium on the Catacombs of Rome at the 2018 Joint Annual Meeting of the AIA/SCS

The International Catacomb Society is proud co-sponsor of a colloquium organized by Prof. Sarah Madole on current research on the Catacombs of Rome at the 2018 AIA/SCS Joint Annual Meeting in Boston, MA. Many participants are current ICS directors and/or former Shohet Scholars

SESSION 1J: Colloquium "New Approaches to the Catacombs of Rome"
Friday, January 5, 8:00–10:30 a.m. 
Boston Marriott Copley Place, Simmons, 3rd Floor
Sponsored by the International Catacomb Society 
ORGANIZER: Sarah Madole, City University of New York–Borough of Manhattan Community College
DISCUSSANT: John Bodel, Brown University
8:00 Introduction (10 min)
8:10 Site-Specific Styles in Roman Catacomb Epigraphy (20 min) Jenny Kreiger, Getty Foundation
8:35 Roman Sarcophagi with Catacomb Contexts: A Case Study (20 min) Sarah Madole, City University of New York–Borough of Manhattan Community College
9:00 Offerings Agricultural and Financial (20 min) Daniel Ullucci, Rhodes College
9:20 Break (10 min)
9:30 Christian Invention and Imagination at the Crypt of the Popes in the Catacombs of Callixtus, Rome (20 min) Nicola Denzey Lewis, Claremont Graduate University
9:55 Exploring Estelle: AIA Advocate, Jewish Site Preservation Pioneer Jessica Dello Russo, Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana

Current and former Shohet Scholars, ICS advisors, and ICS members are participating in other conference sessions and special events. The complete program is here (link).

Hanukkah 2017: A Long-Lost Jewish-American Experience Brought to Light

In celebration of the  Jewish Festival of Lights, the ICS inaugurates its digital manuscript archive on Jews in 20th century America, "The Estelle Papers," with the release of an extensive and long-lost account of Jewish life in northern New England. Written over half a century ago and never before available to the public, Gabriel Shohet's semi-autobiographical novel "Kinships" is audacious in its style and account of New England society around 1900, so problematic to 20th century publishers, so fascinating to us today. 

"The Lithuanian-born physician, Gabriel H. Shohet, MD (1892-1976) devoted his spare time to writing a book called Kinships, based on the belief that "fundamental ties unite all men."

He set the semi-autobiographical work in a small New England city of the early decades of the 20th century (the author's adopted hometown of Portland, Maine).

Shohet, the son of a rabbi, and Hebrew teacher in his youth, strove to write fiction in the "powerful, delving, yet poetic style of the Eastern European 19th century Talmudic scholars", his own forebears. The many allusions in the work to Biblical writings and Hebraic and Talmudic literature are the vehicles to express his "aching yearnings for the land of his childhood, fused with a glowing paean to that glorious beacon, "Mother America," of the early 1900's".

By Shohet's account, one of the most moving passages explores "the relationships of a rabbi with his G-d, his wife, and his "flock". The novel's main idea, however, is that we must "rekindle our belief and confidence in America's promise". In becoming "American", Shohet fought nostalgia for the Líta to absorb in totality the younger nation's social customs, mores, pride, optimism, and politics, with the understanding that, somehow, in this great, new universe, this "shining America", an immigrant Jew would find his place.

On the 20th-century literary scene, Shohet would not succeed. His novel was turned down by several U.S. trade publishers - either "too Jewish" for its Yankee setting, or not ethnic enough for a niche appeal. How could a Jewish immigrant penetrate the underpinnings of New England society? How could a nice Jewish doctor from Boston be both a non-conformist and an optimist about "man's inner sensibilities, spiritual qualities, and metaphysical questionings as to his place"? To which choir did this man preach?

Shohet had his own ideas about what was too "controversial or offensive" in his work. "Is it the chapter on Judaism," he asked one publisher bluntly, "or the 'Wisdom of the Stars' bit that is out of kilter?" The tepid response was always that the story did not have mass appeal.

A half-century after the only good copy of Shohet's manuscript made the rounds, it has been digitized and made available in hopes that, to borrow the author's own expression, "the recognition of its flaws are tempered by that of its virtues." Shohet longed for his "life's work", his "soul child" to reach "a real editor, one with understanding." Through new channels of communication and a new type of nostalgia for the immigrant experience, Shohet may finally reach an audience larger than his adoring daughter Estelle, who dedicated her own labored study on shared symbols among ancient cultures to her father, "and his belief in kinships on a human and cosmic scale".  - Jessica Dello Russo, (Hanukkah, 2017)

Download Kinships

ICS Vice President Robin Jensen (Notre Dame) Speaks on “Christian Identities and the Destruction of Gods’ Statues in Roman Africa” in Toledo Museum Colloquium (December 7-8, 2017)

(Source: Mary Jaharis Center) Art and Identity in the Late Roman World, Toledo Museum of Art, GlasSalon, December 7–8, 2017)

This colloquium is undertaken in conjunction with the exhibition Glorious Splendor: Treasures of Early Christian Art. Art and Identity in the Late Roman World is generously supported by The Ferrell Family Fund and the Dorothea L. Leonhardt Foundation with additional support from Bowling Green State University.


December 7
Adam Levine (Toledo Museum of Art)
Religious Metanarratives and the Emergence of Identity in Late Antiquity

Sean Leatherbury (Bowling Green State University)
Deliberate Provincialism: Identity, Iconography and Style in the Mosaics of Late Antique Syria

Robin Margaret Jensen (University of Notre Dame)
Christian Identities and the Destruction of Gods' Statues in Roman Africa

Ann Kuttner (University of Pennsylvania)
Our Past Recast, Our Future, Bright: Old Statues as New in Late Roman Christian and Civic Cityscapes

December 8
Douglas Boin (Saint Louis University)
Constantine's Fountain: From Jewish to Christian Art to a Social History of Late Antique Material Culture

Felipe Rojas (Brown University)
Archaeophilia in Late Antique Anatolia and Beyond

Ashley Jones (University of Florida)
Kings of the Romans

Susanna McFadden (Fordham University)
Visual Theater in the Late Antique Wall Paintings of Amheida, Egypt

Ancient Jew Review “Dissertation Spotlight” series features Catacomb Society Executive Director, Jessica Dello Russo

As part of the International Catacomb Society's on-going collaboration with the peer-reviewed web journal "Ancient Jew Review" (AJR) to highlight current research on Ancient Judaism in its Mediterranean context, this week's "Dissertation Spotlight" is authored by International Catacomb Society Executive Director Jessica Dello Russo (the first article of the AJR/ICS series, by Catacomb Society Director and Providence College Professor Arthur Urbano, discusses clothing used to "fashion" the image of the Christian intellectual in Late Antiquity).  

In the November 29, 2017 AJR article, Dello Russo summarizes a number of key issues addressed in her doctoral dissertation for the Vatican's Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome, from which she also received the Baccalaureate and Licentiate degrees in Christian Archaeology. In the course of her dissertation research in the USA and Europe, Dello Russo has identified and in many instances published for the first time artifacts and documents pertaining to the creation, use, and modern excavation and maintenance of Jewish catacombs in Rome. A number of Dello Russo's articles on ancient Jewish cemeteries in Rome are available in pdf on the ICS website, and she will speak at the upcoming AIA/SCS annual meeting in Boston in January, 2018 about the International Catacomb Society's foundation in 1980 at a critical time in deliberations over the condition and future maintenance of these sites.

