Report on a Visit to the Catacombs of Venosa (August 2, 2016)
by Jessica Dello Russo to Giacomo Saban, President Emeritus, Jewish Community of Rome (1925-2022).
In late July of 2016, Prof. Giacomo Saban, former President of the Jewish Community in Rome, met with ICS Executive Director Jessica Dello Russo in Rome and requested that she undertake an independent evaluation of existing conditions in the catacombs of Venosa and report back to him on what she had seen. Saban had become increasingly concerned about the catacombs' apparent inaccessibility to the public and lack of published information about the most recent restoration campaign of 2000-2005. In her site visit of 2 August 2016, Dello Russo was carefully monitored by a staff member of the Basilicata region archaeological inspectorate and could not photograph or study at length the inscriptions and tomb designs. Her description of the visit nonetheless provided to Saban the necessary insights into the catacombs' actual condition and reasons for their extended closure. Dello Russo then went on to incorporate part of this material into the 2020 publication, Le catacombe ebraiche di Venosa: Recenti interventi, studi e ricerche (link).
Dear Prof. Saban:
Thank you for enabling me to visit the Catacombs of Venosa during my recent stay in Italy. The opportunity to see this uniquely Jewish site in southern Italy was irresistible and had an immediate and profound impact on my understanding of Jewish cemetery topography – for which, as Leo Levi put it: “il centro e,’ sempre, Venosa” (Levi 1962: 138). In addition to what you shared with me during our conversation in Rome on 16 July 2016, the manuscript copy of your RMI article, “Le catacombe ebraiche del Sud-Italia,” was very helpful in bringing me up to date on current management of the site. In return, I want to provide you with a report on my experience and additional documentation of the Venosa cemeteries that I have been gathering for my doctoral thesis on the catacombs of Jews in Rome. This work has not yet been submitted, but you have my promise that I will share with the UCEI any and all results of the study when it is complete.
I accessed the Venosa catcombs on the morning of August 2, 2016 in the company of Dr. Michele Savarese of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Basilicata (sede Venosa). The visit lasted for two and a half hours, during which time, always in the company of Dr. Savarese, I was able to view portions of the grounds and the underground cemetery regions, including those of Santa Rufina. I was not permitted access to all areas of the catacomb, due to a lack of safety equipment and enforced visitor regulations in the site.
Dr. Savarese was kind enough to escort me to the site from the offices of the Soprintendenza in the Castello del Balzo, by way of the Strada Provinciale 18 (Ofantina), formerly via dei Mulini, above the Dauno or Fiumano creek. As there is very little agricultural activity at this level of the slope, aside from groves of olive trees and patches of scrub, the geological qualities of the land are evident, including recessed openings in the hillside below the archaeological site that seem to have been cut using modern tools rather than pickaxes, and are supported by masonry arches, also of modern construction. Other caverns are half buried as a result of landslides. Except at a distance, the catacomb entrance is not visible from the road.
I did not have time to look for any signage to the catacomb from the historic center (the only one I noticed right by the site was for an agriturismo “La Maddalena’), but, as you are aware, it is located some two kilometers outside of the city center, in the contrada “La Maddalena”, or “I Lazzari”, toponyms that recall a medieval chapel and hospital for the terminally ill that stood nearby until around 1450. The modern provincial road is paved and wide enough for trucks and buses. Its route winds among hills used for pastureland and farming (but satellite images indicate lost structures, perhaps once part of the hospital brought down by an earthquake in 1456, or remains of the later landmark “mills”, i.e., mulini). Train tracks run through the valley below, where there is a station (Venosa-Maschito) at an industrial zone (ASPI Service S.r.l. Zona Industriale Scalo Ferroviario, 85029 Venosa, PZ).
Right before the SP 18 curves and takes a slight dip to intersect a parallel road running farther down the slope, the artificial terracing of the hillside becomes very evident, as it is buttressed at points by modern lime and brick walls and arches. At the very top of the hill, above a roofless warehouse or barn of the defunct Lauridia Latteria-Caseificio (dairy plant), is a ruined wall made of large rectangular stone blocks, somewhat irregularly laid, a circular silo (open cistern pits also nearby), and, just beyond the Jewish catacomb entrances, a tall electrical tower.
In front of the catacomb grounds, the hill is cut back into a sheer cliff, with a wide cavern opening at ground level large enough for carts. A chain link fence separates this operation from the Jewish catacomb site, in which there are no buildings or trees, except for some bushes around the rebuilt entrances into the underground.
A wide pullover spot for motor vehicles brings one to a locked metal gate, beyond which the driveway curves northeast before reaching a small reception area with a octagonal-shaped wooden gazebo. Between the road and the entrance to the catacombs are two new fences, the first in chain link and the second in wood. Walking slightly uphill on a path of stone pavers, and then turning to the northwest, we reached a wide, semi-circular platform, the area “A” on 19th century plans, now completely open and paved and further reinforced with a high wall of concrete that resists landslides from the friable grounds above. The soil exposed above the site had been covered in fine netting now very torn. No tomb recesses appear on the present surface area of this cavity.
In the wall are two entryways with metal doors. The one at right leads to a modern bunker with the monitoring equipment and electrical system for the site, while the other leads into the catacomb proper. The masonry and fencing in the aboveground areas are in good condition, although much of the rubble removed from the present catacomb entranceway seems to have been piled up in front of the mouths of nearby hypogea (Colafemmina 2003: 129, n. 37). Even so, the quality of the modern infrastructure is marred by weeds and sheep shit (unmistakable in early August with undertones of wild mint) spread over the path to the site from the parking area. The sheep themselves, at that very moment, were grazing just above. Dr. Savarese put it this way: “we spend millions on the catacomb, but can’t get the gate to stay shut,” apparently due to an unresolved issue over the expropriation of the land. In the meantime, the sheep have come to symbolize the standoff that came to a head in 2012, when the pro-loco group, “Venusiae 2.0”, collected over a thousand signatures on a petition to the Direzione Regionale per i Beni culturali e Paesaggistici della Basilicata to protest the situation of the “Jewish Catacombs Closed to the Public, but not to Sheep” (Zolfo 2012). The petition denounced that the Venosa catacombs had been open for a short time after the inauguration of restorations in 2007, but then closed indefinitely for safety concerns, although local officials could still let people in if they so chose (Remolino 2007). The local office of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Basilicata at Venosa now states that the catacomb is not ordinarily open but can in fact be visited with advance notice, although only if an employee is in fact available to open the gates and stand guard.
Before being able to enter the underground, we had to visit the control room to the right of the catacomb entrance. This reinforced chamber is likewise excavated into the hillside, but there are very few signs, if any, to suggest that this area once formed part of the burial site. Older maps nonetheless indicate at this level heavily damaged galleries with arcosolia tombs (but no inscriptions), accessed from a nearby crater “B”. Already in antiquity, the area had to be buttressed by retaining walls, still partially conserved in the 1850’s (Colafemmina 2003: 141, fig. 2, labels this site as “pagan”). Inside the room are the monitoring systems for microclimate and geophysical variations as well as the electrical fuse box for the site. It was not clear how often these devices are now being read: Dr. Savarese said the ideal routine would be once a month.
Dr. Savarese called to my attention the network of geophysical sensors placed in different areas of the hillside which signal any shifts in terrain. Inspecting one one of these devices situated just above the retaining wall at northeast, I came across the jagged opening of another partially collapsed cavern, containing multiple corridors and tiers of wall tombs. Dr. Savarese identified the site as a “Christian” catacomb, but did not permit me to enter it, saying it was not safe to do so. Years ago, in 1972, when Cesare Colafemmina had, there were found arcosolia and loculi, all open, many with bones (Colafemmina 2003: 122-123: Catarinella 2008: 57). Colafemmina also identified traces of ancient walls near the current opening, but today this area is covered in rubble and the grotto opening is instead shored up by makeshift buttresses in wood. Finding an area of the ancient burial grounds in such deplorable conditions in the wake of two costly campaigns of restoration and consolidation spoke eloquently as to the site's recent past.
