Epitaph from the Jewish Catacombs, Capitoline Museums.

On September 5, Italy will join twenty-four nations in celebrating the eleventh annual European Day of Jewish Culture. In Rome, there will be lectures, concerts, and exhibits dedicated to this year’s theme, Art and Judaism. Perhaps the most exciting events of the day will be the guided tours of the Jewish catacombs of Villa Torlonia. Visitors will be given a rare glimpse at in-situ ancient Jewish funerary art, primarily fresco, in a sanctuary that is normally off-limits to the public.

Located on the via Nomentana beneath the Villa Torlonia, a former aristocratic home and one-time residence of Mussolini, these catacombs were used for Jewish burials from the second to fifth centuries. They are among the oldest of such cemeteries in Rome and predate their more accessible and well-known Christian counterparts.

Catacombs were a common form of inhumation burial in Roman antiquity. They were hewn out of the living rock, a soft volcanic tufa, and were typically composed of intersecting hallways trimmed with niches for single body burials called loculi. Those of means could afford larger, more private group burials in rooms called cubicula—literally bedrooms—which were richly decorated with frescos.

The cubicula of the Catacombs of Villa Torlonia preserve colorful frescoes depicting Jewish symbols like lulavim, etrogim, shofarot, and seven-branched menorot. Other images of animals and flowers may symbolize paradise, or simply be drawn from contemporary funeral iconography common to all religions in Rome.

The Jewish Catacombs of Villa Torlonia can be visited on September 5 every hour from 9 AM to 5 PM. Reservations are compulsory and comfortable clothes and sturdy shoes are recommended. Contact La Fondazione per I Beni Culturali Ebraici in Italia Onlus for reservations and details (39-340-736-8280). For information on other events on the European Day of Culture, consult this website.