The Ancient Jew Review article link is here. Ancient Jew Review is a web-based journal for the study of Ancient Judaism, featuring cutting-edge scholarship in a wide variety of relevant fields. It is proudly funded by the American Academy for Jewish Research. Subscription to AJR is free at:

Philo’s Mission to Rome: A Historical Archaeological View. Lecture in Berlin by ICS Directors Annewies van den Hoek & John J. Herrmann, Jr. (December 7, 2017)

Philo's Mission to Rome: A Historical Archaeological View - Lecture (in English) by Annewies van den Hoek (Harvard University) and John J. Herrmann, Jr. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Thursday, December 07, 2017, 6:00 pm, in the Theological Faculty of Humboldt University, Burgstr. 26, 10178 Berlin, seminar room 117  Vortrag_vdHoek_071217 (invitation pdf)

Abstract: In spite of its highly rhetorical character, Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium reflects a historical situation with real people and real places. New light can be shed on Philo’s embassy to the emperor Caligula in 38-39 CE by coupling the fields of archaeology and philology. Archaeologists have used Philo’s account in his Legatio to interpret excavated remains in Rome, and these remains can in turn offer some new perspectives on the philosopher-ambassador’s rhetoric. The emperor wanted veneration from the Jews and pampered Philo with access to his private retreat. However, Philo’s response to the luxurious setting, while not entirely indifferent, was not what the emperor expected.

Annewies van den Hoek taught at Harvard University (1989-2016) and is now retired. She wrote a monograph on Clement of Alexandria and Philo (1988), a Greek text edition of Clement's Stromateis IV (2001), and co-authored with John Herrmann: Pottery, Pavements, and Paradise (2013). She is currently preparing a commentary on Philo's De Cherubim.

John J. Herrmann, Jr. is Curator of Classical Art Emeritus of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and vice president of the Association for the Study of Marble and Other Stones in Antiquity (ASMOSIA). His articles, books, and contributions to catalogs catalog Greek, Roman, and Early Christian art and architectural decoration.

“Menorah – in Memory of Estelle”. A Janet Shapero Rete-Chrome with a Catacomb Connection

Boston-area artist Janet Shapero is displaying recent works in her signature technique of Rete-Chrome at the Waltham Open Studios on November 4 & 5, 2017. Shapero's studio address is 144 Moody Street, Building 4, 2d floor, Studio 1. Artist Web site:

ICS founder, Estelle Brettman, was a friend of Shapero's parents, and traveled with Shapero to Sicily in 1978. The trip left a lasting impression on Shapero, who many years later created Rete-Chrome works incorporating Jewish motifs, like those on the ancient artifacts Brettman identified and photographed in archaeological sites around the Mediterranean. Shapero's account of her travels with Estelle Brettman is shared below (with permission of the author):

Menorah 1 – In Memory of Estelle - Image 30” X 10” Ground 42” X 13” „ 2013. 

"This Rete-Chrome features the silhouette of a menorah – a candelabrum with a central stem and three branches on each side. The menorah is an ancient and contemporary Jewish symbol. How does it relate to bones – and ossuaries, you might ask. Here is the story.

Estelle Brettman, a dear family friend came with me at the beginning of my second sojourn in Italy. My first year-long stay in Italy was as a RISD student on the European Honors program. I intended to return for another year to apprentice with Italian marble and wood carving artisans. The one year turned into seven – but that’s another story.

Estelle and I rented a car and visited ancient sites in Sicily. Although trained as a marine biologist, Estelle had a great interest in antiquity. At the time, she was a docent and lecturer on the iconography of ancient gems at the MFA, Boston.

While exploring the catacombs carved into the cliffs near the town of Palazzolo-Acreide, Sicily, we discovered something that dramatically altered Estelle’s thinking.

As we wove our way through a network of dark caves with only one flashlight between our guide, Estelle, and me, one of us tripped on a stone. When we directed our light to that stone, we saw the incised image of a menorah. It was as if it had been placed there for Estelle to find. This was a remarkable find as these catacombs were known to be Christian burial grounds – not Jewish burial grounds. The unexpected menorah propelled Estelle into an extensive investigation of Jewish Catacombs and shared Jewish, Early Christian and Pagan iconography. A few years later, Estelle founded the International Catacomb Society.

Estelle also created the exhibit Vaults of Memory: Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome, which consisted of photographs, inscriptions, and objects relating to Jewish, Christian, and Pagan funerary art in the Roman catacombs. The exhibition was shown in Boston, New York, Rome, and elsewhere.

Unfortunately Estelle died before she was able to complete the extensive scholarly manuscript that she was working on about the catacombs. In her honor, each year at the Boston MFA, the Estelle Shohet Brettman Memorial Lecture Series sponsors a talk on some aspect of the cultural, artistic, and/or religious history of the ancient Mediterranean world." (Janet Shapero)

Rete-Chrome – (Pronounced rět-ě-krōm): is derived from rete, Latin for net; and chrome, Greek for color. Unlike traditional paintings on canvas,Rete-Chromes take advantage of light and shadow that filter through the woven surface. I apply thin layers of pigment directly and indirectly onto an open-weave backing to construct images of varying translucencies. Ranging in size from miniature to monumental, Rete-Chromes have been widely exhibited as individual pieces, groupings, and elements in larger installations.

1984 Rome Catacomb Diary of ICS Board Member Louise LaGorce Hickey

Louise LaGorce Hickey in the ICS office at 61 Beacon Street, Boston.

Rome Diary of Louise LaGorce Hickey
October-November 1984
Edited by Jessica Dello Russo (2017)

Preface - Louise LaGorce Hickey was a close friend of International Catacomb Society founder Estelle Shohet Brettman and served on the society’s executive board as Assistant and later Associate Executive Director until her death in 1988. She had the rare quality of an amanuensis, carefully copying in neat script the thoughts and ideas Brettman wished to communicate to others, and, by extension, that of a “paparazza”, using her Washington society connections and experience as a “professional volunteer” to connect Brettman to powerful figures in the US government and international NGOs. As Brettman put it, "when the indomitable Louise joined our ranks, the ICS soared like Pegasus". In short, "Dear Louise" was indispensable for her devotion and secretarial skills.

On her own, Hickey earned national attention in the 1950’s and 1960’s for her Christmas Cookie Tree, featuring hundreds of original baked cookie designs. Annual editions of the tree were on display for many Christmas seasons in the National Geographic Museum, the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC, shopping arcades, art galleries, and other venues across America. A book about the project, “How to Make Louise LaGorce’s Cookie Tree”, co-authored with Rosemary Smathers, was published in 1959 and reprinted in 1971. The ingredients for the cookie ornaments could be peculiar, not to say inedible: a squirrel tail, a piece of fabric, or a lock of Senator Barry Goldwater’s hair (Goldwater asked her to use his chest hair). He was not the only politician thus featured: then-president Nixon also was cook(i)ed, although the teeth and hair on the ornament were no

First edition of "The Christmas Cookie Tree", featuring Louise LaGorce Hickey on the cover (1959).

t his. Inevitably, as National Geographic Society Vice President Leonard J. Grant put it to Estelle Brettman in 1989, Louise’s cookies had a “quite limited shelf life”, and the few National Geographic had been able to “salvage… looked rather sad despite heroic efforts to patch them together.”