The inner vestibule of the Jewish catacomb is reinforced in steel and concrete. This is not, of course, the ancient entrance, which a 19th century report quoted in the CIL IX (1883: 661) describes as having collapsed long ago, leaving wall tombs and chambers exposed. Today, nearly every surface inside in this initial tract has been rebuilt or covered with modern cement mixed in with the original tuff. A number of didactic panels have been set up in this area to illustrate the itinerary and various catacomb features, such as the geology, inscriptions, and layout, as well as the significance of Jewish emblems on many tombs. These panels contain up-to-date documentation, but are not yet available on a website or in in a published guide to the site.
The visitor’s itinerary follows a sort of loop – color-coded on one of the entrance panels - going down one of the main corridors to where it terminates in the tuff, and then passing through a connecting gallery to the other long corridor more or less parallel to the first. With the exception of a small flight of stairs in the side gallery, this route is all at one level. Most of the wall surfaces contain rectangular loculi-type burials, three tiers of which are now visible. The present height of the galleries (ca. 2 m.), however, is modern, because several layers of gravel and a sort of boardwalk in what looks like plywood have recently been laid over the tombs (fossae) dug into the floor. Dr. Savarese explained to me that rabbis from Rome and other countries had determined that this was the acceptable way to preserve Jewish tombs with respect to halakah. It is also the reason why the wall tombs and other visible burial spaces are empty of human remains. The floor covering not only allows Jewish purity laws to be respected, but also facilitates wheelchair access through the site, since the short flight of stairs in the branch gallery was also covered up after tombs were identified in the steps.
In addition to the loculi and floor tombs, there are many examples of a distinctly Southern Italian type of funerary structure – what seems to be an arched or rectangular wall niche deepened in the back to hold multiple tombs, cut parallel to the gallery, often with loculi and perhaps a terminal mensa (I couldn’t tell at a distance) on the inner side walls of the shaft (Colafemmina 2003: 123-124, sees these niches initially as tombs for one or two depositions that were later enlarged by removing the back wall). A number of these niches hold a dozen or more grave shafts, all oriented parallel to the gallery. Some of the individual shafts appear to have held multiple depositions, and there are even instances where another shaft is carved out of the side wall of the first. A large number of the surviving inscriptions that identified a Jewish frequentation of the cemetery come from these areas, including one inscription that identifies an “absida” where a certain “Faustinus” was laid to rest. By the late19th century, few, if any, of the tombs appear to have been left intact (Lacerenza 1998: 315), but some inscriptions that were painted or scratched onto the wall plaster or the niches are still visible, including examples of modern graffiti.
Dr. Savarese explained that the recovery of the wall paintings had been a very difficult process: by the early 21st century, these had all but disappeared. He credits his experience as a restorer and some special, non-chemical techniques with the recovery of features like the menorot flanking the archway of one niche, and the traces of a painted inscription above. The challenges of preserving Venosa’s Jewish inscriptions are well-documented: excavations of the past century and a half have recovered none on stone (these might have already been harvested for buildings in Venosa and perhaps nearby Lavello). What remained in situ were epitaphs painted or scratched onto the plaster coverings of the tombs. A leading scholar of the site, Nikolaus Muller (1886: 56), describes how he reconstructed one inscription in Greek-Hebrew from forty pieces (JIWE 1 n. 111). He also observes, based on study of the site in 1884, that intact wall tombs in the Venosa catacombs had been closed up in masonry and covered with a layer of stucco or plaster so that the tomb, in effect, would be hidden completely from view, literally be part of the wall, aside from an inscription, applied like a label over the sealed recess, usually near the head (Muller, 1886: 51). In a similar manner, strata of plaster were laid over the tiles closing the troughs. Muller gave great emphasis to this “hermetic” sealing, which he thought conformed to Jewish burial practices. is a very fragile feature, impossible to move: in a recent attempt to do so, the plaster broke
Thanks to the lighting system now in place, the Jewish catacomb’s architecture and tomb typology are in clear sight, but the inscriptions are still difficult to make out, as they are faded and situated at some distance from the corridors open to visitors. In addition, at the time of my visit in August of 2016, several side corridors and niches remained in near-darkness, despite the installation of a non-thermal lighting system that Dr. Savarese is especially proud of: as he told me, it provides such dramatic effects that visitors applaud. The issue, according to Dr. Savarese, is that the bulbs are not being replaced by the Soprintendenza, and in advance of my impending visit, he had brought lightbulbs from home. Even with this kind provision, I saw only a handful of inscriptions of the fifty or so that Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe documents as in situ.
In addition to topographical information on the connection of different parts of the site and the extensions made to individual galleries and tombs, I received from Dr. Savarese a marathon presentation of the restorations carried out in the catacomb under his direction. The project was complicated by two great challenges. First, the Venosa catacombs, probably last used for burial in the early middle ages – sixth century? – had been exposed for centuries. Most of the ancient stonework, grave goods, and other building materials are long gone, although intact tombs still exist in some areas. The wear and tear on the site from unregulated visitation – and, in a more remote past, apparently, habitation - has damaged many tomb shafts and wall surfaces, with gaping holes in the galleries and graffiti evident in many spots. The second issue is that the catacomb is situated in a slope of volcanic soil that held, and still must hold in part, many underground tunnels, including what are probably more catacombs above and below the accessible site. The collapse of terrain from landslides caused by earthquakes, rainfall, and terracing for cultivation, along with other environmental concerns, has destroyed the initial tracts of galleries, bringing about the massive reinforcement of the modern site entrance.
Dr. Savarese spoke in particular about the challenge of maintaining a stable microclimate, particularly for the sake of what little plaster with paintings and graffiti remains attached to the walls. During one phase of the restoration, they had decided to drill air shafts from the grounds above (from what I could see, the site had no ancient skylights), which, interestingly enough, had been already considered by the site explorers in 1853. In the drilling process, hollow space – presumably other catacomb galleries – were detected. The existence of multiple levels of galleries was already suggested by explorers of the site in the 1850’s and confirmed in recent studies (Meyers, 1983: 32). Now, however, the work had to be stopped and the shafts filled up because there were signs they de-stablilized the microclimate. In season, a sort of mist still can form in the catacomb, but Dr. Savarese assured me that the microclimate is now stable, with expected variations in temperature and humidity the deeper one penetrates into the site – and any changes would not escape detection.
“Grotte di S. Rufina”
Arriving early for my appointment with Dr. Savarese in his office at the Castello del Balzo, I learned from his colleagues that he had already gone out to the Jewish catacomb that morning. The reason, he explained to me, is that he now had a new superior in Basilicata’s Antiquities department, the result of the on-going reforms of Italy’s Cultural Ministry, which had split the inspectorate for Basilicata in two, with one official in charge of archaeological sites and museums, and the other, of hypogean sites. When I logged on later to the site for the Soprintendenza archeologia belle arti e paesaggio della Basilicata (http://www.sbap.basilicata.beniculturali.it/), I found no explicit reference to this office, but it might be some sort of internal division within the “Ufficio Tecnico”. The new figure in command had asked for a report on the catacomb known as that of “Santa Ruffina” or “Rufina” to get a sense of how and when to inaugurate to the public the results of its restoration from 2009-2011.
Dr. Savarese invited me to accompany him on his official inspection of the second known Jewish catacomb of Venosa, located just 20 meters or so from the first. According to him, it was the first time in five years he had been in the site since its restoration ended in 2011 (financed by Italian Lottery funds). I was excited to do so, since very little has been published on the site from the time it was brought to light once more in 1980. The maps published of the second catacomb in the 1980’s show features similar to those of the first: wide, straight galleries, with consistent patterns of wall slots and larger ground trenches for multiple depositions. Apparently some parts of the Santa Rufina catacomb were directly above the other catacomb, although no connection between the two can now be seen. Here, too, the main galleries are linked by connecting corridors, although at least one connection was done in modern times so that sheep would not get stuck at the back of a shaft.
That no one had been inside Santa Rufina for some time was evident from the layer of dried mud blocking the exterior doorway: in the end, we were able to open it a crack and squeeze in. We then discovered that the electricity had blown a fuse, but Dr. Savarese was able to switch it back on in the control room beside the other catacomb entrance. The lighting plan in Santa Ruffina was slightly different, with an overall softer effect, but generally it lay in the gravel layer on the floor, so that the tombs were illuminated from below. Dr. Savarese was pleased with this design, which he said lent drama to the experience. The play of light and shadow is one of the memorable things in the site, since very little else remains except for the architecture.
I was not permitted to photograph the Santa Rufina catacombs, but can testify it is in a similar condition as the first, though with some surprises. Most importantly, it contains evidence of Jewish burial, notably a menorah scratched into the plaster closure of an intact forma in one of the side niches. This is probably the menorah that Dr. Nava mentioned to you in a phone conversation of December, 2005. Other fragments of inscriptions were recovered in an original or secondary position during the 1981 excavation campaign and later in the restoration and consolidation work carried out on the second entrance to Santa Rufina (in part discussed by C. Colafemmina, 2003: 127). These came from tombs in the galleries closest to the surface level of the hill which are now destroyed.
All that remains in this location are the outlines of loculi on the bottom tiers of galleries. I did not see any artifacts: perhaps they are currently in storage (Colafemmina, 2003: 126-127 mentions, in addition to a marble fragment with two inscriptions in Hebrew, some lamps and tile fragments, as well as pottery/ceramic artifacts of much later periods). Bones, too, also are not in evidence. Overall, the risk of vandalism is minimal, for there is nothing left, and the areas open to visitors have been cleaned out and covered with gravel or concrete. The consolation of the cleaning out of the galleries, is that Dr. Savarese and his colleagues say that the diggers’ marks on the walls are now more evident, giving some indication as to the chronology of excavation in the site, a significant feature to establish, as many galleries are believed to have been excavated directly from the hillside, and then joined together.
Dr. Savarese could not emphasize enough the challenge of opening the site. He described the removal of debris from multiple openings to the outside as taking nearly two years, after which time he often worked alone on repairing the broken walls. Echoing the emotions of earlier explorers, he told me that at times he would sense a presence and feel he would have to leave, that the inhabitants of the site were telling him it was enough, that they wanted to be left in peace.
More evident in the second catacomb are traces of previous visitors and post-Antique uses of the galleries. This helps define the site as that of “Santa Rufina,” which emerges at various times in literature on Venosa’s Medieval and Modern history as a place for human and animal habitation, without any mention of further use as a burial site (although that might be presumed from the hospital on the grounds). A decade before minutely inspecting the Jewish catacomb in 1853, Stanislao d’Aloe had actually seen the Santa Rufina site and passed it off as a medieval burial grounds. Eric Meyers suggests in his 1983 report that there had been a deliberate violation of the Santa Rufina catacomb, not only in the looting of tombs, but also in the removal of markings on the plaster (1983: 33), leaving open the suggestion of a conscious erasing of the Jewish presence and imposition of Christianity by means of a series of crosses and at least one Christogram scratched into the walls. While I saw the crosses and other markings, it does not seem exceptional to what vandals did in hundreds if not thousands of other grottoes, Jewish and non-Jewish, all over the Italy. The Jewish nature of the site might not have been understood for centuries, certainly not by country folk with no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, and even if seen as a site used by an ancient people, it could have been attributed to Greeks or Saracens, who figure largely in “obscure legends” of the zone, including the popular belief, related to me by Dr. Savarese, that under the Lauridia factory are Saracen tombs. The holes in the walls and tomb shafts are more likely to be the work of grave robbers and shepherds (not, of course, mutually exclusive) and the most explicit graffito is, in fact, sexual in overtone (Colafemmina, 2003: 127, n. 3).
On their part, the 19th century antiquaries and antiquities inspectors were overwhelmingly positive and respectful of the Jewish site, almost immediately recognized as Jewish, rather than Christian (Lacerenza, 1998: 382, quotes R. Smith: "non giunge piu' qui rumore di sorta ed il silenzio piu' profondo, unica cosa che rimane intera in questa casa eterna della morte sveglia nell'animo sensi profondi di rispetto ed ammirazione, e trasporta la mente in tempi e fra genti che piu' non sono"). Their recommendation that the site be guarded against vandalism was not taken until very recent times.
Toward the end of our time inside the site, Santa Ruffina, Dr. Savarese seemed inclined to think that aside from some cosmetic work (the plaster walls of the inner vestibule were discolored and the air was thick with a moldy smell), and the lightbulbs that needed replacing, the site was in satisfactory condition. These issues, however, underscore a prevailing problem with the maintenance of the site. From the sheep droppings to the lack of lightbulbs, there is a neglect of the site in its basic upkeep. I cannot imagine most tourists would enjoy the bathroom smell outside or that of mold in some areas of the inside. I also think few busloads of visitors would know to bring a flashlight in case the lights are out.
In conclusion, I don’t flatter myself that it was my telephone call from Rome that brought Dr. Savarese back to the site. This past spring, the catacombs were once again forced into the political arena, after local members of a national political part, the Movimento 5 Stelle, demanded an update on visitor access to the Jewish catacombs (chiarimenti sullo stato dei lavori delle catacombe cd. di Santa Rufina M5s: a Venosa isolamento e degrado per amministrazione distratta 8/5/16 http://www.askanews.it/regioni/basilicata/m5s-a-venosa-isolamento-e-degrado-per-amministrazione-distratta_711805130.htm). The same group also claimed that city officials of a rival party, the Partito Democratico, were denying the existence of Christian catacombs in the area, not been subject to restoration (Mov 5 Stelle: June 16, 2016: Azioni di marketing per il rilancio di cultura e turismo secondo il PD di Venosa), and a new petition was circulated to save the “Christian catacombs” (Archeoclub Venosa May 30 2016).
The upshot is that the lack of tourists to the site does not sit well with Venosa, Basilicata’s “City of Art”. The government funding for the catacombs has produced, I was told, another “cathedral in the desert” in the Italian South, an expensive undertaking that in the end has brought few real benefits to the local economy. As matters stand, plans are afoot to make this catacomb the centerpiece of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (AGR article “Comune Venosa su incontro a Roma con Rabbino Capo, March 23, 2015), conceived of as a sort of heritage trail of the area’s Jewish sites. Perhaps a formal inauguration of the Santa Ruffina catacombs will boost the Venosa’ catacombs’ candidacy for this designation, which was very recently granted to the Jewish catacombs at Beth She’arim (Galilee).
Site History and Documentation to 1860
Although the Venosa inscriptions have been worked over and discussed, the overall layout and development of the cemetery lacks a comprehensive presentation, even after recent and costly interventions that revealed topographical features that ultimately could not be retained or put on view. Combined with other 20th century work in the site that has never been published, or at the most presented in very summary form (Colafemmina, 2003: 126, n. 26, receives information viva voce), the problematic access to the archives of the catacombs’ late and great champion, Cesare Colafemmina, who died in 2012, and, to be quite frank, the large number of fissures in the slope that apparently lead to more burial sites, few of which have been mapped and protected, this lacuna complicates any new discussion of the site and the relationship of the Jewish tombs to other parts of the cemetery, less certain to have been used by Jews.