In the fall of 1984, Louise Hickey accompanied Estelle Brettman to Rome to make the final arrangements for the Castel Sant’Angelo showing of Brettman’s photographic exhibit, “Vaults of Memory: Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome”. Brettman, on a day to day basis very secretive about her project from the conviction that her work was being “stolen” by others, nevertheless trusted Hickey completely. Hickey’s diary of the experience, transcribed below, reveals intimate details of Estelle Brettman’s tendentious work in the catacombs of Rome that Brettman herself was not so quick to share, as well as a upfront view of American “innocents abroad”, searching for a key, a taxi, a bank, or a friend.


Wednesday night, October 17, 1984 - We left home at 7:30 a.m.. Tom took me for lunch at Jimmie’s Harborside in South Boston where we had a good Italian lunch and spent a couple of hours so we went over in fair traffic. Estelle arrived at the airport with heavy luggage and we boarded. Hated to leave Tom but he said opportunity too good to miss.

Arrived in Rome before noon and waited with others in line at bank for exchange. We each exchanged $100 for our “kitty”. Took cab, cost $20, $10 each.

Arrived at apartment and couldn’t open doors. Small frightening feeling to sit outside door with all that luggage. Estelle went to look for a locksmith; came back with a policeman. He got it open by using shoulder and a heavy push. Apparently it was just stuck. What a relief.

Going inside, we found no electricity. Estelle tried the fuse boxes but didn’t do it correctly. Went to electrician’s place. Have to pay a bill before it can be turned on. She thought the bill hadn’t been paid by whoever was here.

It will take ages to get the electricity if one cannot be found. Returned, used the small herbal candle Joan Swift gave me for the bathroom. Baldo Conticello came to bring us to his house for a visit and good Italian dinner. Fascinating man, with lovely young archaeologist wife who recently discovered an antique object in her digs in old Rome.

In transporting through Rome, Estelle pointed out the numerous places of interest. We slept at Baldo’s tower apartment in the museum he had been superintendent of, built in the old walls of Rome. Very exciting. We did not take all of our luggage, thank God. Very small, his office. Slept on a couch for two.

Had meeting at 9 a.m. with the man doing her casts for the show. Then we walked to bank to give him money. Bank let two people in at a time because of robberies. I stood outside watching people. Beautiful people. Do not look like what I expected Italians to look like.

Estelle told me what all the buildings were. Showed me a square filled with temples discovered when digging for the Metro. In history of this area, strangely, there was a lavatory for both sexes where they could meet and converse. I came back later and took photos. In people watching around me, looked in shops intending to come back, which we did later.

This was all on Friday. We left Wednesday night, arrived Thursday, were rescued by Baldo for dinner and lodging, and then on Friday we did the above and bought a chocolate cake, bus tickets, and went to Baldo’s at 9:00 p.m. for pizza and a meeting which lasted until midnight. Estelle got much local political information from Baldo, made arrangements for him to do many things, and we returned by bus. Slept here so comfortably.

Saturday, October 19 - Estelle really worked, doing what she and Marisa and Baldo said had to be done with the map of Rome, which was wrong in so many places. She made important phone calls. I phoned Tom on Saturday at 19 here which was 5 a.m. there. He said Lucilla was dying.

Estelle and I went shopping and bought Tom a sweater and coat, and for me brown handmade shoes. Fantastico! So reasonable. Then dinner at Balestrari. So good. So reasonable. Came home and Estelle worked on map until midnight. I needle pointed.

Louise LaGorce Hickey, PCAS custodian Alberto Marcocci, and Fernando Di Porto in the Catacombs of Callisto, Rome.

Sunday, October 20 - We were going to Porta Portese this morning at 7:30 with Fernando (Nando) Di Porto. Raining. We went to catacombs after Estelle phoned Father Fasola for permits. Callisto (Calixtus) - Crypt at Lucina. 3 hours from the time we arrived there. Alberto took us through. Extremely successful pictures. Then to the Appian Way. Estelle looking for a certain tablet that she had been looking for for three years. Almost gave up, but continued and found it. Estelle ecstatic. On way back, Nando stopped for photos of apartment house covering Monteverde, which had been closed, non-existent, since early 1900’s. Muller took only photos in 1908-1910, all in black and white.

We came home, sun out, Estelle looked great. Italian lunch, I had scotches(?), Giuseppina not coming. Estelle will work, I’ll sleep and do needlepoint work and read. Helped on map of Rome.

Monday. I think that it was the end of Sunday - no, we went out later for coffee. Shops open until 8. Bought beautiful shawl for $50 - no, that was Saturday. Looked at men’s clothes again for Dick and Tom.

Monday, October 21 - On Monday, after much work first - I helped with getting much information together for meeting with Baldo to go to Castel Sant’Angelo for permission for exhibit. We went first to Baldo’s apartment at the Museum to type papers - couldn’t work the typewriter. It’s an IBM, but needs repair. Baby Maria was there with sitter. We gave up - on phone, Baldo said we could do it at his house that night. We met him at his office in the old walls of Rome. Fascinating. Workmen undoing crated pictures and objects to be shipped to galleries, including one in DC.

Baldo took us on wild ride to Castel Sant’Angelo, which was the home of Pope Pius III. He knows everyone. Went to office, met head man. Fascinating people. Baldo is Sicilian and so is head man. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been so successful. Saw exhibit rooms and they are beautiful. Hadrian is buried there in the church built for him,. After meeting, Baldo took us to our corner. We had lunch in a pizzeria. Always pasta. This was artichoke pasta. Wine. Beside a palace, but they are all palaces. Really enjoyed sitting at outdoor table. Waiter knew English from living in Australia.

Took nap - tired as usual - Estelle still working. Had dinner at home, didn’t get on bus til 9 p.m. to head over to Baldo’s. He did the wonderful presentation letter for Estelle to give to head man on Tuesday. Caught 12:15 a.m. bus home, Driver going so fast he almost missed us. And before Estelle could sit down in her seat, he slammed on the breaks and she fell twice, really hurting her hip and shoulder. Three nice Italian boys helped her; purse all spilled, etc. Driver drove like a maniac. After we got home, sat up and talked and had wine and read until 2 a.m. .P. S. in getting bus tickets Estelle able to get 4 rolls.

Tuesday, October 23 - All stores and restaurants went on strike. All bread gone. Even Marisa didn’t get any. Exhausted this morning and Estelle so sore. Usual paper work, her phone calls to landlady Giuseppina Cerulli Irelli, to man to pack and move furniture, man who rents apartment, etc. etc.. Didn’t call Cardinal Caprio until today. Can’t get bogged down with engagements.

We walked to Castel Sant’Angelo to deliver letter, took photos of rooms, with guide saw other magnificent rooms. Walked to Vatican to mail letter to Tom, gets home in 6 days instead of 10 with Italian post. 

Exhausted - took cab back to bridge over Tiber and walked rest of way. Ate fantastic squid pasta at home. I took long nap. Estelle worked. She is now having dinner with Giuseppina at a Japanese restaurant. I have Italian pasta, filled with stuff, for dinner. Wine, cheese, crackers, tuna, and grapes. Want just to sit, read, and needlepoint. Tomorrow will be very busy. I’m learning all about Rome and history though Estelle. She has contracted hotel for possibly 30 people for tour. The head man at Castel Sant’Angelo said all of Italy must see this exhibit.