Venosa’s catacombs, like their Roman counterparts, are on record in the sixteenth century (including a reference to Jews in T, Mommsen, CIL IX, p, 661, ca. 1500: “hebraica epitaphia sunt Venusi in cisternae margine S. Trinitatis, via item ad templum Trani ubi quibusdam subterraneis sacelis et extra oppidum mausolea Judaeorum visuntur”). While no Jews are recorded in Venosa at this time, signs of a collective memory of Jews in the area might be traced to local practices, such as the savage custom in the town of Santa Maria Oculatrice near Venosa that dictated that “any Jew found in the village on Assumption Day (August 15) receive a sound beating” (Morlini: 512-513). Unlike the catacombs in Rome, however, the Venosa cemeteries did not become – at least in the 1500’s - sites for relic hunting (it is possible, with the denomination “Santa Ruffina”, that a Christian shrine stood on the spot an earlier time). Of note is that Christian evidence in the area remained nebulous until very recent times, with the recovery in 1974 of an inscription with crosses and a consular date of 503 in another area of catacombs northeast of the Jewish site (Colafemmina, 2003: 122, thinks there is a possibility that this was the same cemetery searched on the local bishop’s orders in 1857, in the locality of the Costa della Fiumara (formerly, like La Maddalena, part of the Baliaggio, then being rented out to a Vincenzo Antonelli) where marble tomb covers (sarcophagi?) were found. Although in the vicinity of what had been identified as an Oscan site, the tombs in this second cemetery site resembled those in the catacombs).
By the mid-16th century, the monastery lay in ruins, although four of its famed grottoes are marked on a map of properties in 1773 (Colafemmina, 2003: 145, fig. 6). This site, however, seems to have been closed up in the 19th century (Meyers, 1983: 34). A major earthquake in 1853 could have caused the upper catacomb, the “old” or “Jewish” site, to reappear – otherwise, it was likely uncovered in a quarry (Colafemmina, 2003: 120, n. 6), but it was the widespread pillaging that followed that attracted the notice of local authorities and ultimately the Bourbon government in Naples. The three figures most involved in documenting the site in this period (1853-1858) are local scholars Pasquale de Angelis and Raffaele Smith, and a Royal Inspector from Naples, Stanislao d’Aloe (Lacerenza, 1998: 313). The exploratory work in the site in the 1850’s has been extensively documented by C. Colafemmina, G. Lacerenza and now E. Lavorano: there is little need to reiterate their accounts.
Second Half of the 19th Century: Publication
In the twilight years of Bourbon rule, the privileged intellectuals of the Accademia Ercolense pressured the Royal Antiquities Superintendent at Naples to give them the exclusive right to publish the Venosa finds. The project never materialized, however, nor a study of G. Minervini (Lacerenza, 1998: 295), although the government at Naples soon obtained copies of Smith and D’Aloe’s reports (Lacerenza, 1998: 343-349). The account by Smith and De Angelis with accompanying plan was, in fact, a more or less completed manuscript that they had hoped to publish. Even in handwritten form, it was read and copied by other scholars for over a decade until the first scholarly article went to press, in 1867, a lecture by of one of Mommsen’s collaborators, Otto Hirschfeld, to the “Istituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica” in Rome which had broken the news of Jewish catacombs in Rome just a few years before (in 1861).
Hirschfeld, who visited the Venosa site in 1865, confirms many details in the earlier reports: the open tombs, with human remains, the small number of intact or partially intact tombs closed by tiles, many marked by the sign of the candelabrum, and the white plaster covering large stretches of wall. He notes as well two examples of candelabrum with nine branches, rather than the customary seven, and the discovery – perhaps in a nearby site – of three marble sarcophagi that had been removed into the city (he himself saw no traces of marble in the Jewish site). A contemporary account, by Antonio La Vista (1868: 54-55), nonetheless confirms the catacomb suffering from an “absence of control, destruction and violation.”
On the positive side, for all its remoteness and rurality, Venosa was where the great Horace had been born, and from a remote train station in the valley or by way of new roads through the mountains came visitors, especially foreigners, in search of romantic ruins and echoes of Arcadia, like those in an 1877 woodcut of the Jewish catacombs by artist Edmund Kanoldt for the travelogue Italy from the Alps to Mount Etna (1878). Reworked as the picture may have been, several openings into the Maddalena hill are seen: three on one level, and another farther up, near the top.
In this period immediately following Italy’s unification, a staunch nationalist and Jewish linguist from the far north, Graziadio Isaia Ascoli, carefully studied the original casts and copies of the inscriptions from the 1850’s (made by D’Aloe and De Angelis and Smith). An expert on Semitic languages and Italian dialects, he possessed the unique intellectual facilities and training to present and interpret the Jewish inscriptions of Venosa, which previous editors, lacking fluency in Hebrew, had been unable to fully decipher (Hirschfeld, Garrucci, de Rossi, and Momsen had little or no command of Hebrew). His report to the IV congresso internazionale degli Orientalisli in Firenze in 1878 on “Iscrizioni inedite e mal noie greche latine ebraiche di antichi sepolcri giudaici del Napolitano” was enthusiastically welcomed, and gave hope to many that the catacomb was not a lost cause.
The next flurry of activity in the site in 1880’s was by Francois Lenormant, Giuseppe Fiorelli, and Nikolaus Muller. The exterior of the site showed much wear and tear from its long exposure, but still preserved deep within the precious inscriptions “in a nearly perfect state of preservation”. Muller was at Venosa in 1884 and 1889 to document not only the inscriptions, but also what he viewed as material evidence of older (Hellenistic-era) Jewish burial customs in the design and organization of the Venosa cemetery. His research on Venosa’s “buried history” earned him honorary citizenship of the city in 1904 (Lavorano: 198-199).
As mentioned, G. Lacerenza (1998) and E. Lavorano (2015) have published much of the archival evidence for the discovery and exploration of the Venosa catacombs in the 19th and early 20th century, and the inscriptions are included in major collections like the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (1883), Corpus Inscriptionum Hebraearum (1882), Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum (1936), and Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe (1993), though some editors did not see the site (Mommsen, Ascoli, Chwolsen, Frey). The inscriptions were all either painted in red or scratched into the wall surface, and found in situ in the elongated niches off the main corridor, with some recovered at its terminus, or in the galleries partially obscured by cave-ins (Garrucci). Their scrutiny over many decades has served to monitor their preservation: at present, of the 75 or so identified in a Jewish burial context, 52 survive complete or partially in situ (JIWE 1, nn. 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 52, 55, 56, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 74, 75, 76, 77 part, 78, 79, 80, 82, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 101, 104, 106, 107, 108, 109); 16 are lost (last seen in the 19th century); and the whereabouts of seven are not known (91, 92. 93,102,105,110, 111). 1878. This constitutes the fourth largest collection of Jewish inscriptions in Italy after the catacombs of Monteverde, Vigna Randanini, and Villa Torlonia, all in Rome (Lacerenza, 2003: 79). The order of the inscriptions – the exact spot where they were found – has also been much worked on, as scholars like Colafemmina (2003: 124) believe their topographical context can help illustrate the chronology of the site, and a linguistic evolution from Greek to a mixture of Latin and Hebrew.
The recent excavation and restoration of the Venosa catacombs came at a time of new studies of the documentation on the site in various Italian archives (Lacerenza (1998), Colafemmina (2003), Lavorato (2015), Lacerenza (c.s), and Saban (c.s)). As exhaustive and rewarding as the efforts have been, there is more archival material – some outside of Italy - that should be located precisely and evaluated for what light it can shed on the catacomb’s condition over time. The Archivio di Stato di Potenza, the Archivio Storico Comunale at Venosa, and that of the Curia of the Bishopric of Melfi, Rapolla, and Venosa have not yet been exhausted. The Centro Bibliografico of the UCEI is beginning to amass documentation of the last decades (Saban, cs). More challenging would be the recovery of the notes on the site by individuals. Notes on the Venosa catacombs (from the manuscript of R. de Angelis and R. Smith) are found among the papers of Raffaele Garrucci conserved in Naples (“Fondo Garrucci: Iscrizioni del cimitero ebraico di Venosa; appunti vari su iscrizioni ebraiche; fogli sciolti e pezzi vari di carte con note autografe del padre”). The whereabouts of the manuscript on Ancient Jewish Cemeteries of Italy by Bavarian church historian, Nikolaus Muller, are unknown, but his notes and photographs at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin include data on Venosa: hopefully, this will prove to be a complete set of drawings and photographs he made of “every fragment of inscription”.