Estelle came home at 10 p.m. Said that Japanese didn’t want to serve them. Because they are Italian and the Italians went on strike today - all shops, food stores, everything, to protest taxes. After an hour of waiting they protested. Told Estelle they had no shrimp, but she told waitress she saw girl being served shrimp, so she also got shrimp. Fancy dinner. She called Dick at 11 p.m. to ask for his coat size. Ordered him to send card to Tom to say he will receive my letter in 6 days instead of 10.

Wednesday, October 24 - We purchased 4 sweaters and a coat for Tom. Bought beautiful 1784 etchings, 4 for me, of Rome.

Had our cappuccino and sweet roll. Lots of fun. Shopped for bread, cheese, fruits, prosciutto for lunch. Had that and wine. I cashed $50 into lire to add to kitty. Estelle purchased files, 50-75 cents here and $5 in Boston. After lunch, met the famous packer of exhibits, including Pompeii and the Vatican, Montanari, who will pack up the things Estelle will ship back to States. Helped her decide. We are going out to buy shoes tonight. Blue pumps. Boots another time. Bought my lovely pumps for $30.

Went to get Estelle’s developed photos of the Catacombs of San Callisto and they had lost one - the most important - of St. Callisto. Estelle disappointed, but to replace them she would have to get permission again and Alberto and spend hours lying on the ground. In spite of that she insisted on dinner at her favorite restaurant. We went looking for shoes for Estelle but stores were closed. Did lots of walking. She’s so expert. “Nando” said he’d go to laboratories tomorrow and telephone her. Bed at midnight.

Thursday, October 25 - I walked one hour and 45 minutes until 10:45. Photographing market and different things, like sarcophagus being used for watering trough, bathtubs from Caracalla for fountains, and men paving roads with stones. Baldo coming with Marisa’s sister to look at furniture. I have to stop eating pasta starch three times a day. After looking at the most magnificent vegetables in the world, I want just salads now. Didn’t eat salad though. Pasta again.

Friday, October 26 - Catacombs of Domitilla. Maria and Baldo came late to apartment to look at furniture. Hair done,. Bought shoes. Always eating out.

Giuseppe Cardinal Caprio with Louise LaGorce Hickey, Vatican City, 1984.

Saturday, October 27 - Went to see Cardinal Caprio, all dressed up. A novelty. Wonderful man. Took three

pictures of him, He and Estelle, he alone, and us together. Saw Raphael exhibit at Vatican. Mailed letters to Mark, Bob, Tom and Mike Jorbae. Raining. Came home by bus. Had gotten stuck in cab fare by driver over 6,000 would have been heavy and he charge 9,000. Cardinal Caprio said it was robbery. We are constantly eating and buying sweets. Can’t remember the times. Went out to usual wonderful dinner early so as to hear world famous flamenco guitarist in a Farnese Palace. Reputed to be most beautiful courtyard in world - Rome, Home around 11 p.m.

Sunday, October 28 - Went to Porta Portese at 7:30. Amazing, bought more than expected. Estelle loaning me money. Bought chandelier for $100. Stayed there 4 hours. Estelle bought three chandeliers, silver earrings. I got a small weapon, old ax, and a small carriage. Fortunate to get cab. Waiting for Giuseppina at 6.

Sunday, continued. Always walking - always some important errand. Impossible to enumerate - errands, many phone calls, for project, for getting furniture dispose of, ad infinitum. I haven’t seen the Vatican (inside) nor the Coliseum. etc., as yet, but going around with Estelle is priceless. I walked along the Tiber today, alone, and across original old bridge to the Tiber Island (like the Isle in Paris, France), went into St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral, beautiful, had altar made of a Roman bathtub, dark brown with a slab on top. I took a black and white photo of it. I went along river, down steps, short walk. Giuseppina came and she is lovely. Suggested Estelle ask man renting if she can stay until 2d. She did phone and he said yes. We had dinner out in one of the few restaurants open in the area on Sunday.

Monday, October 29 - Montinari came with helper and we got all the furniture out that is being shipped to America, including the chandeliers. Will arrive in a month, instead of usual 3.

Estelle bought the most exquisite desk, two refectory tables, seating 12 each, all handmade. When she phoned Dick to ask his approval, he said to do anything she wanted. Suggested that she find out about duty. Montinari will ship them, too, and the furniture man delighted to know him for his work also, and Montinari delighted to meet the furniture maker.

We spent hours in Estelle’s bank for her to verify her safe deposit box, account, cashing money, etc. Walked there, and on way home, saw outside of Pantheon. Will go back later - closed on Monday. Walked through little side streets she has known for years. Very tired - had our supper here. Oh, yes, our lunch at their favorite, Stefano’s restaurant, Dick’s name. Best food ever. Eggplant, then pasta, corned beef and mushrooms, cooked in their own way. Went out to do errands and ate our dinner at home.

Tom phoned at 10 - wonderful to talk to him Said he’d been invited out to dinner every evening and also had Swifts and Nolans (Robin and Ken) over for dinner. They had a lot in common. We didn’t get to bed again until after midnight - in almost empty apartment with one small desk lamp. Bought blue shoes.

Tuesday, October 30 - I went out early to photograph stands at the market. Fish and wild mushrooms. Was going to walk to Pantheon alone! But decided it was too cold, needed a jacket. Went back to market and got our vegetables, and glad I came back. Secondhand furniture dealer was here and will take everything but the beds. The nurse will take the beds.

We are now going to via Giulia, etc. Will go to American Express to get more money to buy handmade boots. Had to go to cobbler. Estelle does know all the trades people.

View inside shop of a furniture restorer, Rome.

No - looked at magnificent furniture. Lovely lady said via Giulia is first straight road in Europe. Spent lots of time with fantastic furniture makers after perusing many antique shops looking for antique candle sticks of wood, large ones.

Had great lunch at Stefano’s again and then on to American Express, cashing $200. Estelle walked me everywhere. I met Persagati’s son in their jewelery shop. Fantastic. Some Valentinos, Balenciaga, Gucci, many, many more of the famous names. The avenue and shops are unbelievable. I have never seen such clothes and shoes and bags. After returning, bought beautiful brown boots that roll over and are 2-toned.

Estelle calling Richard to send $1,800 to cover furniture. He is being very good about the furniture.

Wednesday, October 31 - We were up at 6 a.m. - breakfast here and out by 8, rushing like mad as usual, weighted down with our purses, cameras, etc. Took a cab and got to University of Rome at 8:45 for a 9:30 appointment with Prof. Testini, a darling,. In looking for a toilet, Estelle went into the men’s toilet. While in there, a man came to go, and I wouldn’t let him in. He was mad. We later found out where the female’s was. Professor Testini was wonderful with Estelle. In two returns to his office, he gave her at least an hour, and said she could ask him for information at any time. We scrambled like mad, through thousands of students, to get on a street car with many, many people to go to Villa Torlonia, Mussolini’s home, that the Price of Torlonia gave to him and is home to the Government. It is in a terrible state of destruction, from neglect. Because the Government has it. Estelle would have liked to have it made into a museum.

Rushed like mad to get home while she was looking at a list she had made at Testini’s and lost, devastated.

I made sandwiches, which we later ate in a cab, on way to meet Alberto at the San Sebastiano catacombs. He took us to a grotto of the nymphs used by pagans, first, and later by Jews who had encamped there. Walked almost a mile through a field and brambles to get there. Very well hidden. Water coming out of a wall. Reclining statue of a nymph. Then we went to catacombs,. Walked until 5. Alberto brought us home. Estelle payed him. Today he just took the $50 and no change. One day she paid him $35, another $40, and today he took the $50, then when we got home we had more lemonade and it was seven when we were finished.