In terms of more recent record keeping, the Archivio Fotografico della Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma has in its possession a collection of photographs of the Jewish catacombs taken by Dr. Silvia Allegra Dayan in 1991. Of an earlier period (1950’s) are those taken by artist Lisetta Carmi (in an Israeli collection) and Harry Joshua Leon at the University of Texas at Austin.
Other scholars known to have studied the site, especially its inscriptions, but who did not publish their findings, include Eugenio Fabiani, Giovanni Battista de Rossi, and Rocco Briscese. A few of the private collections, including that of the Cassuto family and the extensive documentation of C. Colafemmina, is under review at this time (Lacerenza, cs, CeRDEM). The value of all these archival sources and older studies is their documentation of features not as evident or visible today after extensive building inside the site.
Italy, on its part, had promised to finance the cataloguing of all Jewish cultural monuments and artifacts in its possession, a vast undertaking, still to be concluded forty years after the fact, due to the recurring need for more funds (Lacerenza, 2003: 74, calls the project “misteriosamente estinta”, although it seems to have been revived once, with a new accord between the Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione (ICCD) and Fondazione per i Beni Culturali Ebraici – see September 17, 2015 press statement: “Catalogazione dei beni culturali ebraici: firmata la Convenzione tra la Fondazione per i Beni Culturali Ebraici in Italia e l’ICCD”).
20th century: More Catacombs Found
The Jewish catacombs remained for much of the twentieth century hidden in plain view (or not so plain, when bushes got in the way). Unlike the Jewish catacombs in Rome, oversight of the Venosa catacombs was never turned over to the Vatican, although, ironically enough, a local monsignor, Rocco Briscese, was appointed Honorary Director of the site (Lavorano: 2000). Instead, it was subject to Italian regulations for documented archaeological sites on private properties, which meant that it was up to the landowners to enable access to the site. This, of course, did little for its preservation and upkeep. Even the outside world appears to have paid little attention to the catacomb once its inscriptions had been published. Muller had died in 1912 before completing his site study, and the editor of the Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum, Jean-Baptiste Frey, depended on secondary source material for his section on Venosa, perhaps thinking that the most reliable copies had been made at the time of discovery (Umberto Cassuto, too, in 1934, published new commentary based on Ascoli’s readings). One of the few visitors to the site at this time, Federico Luzzato (1935, 204), protests that the catacomb is essentially hidden from view after new landslides in the area. He was nonetheless able to photograph in the site using magnesium lamps: not the first to be made (Muller had done so previously using the same method: see Lavorano: 198), but the first to be published, providing visual confirmation of the context in which the inscriptions were found. Another visitor, the Hungarian scholar Erno Munkacsi, writes in “Pressa la culla del giudaismo europeo. I segreti delle catacombe” that the site has three entrances (the “old” catacomb, the Lauridia hypogeum, and one not specified) (Lavorano: 201-202). Commercial development led to the discovery of additional catacombs. At an unspecified time – perhaps in the late 1920’s, when Briscese apparently had excavations done - the so-called “Lauridia” hypogeum (after the landowner) came to light about 200 meters southwest of the entrance to the Jewish catacomb. A handful of inscriptions in Latin and Greek (JIWE 1 nn. 113-116) and architectonic features in marble were recovered in the site, but nothing of the hypogeum and its artifacts is now accessible, leaving many in doubt as to a Jewish (or Christian) use. For the few decades it was open, and almost exclusively known to locals, the catacomb was more a neighborhood hangout than archaeological site and duly trashed. The custodian who showed Dino Columbo around in 1960, confided that kids came with pickaxes to hunt around inside for treasure, and it was customary for visitors to take away bone or marble fragments as souvenirs. By the 1960’s, a third burial site near the catacomb, the “catacomba nuova”, was identified, perhaps that of Santa Ruffina. A total of seven cavities were exposed by 1960, although not all showed signs of burial use (Colombo: 447).
During the Second World War, the area grottos became bomb shelters: some, it is said, used to hide Jews (Califano, 2014). Immediately after this time, in a quarry in the Salita di Terranera, a catacomb was found that in its structure and tomb arrangement closely resembled those on the Maddalena (Leon, 1951: 284 and Colafemmina, 2003: 121, n. 8). Its condition, however, was even worse than that of the Jewish site, with virtually every tomb opened, perhaps by the same miners who had found it. The American scholar Harry J. Leon, on the site in 1951, also took note that “the cliff shows indications of other openings which may lead to similar hypogaea.”
Leon had more to say after his 1951 visit to Venosa in the company of local historian, Rocco Biscese, writing for American scholarly audiences that the catacomb had “fallen into such neglect that no first-hand study has been published by any scholar since the visit of Francois Lenormant more than seventy years ago (1882). Still to be made is a detailed report of both the physical features of the catacomb and of the inscriptions.” And he confirms Luzzato’s report of the deteriorating quality of the inscriptions (Leon, 1953-1954: 208), being “able to locate most of the inscriptions in CIJ … (although) some had lost considerable portion of text. Some are apparently destroyed. All surviving practically are dipinti. Graffiti with some exceptions are gone. In some areas, fragments of stucco which have fallen to the ground from the sides of the tomb show clear traces of scratched letters.” Far from being one of the “curious” Americans who would come to the site and “understand nothing” as the custodian later told Levi, Leon had in fact summed up the situation quite well.
In the following decade, Leon’s Jews of Ancient Rome and E. R. Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols of the Greco-Roman Period, coupled with large-scale archaeological campaigns in Israel, brought new awareness (and more “turisti americani”) to Jewish archaeological sites in Italy (Goodenough had also visited Venosa in June of 1951). The Italian Jewish community now considered the Venosa situation carefully. Dr. Leo Levi paid two visits to the site in 1962, and on his recommendation, the President of the UCEI, Sergio Piperno contacted local authorities to request immediate work be done to rescue the site from total oblivion (Lavorano: 204-205; Landslides Peril Jewish Catacombs in S. Italy, Jewish Post, Indianapolis, June 1962; Saban, cs). A hitch in the operations, however, was found: the Venosa site, like its Jewish counterparts in Rome, “inconveniently” existed below private property (Saban, cs). However cooperative the Lauridia family had been with individual visitors, it would demand more of the state in terms of monetary compensation for an independent access to the site (Lavorano: 202-203). Because of this deadlock, the funds freed up to restore the site by the early 1970’s were diverted into other projects in Basilicata (Lavorano 206-207).
That the situation did not remain at a total standstill during the 1970’s is due to one individual, the Roman Catholic priest (later decommissioned), Cesare Colafemmina, Professor of Hebrew at the seminary of Molfetta in Puglia. Departing from the textual study of Hebrew, Colafemmina tracked down more or less single handedly most of the material evidence that we have today for Ancient and Medieval Jewry in Italy’s south. It was the work of a lifetime that centered on Venosa (Lacerenza makes no exaggeraion in his preface to the Colafemmina festschrift, Hebraica hereditas, p. ix, that “e’ diventato quasi paradigmatico associare il nome di Colafemmina a quello di Venosa”). For this reason, Colafemmina made close inspections not only of the Jewish catacomb and Lauridia hypogeum, but also of multitudes of fissures and cracks in the grounds an undertaking – carried out at great personal risk - that detected burial hypogea at different levels on the slope and confirmed the existence of additional Christian and Jewish tombs.
Colafemmina published the results wherever and whenever he could – mostly in local publications not easily found outside of Italy (Zevi, 1992: 176), for it all began as a one priest operation, with no outside funding or support. But two circumstances brought Colafemmina international attention. The first was his discovery in 1974 of a painted arcosolium in a previously unexplored area of the catacomb, which he alone was able to access and photograph (refusing for some time to disclose the exact site for fear of vandalism). It was a magnificent find, a unique tomb in its setting. Unfortunately, the other interesting features Colafemmina describes – the marble slabs over the front of the trough, in imitation of a sarcophagus, the stone architrave, some iron hooks, an inscription with a consular date of 521, were never photographed (Colafemmina, 1978: 380). The second affair was a new and vastly ambitious plan by the UCEI to secure funding from the World Jewish Congress to restore the Venosa cemetery (Saban, cs). The WJC was briefed on the need for immediate intervention at Venosa in a meeting of September 20, 1978 (Saban, cs). As a result, its Heritage Commission in New York City drafted several “Possible Projects” for the southern Italian site. The first was the expropriation of the land, for the most part abandoned (Lavorano: 200-208). The second, curiously, was for further excavation “in order to further excavate the highly decorated Jewish chambers which we now know exist here (as long as this is not yet public knowledge, we (the WJC) are at an advantage and are more likely to receive government permission to protect and develop it)” (letter of Heritage Commission director Doris Brickner). Possibly the WJC was acting on Colafemmina’s advice; to date, no such remains have been found.
Colafemmina also reached out on his own to private benefactors, including the International Committee for the Preservation of the Catacombs of Italy, subsequently renamed the International Catacomb Society (ICS). The ICS archives in Boston preserve numerous letters that Colafemmina wrote in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to ICS executive director, Estelle S. Brettman. From these we learn that Brettmann and Colafemmina met in Boston, Rome, and Venosa (sometimes in the company of one of Colafemmina’s Bari colleagues, Prof. Carlo Carletti), to discuss ways to finance a dream plan to identify more ancient Jewish sites in Italy’s south. Yet Brettman could not provide funding, and her applications on behalf of Colafemmina to other US organizations and corporate sponsors met with no success. By invitation of the Archaeological Society of America, Colafemmina traveled to Boston in late December of 1979 and gave four lectures in English and Italian. One of Colafemmina’s AIA co-panelists, the archaeologist Eric Meyers, became the coordinator of the WJC’s Heritage Committee efforts at Venosa. In meetings over the next year, Meyers and his Bari colleagues, Colafemmina and Giorgio Otranto, worked out a plan to identify another way to access the galleries near the painted arcosolium. Digging began shortly after a devastating earthquake in Italy’s south caused more structural damage to the site (Letter of C. Colafemmina to E. Brettman, January 21, 1981). But Colafemmina – convinced that the “jealousy” of the Soprintendenza was undermining his efforts and preventing him from seeing some features brought to light during its recent consolidation of the hillside, including another level of galleries) was reluctant to relinquish direction of the dig to Meyers. The two archaeologists, in the end, never issued a joint and detailed account of the dig.
What is documented is that from May 18-May 29, 1980, the excavators freed up seven parallel galleries and a number of connecting corridors. A “smattering of late Roman and Byzantine pottery, and many broken pieces of ceramic sealing slabs from the catacombs” (Meyers, 1983: 33) was sorted from the debris, as well as larger quantities of Medieval and early Modern materials, but the analysis of these finds, as well as the continuation of the dig for another season, were put on hold indefinitely. The site thus became an open invitation to more looting (Colafemmina, 2003: 316).
At long last, in 1984, the Venosa catacomb site was expropriated (Lavorano: 208). Paradoxically, at that time, it seems to have gone into another long hibernation, first because of lingering concerns about damage from the 1980 earthquake and then with a “definitive closure” to all visitors in 1995 (Remollino: 2007). Even Colafemmina, it is said, was forbidden entry. A report around the year 2000 included the Venosa catacombs among the monuments in Basilicata in a generally precarious state, not only from structural weaknesses but also because of geomorphic, geological and hydrological factors (Lazzari). The study found earth tremors and land use responsible for much of the structural damage in area cavities, and a weakening of the ceilings of the galleries due to water infiltration. In short, the stability of the catacomb – which in substance consists of elongated cavities in a granular, and therefore powdery volcanic rock – depends on what surrounds it. In the decade that followed, until 2011, the Venosa catacombs were almost always being worked on, first with a grant of euro 5,681,000 by the Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali and later with state lottery funds (fondi Lotto L. 32/92). As I was able to witness during my visit, the results have transformed the site. But whether or not our knowledge can be equally enhanced will depend on much needed comprehensive site survey and evaluation. Only then will the great labor bestowed on this soil bear ripe fruits.
A. Califano describes an anthill of people pushing their way into the catacomb for its inauguration on October 21, 2007 (2014). Fortunately, this seems to be an exception. The site can accommodate groups of perhaps 15-20 individuals at a time (I am not sure if a limit is officially imposed). Even these numbers would be difficult to monitor. The investment, then, in stabilizing the site, will probably never generate large amounts of tourism. With that in mind, and in consideration of the data presented above, I offer these suggestions:
- That the FBCI obtain from the Soprintendenza Archeologica, Belle Arti e Paesaggio della Basilicata copies of all excavation documents (giornali di scavo, reports, graphs, photographs, other data) of the work in the Venosa catacombs to have on file in the Centro Bibliografico UCEI in Rome, which already has some reports (those of Dr. Leo Levi, Ing. Lello Anav and Dr. Silvestro Lazzari, correspondence with World Jewish Congress, etc.).
- That the conference proceedings on the recent site excavations and restorations be available in digitalized or print form.
- That the site be clean and the equipment function properly (lightbulbs).
- Prof. Meyers is resident at the American Academy in Rome for some months in the spring of 2017. I am told by his students that he has notes on the excavation at Venosa. Perhaps the American Academy and UCEI and partnering institutions can organize a new “day of study” in Rome that can bring many points of site documentation into discussion.
It was a terrific experience! Ever grateful.
Jessica Dello Russo
Conferences on the Catacombs of Venosa:
2014 Le Catacombe ebraiche di Venosa (G. Lacerenza) in Primo Seminario di Archeologia ed Epigrafia Ebraica in Italia (December 11, 2014), Centro di Studi Ebraici, Università degli Studi di Napoli L'Orientale, Dipartimento Asia Africa e Mediterraneo
2014 Ketav, sefer, miktav. La cultura ebraica scritta tra Basilicata e Puglia. Exhibition in memory of Cesare Colafemmina. Bari, March 19-April 27, 2014 & Venosa, March 20-September 20, 2014 (catalogue published as: KETAV, SEFER, MIKTAV. La cultura ebraica scritta tra Basilicata e Puglia, ed. M. Mascolo, Bari, 2014).
2009 Archaeology in Venosa: The project of implementation of the archaeological park and the Jewish Catacombs. Matera, 20 maggio 2009 (Presentations by: Maria Luisa Nava, “Presentazione del progetto di intervento su parco archeologico e catacombe ebraiche di Venosa”; Michele Savarese, “Il restauro delle catacombe”; Vincenzo Cracolici “Le catacombe ebraiche e lo studio degli strumenti utilizzati per lo scavo dei cunicoli”; Tonia Giammatteo, Patrizia Macrì, Francesca Pizzi, “Il nuovo intervento di scavo nel parco archeologico”; Annarita Parente, “Le monete dallo scavo nel parco archeologico”)
2003 Catacombe ebraiche a Venosa. Dalla scoperta alla fruizione. Venosa, December 4, 2003 (Presentations by M. L. Nava, “La valorizzazione del patrimonio archeologico di Venosa: finalita’ e risultati attesi”; C. Colafemmina, “La communita’ ebraica di Venosa attraverso l’epigrafia”; V. Cracolici, “Nuovi dati archeologici sulle catacombe”; M. Di Capua, “La valorizzazione delle catacombe nel quadro del Parco Archeologico di Venosa”; G. Di Page, “Nuove metodologie di indagini nell’esplorazione delle catacombe”; G. Angelini, “Conclusioni”). Unpublished.