11 hours of frantic work. We are so tired and staying home. Estelle made three more phone calls, one was to Testini who gave her the info again. Made phone call to German library to find out when open, etc. Frittata of eggs for dinner. We just are too tired to move. My films came out great. Estelle is so pleased, also.

Thursday - Holy cow, November 1st! - Did initial packing. Left Estelle to herself and toured the streets and found Pantheon. Before that, stumbled onto beautiful (aren’t they all?) church and heard Mas and received communion.

After Pantheon, returned home, stopping into another church on our “street”. Told Estelle about it, that the church was open, and she wanted to see it. She saw another to the left instead of to the right, and made the discovery of her career. Three paintings of the famous humanitarian, St. Philip Neri. This she will use to liven up an otherwise uninteresting section of her book. If I hadn’t gone to the other church and mentioned it, she would not have gone out, and these churches are only open for seven o’clock Masses.

Estelle Brettman and Sister Maria Francesca Antongiovanni, Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome.

We took cab (as usual, in a rush) to Sister Maria Francesca, at catacomb of Priscilla, which I saw on a tour with a nun while Estelle conferred with Maria, a darling, bird-like nun. Estelle was doing research, I did I tiny bit of looking for her, saw the doll which she brought to the sister, and we left at 5, by bus, stopping for our usual cappuccino and sweet, got home, turned around, and rushed back out for bus to meet Bizzy (archaeologist Anna Maria Bisi) and Carlo (Ingrassia) - at a certain piazza. We couldn’t find the place where they were at first - Estelle walking in middle of street, cars whizzing by. I was panicky. It was dark. This was around famous church where the Pope goes sometimes (San Giovanni Laterano). We met - they are so nice and interesting and adorable. They took us to their restaurant where we again had fettuccine with wild mushrooms and since we knew they were paying, we didn’t order meat which I wanted. Eggplant casserole with gobs of mozzarella cheese. All too much. Estelle talked her business and received the help she wanted. Carlo is the director in the Ministry of Education and doesn’t have to worry about his job. They took us home. Estelle started to pack. Again, bed at midnight. I took a “shower” - second bath in 2 weeks.

Anna Maria Bisi, Estelle Brettman, and Carlo Ingrassia in Rome, 1985 (ICS archives).

Anna Maria Bisi, Louise LaGorce Hickey, and Carlo Ingrassia, Rome, 1985 (ICS archives).


Friday, November 2 - Up at 6 to pack. Movers coming tonight. I made Estelle’s breakfast and lunch for three. Went to airport to wait for Dorothy, arriving from Boston. Then we got to Ostia, then German Library. We went to American Library (American Academy in Rome) where she talked security into letting Dorothy and me in. Her usual fashion. So much to do, so little time til we leave early next Wednesday morning.

We went with Estelle everywhere for appointments. Didn’t have dinner at her favorite restaurant. Dorothy didn’t like the price nor the tip, but she hadn’t been indoctrinated. She couldn’t get into her apartment to check in until about 8, then we had dinner and whatever,and returned her to the apartment at about midnight. We parked car nearby. Dorothy has been exhausted, just arriving and no chance to rest. We continued to pack. The nurse came and took beds. One nurse, one man. We called cab, and he loaded taxi, even outside. Estelle and I moved over to Baldo’s. You should have seen us.

“Panicky” about getting in the door. Couldn’t make double latch work. All that baggage and no place to go at that hour?

Saturday, November 3 - After many phone calls we went to Vatican Museum by cab. In a hurry as usual. She had a date with Persegati. Her usual requests. She took me to the museum part and said she was going back and would return for me at 2 p.m. The minute she left, I realized that I had keys for both apartments. I was devastated. Couldn’t look at anything, except I did reach the wrong way the Sistine Chapel. I went to museum exit and sat for two hours waiting for her and she didn’t leave - had gone to see someone in area about books. I did not tell her what I had done.

We walked to Roberto, good restaurant, for lunch and on way bought fantastic shoes. Most glamorous boots I’ve ever seen, dark blue with maroon stripe for me, Estelle got blue with white trim pumps for Florida on sale, half price, 80,000 lire ($44). I would have gotten more, but he wouldn’t take American Express on sale items. While sitting at table for lunch, shoe man came in and she had left her Visa card on his table. Fortunately, he knew where we were going to eat. After lunch, attempted robbery by gypsy pickpockets under cardboard, they opened my purse, knocked red case from Estelle’s folder. She said she’d call the police. Just one more happenstance in a tremendous comedy of errors. Dorothy had gone to Jewish service in synagogue. Bussed it back. Travelled street to find buyer for furniture man couldn’t pic up. Herculean task. Found a fat jolly man her other guy recommended and he said he would. Wanted us to drink wine with him, etc. Along the way, Estelle found the chairs she wanted for dining room tables she had had made. Met Dorothy at Kosher restaurant in Jewish Ghetto, where they had curfew from sunrise to sunset 1555-1870, I think. Dorothy’s birthday. Estelle treated. Expensive, too. We all took bus back to went to our respective homes. Always a “happening”, no matter where we go. Speed, indecision, but always made it somehow.

Sunday, November 4th - Estelle picked up car, and Nando picked Dorothy and me up at 10 to go to the Coliseum and Forum. He left us there and we saw that and part of the Palatine Hill. And went to Forum. Estelle came at 1:00 or later, had been lost in catacomb for 15 minutes. Student, South Boston Italian, left her - she told him she knew he wasn’t Italian from here because he was so impolite. She explained the Forum, then had to photo obelisk. During all that, much fast driving, can’t remember other places as she had to do phone calls. We drove and parked near old apartment and had supper in cafeteria and then to piazza to throw coins in Trevi Fountain. Asking directions all the way. She talked to the nicest people, so cooperative, and one group was from Holland, nice boys. Then we drove to ice cream place, then to Piazza Venezia to see fountains, then took Dorothy home and had usual interesting hard time to find the hotel and said goodbye to Dot, who is going to Israel. Then went home. Bed at midnight as usual. We took carload from apartment not our stuff. She’ll turn car in tomorrow.

Monday, November 5th - Estelle had so much to do, to meet man to buy furniture at 8 a.m.; she got up early; at 7:30 I asked if she had keys. We couldn’t find them. Complete panic. Didn’t remember if she locked doors, or anything. Estelle went to see if she could get in the apartment, if door would be unlocked keys would be on table. She rushed out of apartment then called up to me. She’d found them on the ground by car. A miracle. I left home about 10. Took 64 bus to Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s, stayed til 3 p.m. Ate a lunch there. Bused back at about 4. Read, slept, etc. Estelle back at 8:00. She’d had a terrible day. Took all day to get her money at bank, running out from German library constantly to phone. Did get it. Paid furniture people. Monte came over and changed chairs. He’ll get business from that woman, too. More phone calls. At 9:30 we’ll be going out for something to eat.

Sunday P.S. Went to photograph inscription in hospice in Trastevere, then to S. Lorenzo where we met Trappist Mark Chamberland. He took us into catacombs. Way after time. Estelle looking for special inscription. His electric flash giving out. Dorothy’s had burnt out. Took four batteries out of her camera and mine. He showed us and explained whole church. Saw slab that St. Lawrence was cooked on, etc., etc.

Tuesday - went to Conservatori Museum. Spoke to director Dr. Eugenio La Rocca about two inscription casts which he will send in person. Estelle found inscription she wanted. Didn’t bring camera - will return for opening of Chagall exhibit with the President of the Republic at 4 p.m. - have to be out by 5. Had trouble getting back in museum because of security, but custodians fortunately saw her and assisted her. Would have talked her way in, in her own style, but it made it easier for her. Dr. La Rocca is Baldo’s friend. When we left, it started pouring, which kept us up all night. It was very bad. Conservatori Museum on the Capitol, from Etruscan times. Reliefs of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, she showed me. Went through awful rain, no umbrella. Finally got home. There is always something to peruse, looking for her boots constantly, which she didn’t get. Found the one, but not her size, when she did go to get it.

When we got to apartment, she worked all afternoon until 4. Her apartment work is shuffling papers, making phone calls, looking for things she needs to find. All phone calls are needed in her work, also in morning, shipping furniture home, selling furniture, which turned out to be 95% on return. The 5% was the 200,000 lire that she received from the fat guy who turned out to chose her tables, chairs, gas stove, good oven - refrigerator, etc., the other dealer was giving 400.000 lire, but couldn’t get truck and she had to get it out.

So at 4:00 she left in pouring rain. DId her picture and left by cab, because of reception, but was able to get one at base of steps. Went to German institute to get photocopies, looked up maps, got all that she wanted. Back to apartment by 6:30. I stayed home.

Went to Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology after Conservatori, stopped by piazza bar and bought calzone (ham and cheese) which we ate some of there. Couldn’t wait for me to finish, walking rapidly. My sandwich fell out, but we picked it up, and I ate it anyway. Looking in windows for my gray shoes, which we found. I went back later in torrential rain when she went to photograph.

She returned at 6:30, we ate the stuffed zucchini and eggplant pizza which we’d bought. At 8 p.m. we got a cab to Baldo and Marisa’s. Baldo had returned from Greece the night before, after taking 85 students, and leaves for Pompeii tomorrow, for his new job as Superintendent. He wanted Lazio zone around Rome, or Rome, but didn’t get either. He’ll do a great job in Pompeii.

Got home by cab, went out by cab, another typical event was we couldn’t get out of Baldo’s front door, cabbie had to rung from outside for them to press the release. Home at 11. Bed by 1.

Packed for tomorrow; leaving at 7 a.m. Estelle with numerous carry-ons. We got complaints from man living above because we hadn’t turned out lights once and then he said front door wasn’t locked.

San Lorenzo (Cyriaca)

So many instances of fright. Coming into Baldo’s apartment the other night, I dropped both keys on ground in dark, got on hands and knees to find them. And trying to unlock his main door, did not realize it took 4 turns to undo a bolt: in the meantime, my heart stops and I mentally panic.

Walking the streets is such an experience. One inch from cars and mopeds and motorcycles. Estelle’s fast and furious driving equals theirs. Making prohibiting turns, going over medians. It is mind-boggling to even think of the car dodging. It is impossible to describe the speed with which we walk. I literally wore out the heels of my black low shoes.

But Tuesday night at Baldo’s was important because she had so many last items to speak to him about. Also we took “baby” to him, her Etruscan vase she didn’t dare take home - if caught at customs, she might not be able to return to Italy. Montinari, the friend who will pack her furniture, refused. Persegati, Director of Vatican Museums, didn’t see any reason why she couldn’t take it since it isn’t registered and she bought it at the flea market, but someone with her knowledge would know what it is. Baldo said leave it with him and he’d get it to her later, or she could get it after the exhibit, etc. Also, Marisa said it is assured that she could have exhibit at Castel Sant’Angelo. She did take one small vase home in the carry-on luggage.

Tuesday, November 6th - At 11 a.m. (during rain) met Marisa de’ Spagnolis Conticello at Museo delle Terme so Estelle could confer with her. We had coffee there. Met the man who is making casts here for exhibit Then Estelle took me to the important part of the museum before we went into apartment. I took black and white photos of our apartment area.

Wednesday, November 7th - Getting up at 6 a.m. Quickly made bed, stripped linens, ate cereal and bananas, grapefruit, took out our usual full plastic bag of trash and was ready at 7 when cabbie arrived. He strapped on luggage; we arrived at airport early, thank God. Porter warned us we could only take 2 bags on. We had about 6. Let loose the carry ons; he helped Estelle cram stuff from my red bag I gave her into her brown bag. She left packing stuff. I had 2 carry-on plastics with 2 lights for home from her apartment, plus large “purse” and my cape.

Hard time for her going through airport security. Took all her film in plastic bag and made it go through repeatedly. In reorganizing bags, thinking we had lots of time, found out that the flight left at 9 instead of 9:40! If we hadn’t left home early, we would have missed flight.

Arriving at Zurich, found we hadn’t reserved seats. Did a transfer, then were devastated that our security tag in Rome didn’t pass us in Swiss. Estelle had a terrible time with security and had to open up each film case, take 2 films out of 2 cameras. She out-stubborned the guard and refused to go through the X-ray. He was furious, a martinet. Another guard smiled and came over to tell her not to remove any more films. He seemed to enjoy her refusing to knuckle under.

Finally got on board a 747. Seats upstairs. Because only 10 passengers we each had three seats. Never had such a great plane ride, best food, beautifully presented, nothing plastic. I took notes from Estelle to keep a record of whom she saw and what she accomplished. 1 ½ hours late for arrival at Boston because of visibility in Zurich and had winds later. Looking forward to landing and seeing Tom. He is something to come home to. And to another world.

(Notes of Louise Hickey of Estelle Brettman’s dictation on plane):
Exhibit at Castel Sant’ Angelo
Most of photos of Catacombs of Callisto, Domitilla, Sebastiano, and inscriptions.
Other photos of locations of the catacombs and important sites for the Jews and early Christians.
Photos of important sites, maps, and information for map on Rome which will include ancient pertinent monuments and topographical situation of sites. Jewish-Christian catacombs and private cemeteries, early churches, ecclesiastical regions, and Augustan regions.
Casts from Vatican Museums, Terme Museum and Conservatori Museum.
Shopping list of objects from Vatican Museum and Terme Museum and other museums.

Baldo Conticello, Dr. Marisa de’ Spagnolis, Prof. Anna Maria Bisi, Prof. Pasquale Testini.
Director at Castel Sant’Angelo and his secretary.
Dr. Giuseppina Cerulli Irelli
Dr. Eugenio La Rocca.
Alberto Marcocci.
Father Umberto M. Fasola
Dr. Mario Santa Maria
Suor Maria Francesca
Salvatore Fornari, Comm.
Cesare Filippo Ferrucci
Walter Persegati, Comm.
Cardinal Giuseppe Caprio
Luigi Venditti, Vatican Museums
Paolo Monti, Dr. Mario Montenovi
Nando Di Porto
Father Mark Chamberland
Germano Paglia
Giuseppe Foglia

Vatican Museums
Castel Sant’Angelo
Conservatori Museum (2)
American Academy of Rome
Istituto Archeologico Germanico
University of Rome
Caprio’s office
Baldo’s home (4 times)
Ostia Antica
Appia Antica
Porta Capena
Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology
Priscilla Catacombs
Father Fasola (Monastery)
The Bank!
Furniture makers
American Express
Water man
Museo delle Terme
Mr. Sulpizi
Map stand on Piazza della Repubblica