2001 I beni culturali ebraici in Italia. Situazione attuale, problemi, prospettive e progetti per il futuro, Bologna, 2001 (published)
1979 Diaspora Judaism under the Roman Empire: Recent Archaeological Evidence, American Institute of Archaeology (AIA) Centennial Meeting (C. Colafemmina, "The Jewish Catacombs of Venosa").
1975 XIII Convegno sulle origini del cristianesimo in Puglia e Lucania, organized by the CNR and Universita’ degli Studi di Bari, with report by C. Colafemmina, “Nuove scoperte nel cimitero ebraico di Venosa”.
1970 Antiche civiltà lucane 5-8 aprile 1970 (published)
Adler, H. M. The Jews in Southern Italy, in The Jewish Quarterly Review Vol. 14.1 (October, 1901): 111-115
ArcheoClub Venosa Petition, “"La presente per segnalarvi le "catacombe cristiane" di Venosa (Pz), quale sito da recuperare”: http://www.governo.it/approfondimento/bellezzagovernoit/4793Ar
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Le catacombe ebraiche del Sud-Italia, di Giacomo Saban
Il primo accenno a catacombe ebraiche nel Sud-Italia in ambiente ebraico sembrerebbe essere stato un articolo del 13 ottobre 1932, nel giornale Israel, scritto da Federico Luzzzatto, che espone poi le sue conoscenze sull'argomento in un articolo del 1935, corredato da alcune fotografie, nella Rassegna Mensile di Israel (1). Si evince peraltro dal contesto che Isaia Graziadio Ascola gia' nel 1880 aveva forniti interpretazioni delle epigrafi trovate e che di questo argomento si era occupato anche Umberto Cassuto nel 1934. Nel 1960 un articolo di Dino Colombo, sempre sulla Rassegna Mensile di Israele riprendeva il tema (2).
Il primo documento nell'archivio dell'Unione relativo agli ipogei in Basilicata e' una brevissima relazione, senza firma, che riferisce di un "sopralluogo completo alle catacombe ebraiche di Venosa" effettuato il 17 aprile 1962, al quale ha partecipato il dott. Leo Levi, assieme al Prof. Emanuele Lauridia, quest' ultimo definito in un documento successivo "Ispettore Onorario Antichita' e Belle Arti". Apparentemente subito nella zona sottostante all'ingresso delle catacombe si trovava all'epoca il Caseificio Lauridia ed il terreno sotto il quale si trovano le Catacombe resultava proprieta' di Nicola Lauridia. Su questa visita vi sono inoltre due articoli di Leo Levi che illustrano alcuni dei ritrovamenti (3). Dalla lettera in data 8 giugno 1962 dell'allora Soprintendente alle Antichita' delle Provincie di Salerno e Potenza, Prof. Mario Napoli, al Presidente dell'Unione Sergio Piperno si evince che l'Unione aveva inoltrata una richiesta al Ministero dei Lavori Pubblici per l'istituzione di un cantiere di lavoro per la sistemazione della zona antistante all'ingresso delle catacombe stesse. Non si hanno tracce di quale sia stato l'esito di questa iniziativa.
Nel 1970 Giorgina Arian Levi, deputato al Parlamento, formulava un'interrogazione scritta al Ministero della pubblica istruzione, chiedendo quali provvedimenti erano stati presi per salvaguardare il patrimonio epigrafico ebraico di Venosa. Il Ministero, nella sua risposta segnala che nonostante fondi fossero stati assegnati a questo scopo non era stato possibile intervenire sulle catacombe, dato che erano situate all'interno di una proprieta' privata.
In una lettera del 19 dicembre 1976, Monsignor Umberto Fasola, Presidente della Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra, scriveva al Presidente dell'Unione delle Communita' Ebraiche Italiane Blayer una lettera su tutto il complesso di catacombe ebraiche, menzionando anche quelle di Venosa.
Nel 1978 il Consigliere dell'Unione Federico Steinhaus, che aveva participato alla riunione di New York del Congresso Ebraico Mondiale (16-18 settembre) aveva avuto modo di parlare delle catacombe ebraiche in Italia in una riunione speciale dedicata a questo argomento indetta per il giorno 20 settembre 1978 (4).
All'inizio del 1979 una commissione dell'Unione, costituto dal Rav Elio Toaff, dalla professoressa Tullia Zevi, dalla dottoressa Bice Migliau e da Emanuele Ascarelli assieme a Fritz Becker e Doris Brickner del Congresso Ebraico Mondiale, si reca a Venosa per visitare le catacombe e la zona circostante (5). Nel corso dell'anno ci furono scambi di lettere relative a queste catacombe con la Heritage Commission del Congresso Ebraico Mondiale ed a novembre un'assegnazione da parte di questa di $6,000.00. La stampa incominciava ad interessarsi a queste catacombe, come resultava dagli articoli di Aldo La Capra (6) ed uno di Bruno Tamburiello (7). Successivamente Gerhart Riegner, segretario generale del Congresso Ebraico Mondiale in sede a Ginevra chiedeva progetti dettagliati su Vigna Randanini, Villa Torlonia, e Venosa per stimolare raccolte di fondi per il loro restauro mentre Rav Toaff aveva una folta corrispondenza con la Soprintendente Archeologica di Venosa, Elena Lattanzi sulla situazione del sito.
Nel mese di maggio 1980 il Ministero per i beni culturali ed ambientali autorizzava gli scavi a Venosa. Si ebbero dunque nuove indagini anche perche' un terremoto il 23 novembre 1981 danneggio' parzialmente la struttura. La missione americana, diretta da Eric Meyers del Dipartimento di Religione della Duke University e l'Istituto di Letteratura Cristiana Antica dell' Universita' di Bari diretto da Giorgio Otranto hanno collaborato in quella sede e Cesare Colafemmina assieme ad Otranto sono stati i principali ricercatori.
Il 31 marzo 1981, su sollecitazione di Rav Toaff, in quanto Consigliere dell'UCEI responsabile del progetto, l'Ing. Lello Anav si e' recato a Venosa e ha fatto un sopralluogo (8) ed un cartetggio dello stesso anno assieme ad una documentazione fotografica illustra i lavori. Una relazione alla Soprintendenza ai Beni Archeologici per la Basilicata relativa ai lavori di pronto intervento necessari per le catacombe di Venosa fatta dal geologo Silvestro Lazzari accompagna la relazione Anav (9). Vi fu anche un incontro con F. Becker a riguardo. Esiste un'ampia documentazione relativa alle indagini archeologiche fatte in quel periodo ed in precedenza (10).