Father Umberto Maria Fasola & Estelle Shohet Brettman: Catacomb Compromises

Umberto M. Fasola's dedication to Estelle Brettman of a copy of his 1976 article on the Jewish Catacombs of Villa Torlonia (ICS archives)

In 1976, the Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana published Fr. Umberto M. Fasola’s report on the excavation of two Jewish catacombs below the Villa Torlonia in Rome. The dig had been made between 1973 and 1974 at the start of Fasola’s tenure as secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology (PCAS), the Vatican entity that, since 1929, had held custodianship of Italy’s “sacred cemeteries”, including a small number of ancient burial grounds used by Jews.  The reasons for the arrangement were more pragmatic than ideological. The PCAS, instituted as the Commission for Sacred Archaeology (CDAS) in 1852, had been successful in preserving large tracts of catacombs around Rome. In the case of Jewish sites unexpectedly coming to light from time to time between 1859 and 1919, PCAS intervention could go only so far, as the Vatican coffers were closed to catacombs “without any signs of Christianity”. PCAS officers did, as Fasola put it, "discover (the Jewish catacombs), explore them... and write about them," but by Fasola's own account, could not stop the "damages of modern urbanization," even today forcing these sites to crumble. For that, only a cash intervention would do. The Church made exceptions only for elaborately decorated underground tombs that resembled in structure and appearance the Christian sites. The Lateran Museum’s acquisition of a large quantity of Jewish tomb artifacts from a burial site inconveniently located on a land parcel up for sale around 1910, however, seems to have compelled the Church to take on a more active role in documenting the patrimony of Rome’s ancient Jews. The largest collection of ancient Judaica to date was now in its possession, donated to the Church by the owners of the Jewish cemetery from whence the artifacts had come, members of the Papal "black nobility" who sought, in return, the site's total demolition. Following public outcry over the government's complicity in the act, and numerous other reports of catacomb vandalizing and destruction, Italy’s Education Ministry in 1912 turned over all the catacombs in the Rome province to the PCAS, including those of the Jews. A formal treaty between the newly sovereign Vatican State and Italy in 1929 ratified this accord. Even then, control over a small number of Jewish cemeteries was treated as a minor affair. A lot was left to circumstance, and the country's descent into wartime chaos left matters as they stood, though the sites themselves, like the rest of the country, did not escape intrusion.

The Church’s custodianship of the Jewish cemeteries was not contested with vigor until the late 1960’s. Various factions within Italian society were then ready to challenge the Fascist-era agreement between Church and State. Jews lent their voice to this discussion. Nostra Aetate, the 1965 Papal Encyclical that defined in an unprecedented manner the legitimacy of non-Christian religions had not ended the privileges of the Church in secular settings. As the PCAS’s new secretary in 1971, Fasola inherited from his predecessor, Fr. Antonio Ferrua, SJ, an administrative role over the Jewish catacombs very likely to change form with a treaty revision, though no one could say as of yet when and how the process would unfold.

A shaft of light through the gathering clouds was a growing public awareness of the existence of Jewish catacombs in Rome and Venosa. They inspired not only polemic about a constant risk of decay, but also the curiosity of international travelers and scholars, who now had at their disposal important studies in English on Jewish archaeological finds in Italy, notably E. R. Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (1953-1968), and H. J. Leon’s The Jews of Ancient Rome (1960). Together with the discovery of a synagogue building in Ostia Antica in the early 1960’s, these works rekindled the hope that it was possible to recover something concrete about Italian Jewish communities all but lost to history.

The attention put the PCAS in an awkward position. It had right of access to the Jewish catacombs. Getting inside was another story. The sites were on private land. The Torlonia catacombs, in particular, disappeared from the public radar almost immediately after they were discovered in 1919, for Prince Giovanni Torlonia's new tenant on the Nomentana estate in 1925 was none other than Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. For the entire period of Mussolini’s tenancy and the Second World War, these tunnels were open only to military personnel. Even so, a PCAS inspection in 1946 reported the Jewish cemetery desecrated and robbed, with bones strewn about the galleries, graffiti defacing the walls, and documented artifacts gone missing. One or more parties might have been responsible – Fascists, allied troops now on site, and, most likely, Torlonia, who had repositories of antiquities all over Rome. At any event, the burial grounds were locked down once more while the Torlonia heirs squabbled with each other and the city about site ownership and building rights. Held up in the Italian courts, an already dubious situation became even more confused. Foreigners, in particular, could not grasp why a powerful entity like the Roman Catholic Church seemed inert and ineffectual in this situation. The PCAS, in turn, approached Rome’s Jewish community with proposals for collaboration, but in vain. Jewish leaders were not going to accept that “their” catacombs were in the hands of the very institution responsible for the destruction of countless Jewish possessions. A much larger historical problem complicated the issue at stake.

For about five years during the 1970’s, Fasola thought it politically expedient to keep the Torlonia catacombs open by request to counteract charges largely stemming “from a misinformed press” that the PCAS was going out of its way to hide them. This was possible until the Villa Torlonia became public property in 1977, and a new procedure for access was required. In that time, Jews of many nationalities saw the cemetery site, not only rabbis and community leaders, but also university students and families with children. Those who recall the experience speak of a tall priest in a black coat who communicated with them in German, French, and Italian. This is a description of Fr. Fasola, the ultimate scholar-guide.

Father Fasola's catacomb itinerary for Estelle Brettman (ICS archives).

One visitor to the Villa Torlonia catacombs in June of 1976 was Estelle Shohet Brettman, an American Jew from Boston. Somewhat exceptionally, she asked to see not only the Jewish catacombs, but also those of the Christians. And she returned many times, looking for evidence of what she claimed was a “syncretism and a subsequent evolution of iconographies and symbols”. Fasola agreed to Brettman’s requests for study tours, but was not sure of her intentions. She had come to the PCAS by recommendation of the United States ambassador to Italy, who routinely passed on to Fasola the requests for catacomb tours. Not long after her first visit, Brettman told Fasola that she was going to contact Jewish leaders in the United States and Italy about raising funds for the Jewish catacombs. She refused to name names, but reassured the Barnabite priest that she fully supported his “efforts to preserve the Jewish catacombs from tragic deterioration” and his controversial decision in 1978 to bury the stairways into the Torlonia site. Brettman’s desire that the Vatican remain somehow involved in the Jewish catacombs’ upkeep must have resonated with Fasola – as he wrote to Jewish Community President Pietro Blayer, “I love these sites”. Accusations of “cleaning out” the Jewish tombs and only bothering with them when they were about to collapse had greatly upset him. The woman from Boston seemed, as he put it, "enthusiastic, prepared, and precise," not to mention committed to the issue in a very different way than the prominent Italian Jews who campaigned for the Jewish catacombs' "liberation". Yet he was unable to shake the feeling, as he wrote to a Vatican colleague, that “there was something strange about this woman” (Brettman). She was about to do something to confuse him – and anger him – even more.

ICCI membership form, ca. 1981 (ICS archives).