Da allora l'Unione delle Communita collabora con il Ministero per i beni e le attivita' culturali per la conservazione di questo sito che, per motivi strutturali di natura geologica, presenta gravi problemi. La Dottoressa Maria Luisa Nava, gia' Soprintendente per i Beni Archeologici della Basilicata e successivamente in servizio presso quella di Napoli e Caserta, dopo avere recentemente consolidato gli ingressi delle due catacombe ha terminato la costruzione di una struttura che permette visite senza dover camminare direttamente sulle tombe: ha inoltre provveduto a consolidare le volte pre evitare crolli. Infine ha proposto allo scrivente (11) di fare un incontro per - in un certo senso - simbolicamente affidare le catacombe all'Unione. Mentre questa segna gia' un notevole progresso, non e' certo la fine dei lavori in quella sede. L'arcosolio sulla cui parete esiste un bellissimo affresco di argomento ebraico scoperto a suo tempo da Cesare Colafemmina e fortunatamente da lui fatto fotografare e' attualmente invisibile perche' ostruito da una caduta di materiale e sarebbe opportuno trovare il modo di finanziare il recupero di questa decorazione sepolcrale riprodotta peraltro a colori in un lavoro del 1978 (12). Inoltre, anche in questo caso, secondo il parere del Professor Cesare Colafemmina, ci sarebbero zone delle medesime ancora inesplorate, che potrebbero fornire ulteriori interessanti risultati. Nella seconda meta' del mese di dicembre del 2005 la Dottoressa Nava ha infatti informato telefonicamente il Prof. Saban che nei corsi dei lavori di consolidamento delle catacombe dette di Santa Ruffina era venuta alla luce una nuova tomba priva di epitaffio ma con una menorah, dimostrando cosi' in maniera inequivocabile che anche quel complesso era costituto da sepolture ebraiche. Il lavoro in questa catacomba e' continuato nel periodo successivo.
Il 21 ottobre 2007 sono state inaugurate le catacombe ebraiche di Venosa dopo i lunghi lavori di recupero statico e funzionale. Per l'occasione si e' tenuto un convegno nella sala del trono del Castello Pirro Del Balzo.
Presente le autorita' cittadine e regionali ed un rappresentante del governo, ha avuto luogo a Venosa una cerimonia, che segnava la fine di una prima tappa nel recupero di una vasta catacomba ebraica alle porte della cittadina che a dato i natali ad Orazio.
Questa necropoli ebraica, nota agli studiosi sin dal XVI secolo ma esaminata con maggior rigore dopo la meta' dell' Ottocento, e' stata in un primo tempo trascurato ed in parte spogliata ma conserva una vasta collezione di epigrafi che sono state studiate, nel corso di tempo, come gia' ricordato sopra, anche da Isaia Graziadio Ascoli (gia' nel 1880), e da Umberto Cassuto nel 1934. La maggioranza di queste sono scritte in greco, molte in latino, alcune in ebraico, e sono spesso accompagnato da raffigurazioni di oggetti di culto ebraico e di menoroth.
La natura estremamente friabile del terreno ne ha sempre reso difficile la conservazione ed e' solo da pochi anni che e' stato intrapreso un lavoro di consolidamento dell'ingresso e di alcuni percorsi, in modo da rendere visitabile una parte di questo ipogeo. Inoltre la presenza di tombe nei corridoi ha necessitato la creazione di una struttura che permettesse la visita senza che il passaggio di molte persone creasse il rischio di sfondar alcune delle medesime.
Un'affresco, che ornava un arcosolio importante, con al centro una menorah, affiancata da un lulav, un etrog, uno shofar, ed una fiala di olio, fortunatamente fotografato a colori al momento del ritrovamento (ad opera del Prof. Cesare Colafemmina) e' purtroppo oggi invisibile perche' frane ne bloccano attualmente l'ingresso.
Questo fatto evidenzia quanto siano necessari interventi di consolidamento che, molto probabilmente, permetteranno di accedere anche ai numerosi altri cunicoli per ora inesplorato e che sicuramente forniranno altro interessante materiali.
Le iscrizioni (oltre 75) per ora decifrate e pubblicate, mostrano che la popolazione ebraica, dal III al V secolo era sicuramente bene integrata e che alcuni membri notabili della communita' occupavano cariche civili, partecipando attivamente alla gestione della citta'. Dalle stesse epigrafi risulta anche che la communita ebraica era molto legata alla terra d'origine, con la presenza di emissari venuti da Gerusalemme, con la frequente affermazione di attesa della ricostruzione del santuario, ripetuta su numerose pietre tombali.
In occasione del completamente di questa prima parte dei lavori di recupero di queste catacombe il Sindaco di Venosa, Miranda Casagrande, ha organizzato una ceremonia di apertura, che 'e stata preceduta da interventi, nella Sala del Trono del Castello Pirro Del Balzo, dal Sincaco stesso, dal Presidente della Regione Basilicata Vito De Filippo, dal Prefetto di Potenza Mauriello, e dal Magnifico Rettore dell'Universita' della Basilicata, Professore Antonio Mario Tamburro.
Hanno successivamente esposto la natura degli interventi (consolidamento, illuminazione, monitoraggio sismico, ecc.) il Soprintendente Archeologico della Basilicata Professore Massimo Osanna e la Soprintendente Archeologica di Napoli e Caserta ma anche Direttrice dei Lavori di Recupero del Parco Archeologico di Venosa, la Dottoressa Maria Luisa Nava.
Hanno quindi portato il loro saluto Rav Riccardo Di Segni, Rabbino Capo della Communita' Ebraica di Roma, il Professore Giacomo Saban, in rappresentanza del Presidente dell' Unione delle Communita' Ebraiche Italiane, l'Ingeniere Bruno Orvieto, in qualita' di Presidente della Fondazione per i Beni Culturali Ebraici in Italia.
I presenti si sono poi recati alle catacombe dove il Rav Di Segni, dopo una breve preghiera in ebraico e' stato invitato dal Sindaco a tagliare il nastro che chiudeva l'ingresso principale e successivamente il Sindaco consegnava simbilicamente all'Unione, nella presenza del Professor Saban, la chiave delle cataocombe stesse.
Infine i presenti hanno potuto visitare il percorso delle catacombe aperto al pubblico. Le visite sono continuate per tutta la giornata.
Da allora le catacombe ebraiche di Venosa sono visibili, telefonando per prendere un appuntamento al Dott. Michele Savarese della Soprintendenza dei beni e le attivita' culturali al numero telefonico 0972/36095.
Infine nel 2012 la nota casa editrice Brill di Leiden (Paesi Bassi) ha pubblicato come Volume 49 nella sua collezione Studia Post Biblica "The Jews in Calabria" del Professor Cesarea Colafemmina.
(1) Federico Luzzatto, Iscrizioni ebraiche di Venosa, in Rassegna Mensile di Israel, Vol. X (1933), pp. 203-205.
(2) Dino Colombo, Le catacombe ebraiche di Venosa, in Rassegna Mensile di Israel, Vol XXVI (1960), pp. 415-416.
(3) Leo Levi, Ricerche di epigrafia ebraica nell'Italia Meridionale, in Rassegna Mensile di Israele, Vol XXVIII (1962), pp. 132-155 e Le iscrizioni della "Catacomba nuova" di Venosa, in Rassegna Mensile di Israele, Vol. XXXI (1965), pp. 358-365.
(4) Archivio UCEI, unita' n. 197, sotto unita' n. 197/3.
(5) Archivio UCEI, relazione del Rav Toaff al Presidente del Unione in data 4 febbraio 1979.
(6) Archivio UCEI, articolo in data 22 novembre 1979.
(7) Archivio UCEI, Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, articolo in data 27 gennaio 1980.
(8) Archivio UCEI, 1.21, segnatura prov. 269, Relazione dell'Ing. Lello Anav del 13 aprile 1981.
(9) Archivio UCEI, relazione Lazzari.
(10) Cesare Colafemmina, Saggio di scavo in localita' "Collina della Maddalena" di Venosa, Relazione preliminare, in Vetera Christianorum, Vol. 18 (1981), pp. 443-451, A. M. Bisi, La riscoperta di Venosa. Un interessante itinerario archeologico nell'Italia del Sud, in Mondo Archeologico, Vol. 56 (maggio, 1980), pp. 24-41.
(11) Conversazione telefonica del 19 settembre 2005.
(12) Cesare Colafemmina, Nuove scoperte nella catacomba ebraica di Venosa, in Vetera Christianorum, Vol. 15 (1978), pp. 368-381.