What Brettman did was to make good on her word to approach leaders among the Jews in America about forming a non-sectarian committee to “support and guide the Italian Jewish community in necessary fund-raising procedures and archaeological problems”. By her own claim, Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Elio Toaff, and others from the Union of Jewish Communities of Italy (UCEI) were “very anxious” to work with her if she was made administrator of “an international committee whose only goals are the conservation and further study of the Jewish catacombs of Italy”. In 1980, Brettman launched an “International Committee for the Preservation of the Catacombs of Italy” (ICCI), whose stated mission was “to support the conservation, restoration, where possible, and further excavation of the catacombs, which are important archives of Judaism and early Christianity”. Its board members, however, did not include the prominent Jewish leaders she had approached. Nor did it include Rabbi Toaff and UCEI vice president Tullia Zevi, a vocal advocate for restoring the Jewish catacombs to the Jews. These individuals had lent their support and influence to another US-based non-profit created at the same time, the Heritage Committee of the World Jewish Congress. It, too, had as a special, though not unique focus, the study and restoration of Jewish catacombs in Rome and Venosa. Brettman accused the rival group of stealing her thunder. Jewish Heritage director, Doris Brickner, in turn, ordered Brettman to back off from speaking to Vatican officials about Jewish affairs. Only one Jew was supposed “smell around” the Vatican. Certainly, that should not be a conciliatory Jew who saw the “catacomb business” as “an exciting venture in ecumenism”. On their end, the Vatican officials aware of the feud remained gracious and non-committal. Warring factions could weaken the Jewish stance in new treaty negotiations, intensified by Italian Communist Party support for their cause. Silencing a Vatican apologist like Brettman would emphasize “Israeli interference” in Italian Jewish affairs. As matters stood, the Vatican already had decided against “investing any more money on the Jewish catacombs”. The last funding it provided to Fasola was to disinter the Torlonia site in 1987, nearly a decade after it had been sealed up like a pharaoh’s tomb. When asked by a New York Times journalist whether or not he would continue to “serve the needs of the Jewish catacombs”, Fasola replied: “They can count on me.” By this, Fasola meant the Italian Jews, the catacombs’ new advocates and protectors.

Father Fasola in the Catacombs of Rome (Barnabite Fathers; Photo by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai).

Brettman did not go quietly. She continued her “Save the Catacombs” project on an intimate scale, putting herself on center stage with a circle of friends to sustain her. A display of eighty photographs of catacomb paintings shown at the 1979 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Boston grew into a traveling exhibition, “Vaults of Memory: Jewish and Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome”. It made its way to Rome in November of 1986, where it was shown at a stone’s throw from the Vatican in a former Papal fortress, the Castel Sant’Angelo state museum. Although listed in the exhibit catalogue as a consultant, Fasola does not seem to have attended the show's inauguration. He had issued a sharp rebuke to Brettman some years before about the “misleading” title of her organization (which she had rushed to incorporate before the Jewish Heritage Committee did), insisting that the ICCI “made it sound like all the catacombs of Italy were falling in ruin and only you can save them!” Eventually, Brettman did change the organization's name, but did not comply with Fasola’s request that she stress its “Jewish” foundation, justifying a shorter title “for the sake of clarity and appearance”. In truth, as the “International Catacomb Society”, the non-profit no longer made any claims to raise money for the catacombs, but only for their study, specifically by Brettman, who now channeled her energies into writing a large monograph on her theories about “shared symbols” of Christians, Pagans, and Jews.

Brettman's copy of Fasola's guide to the Catacombs of Domitilla (Rome: 1965).

Included in the “invaluable Vatican support” Brettman still enjoyed was Fasola’s assistance with procuring images of the catacombs for her exhibition and book. He frequently delegated the task of dealing with her to his archivist, a Benedictine nun at the Catacombs of Priscilla who was fluent in English, Sister Maria Francesca Antongiovanni, and occasionally to other PCAS associates, including Mario Santa Maria, Pasquale Testini, Danilo Mazzoleni, and Fabrizio Bisconti. Under Fasola's leadership, the PCAS had cooperated with many foreign scholars and enthusiasts on catacomb publications. That being said, Fasola always declined, citing a heavy work load, to work directly with Brettman on a book or lecture series in the USA or any other projects she had in mind. Brettman nonetheless was unsparing with words of encouragement and thanks for any PCAS approval or assistance, not to mention a yearly subscription for Fasola to the magazine Archaeology. It meant a great deal to her, this personal connection to “the foremost living authority on all the catacombs”. What she could not receive from Fasola in terms of confidence she received in abundance from Sister Maria Francesca, whose energy and enthusiasm for the catacombs out-rivaled Brettman’s own.

In 1987, after the Rome showing of “Vaults of Memory” and the signing of the new treaty, Fasola’s tone softened. He was now seventy, about to retire from teaching, and afraid he would soon go blind. He would lose his valued colleague, PCAS technical director Mario Santa Maria, in 1988, and his own battle with cancer a year later. Brettman, of the same generation, experienced similar issues with aging. Many of the original collaborators on her catacomb project, her “pillars”, were dying, including her husband. Between hospital stays and periods of recovery, the work on the catacombs went on. In 1989, Sister Maria Francesca wrote to Brettman that Fasola was writing a new book on the Jewish catacombs for a publishing house in Florence. “But now” the nun continued, “it is all up in the air… if the editor persists, I do not know who will take on this publication”. Neither Brettman nor Fasola’s work ever reached completion. This somewhat tortured account of their professional relations, private disappointments, and public fallouts over the Jewish catacombs might help to explain why.

- Jessica Dello Russo, 18 October 2017


שנה טובה ומתוקה! Shanà Tovà u’Metuka 5778! A Jewish New Year Reflection

On the eve of the Jewish New Year 5778 (September 20, 2017), we share an intimate reflection on the International Catacomb Society written nearly twenty years ago this holiday season by longtime society director Allen Swartz:

"I am thankful that the true spirit of this Rosh Hashanah week always seems to catch up with me like the huge Jewish stop sign on the road of life that it is, and rescues me from the swirl of my usual routines and obligations so that I must now stop, look, and listen to everything - if only for a moment! - that is going on around me. It is (as my Rabbi reminded me) a time to remember where we have been, a place to think about where we are, and an opportunity to imagine where we will be.

And so, in addition to the many thoughts about my family, my social and business affairs, I have been thinking about the past, present, and future of the International Catacomb Society and especially of its founder, Estelle Brettman.

Estelle... was fearless in the wide sweep of her beliefs and dreams. Even if we might have individually thought from time to time that this or that couldn't be done when were with her, she was always off and running and actually doing it! 

I know she attracted so many different people to her cause for so many different reasons, not because she was a perfect person or leader, but because she was such a talented and committed human being. Estelle found me and drew me into the vortex of her vision, and I loved Estelle for all the verve and optimism and incredible energy that she brought to the Society.

The way Estelle Brettman and I met, and the way I became one of her willing disciples resonates with the Yiddish term "beshercht" ("it was to be"), and - I am happy to say - I cannot recall a single time when I was too busy or otherwise too committed elsewhere that I did not say "yes!" to her when she called. Her sudden and painful death in mid-1991 is/was a terrible personal loss to those of us who admired her so much.

Estelle's bequests to us - as Society directors and therefore her beneficiaries - of her book, her notes, her photographs, the exhibit, "Vaults of Memory", and other artifacts and displays, but above all, that intangible but still indomitable Spirit that lives on in our memories, includes the challenge to us to be as wise and courageous and creative as Estelle was in our stewardship of the advancement and fulfillment of her wishes and vision of the International Catacomb Society... She was an incredible optimist and big thinker. That's the way we should always be thinking about the International Catacomb Society, since she herself was living proof that "if you dream it, it will happen" can occur outside of the movies, too!

Best wishes to you all for a healthy and happy New Year!

- Allen Swartz, Treasurer, International Catacomb Society (September 23, 1998)