Vatican Necropolis

Vatican Necropolis | Saint Peter's Final Resting Place

The Vatican Necropolis is located beneath the Vatican City, or more precisely beneath St. Peter's Basilica. The location was found in the early years of Pius XII Pacelli's presidency (1940–1949), when he conducted a number of archaeological investigations in the vicinity of the Vatican Confession and in the heart of the Sacred Caves.

Visitors are directed down three levels upon having entered the Scavi, or Vatican Necropolis, to a pagan burial site from the first century AD with a few modest clay and stone archives, then to a combined pagan and Christian burial ground from the fifth century with many moderate sized stone mausolea and other ruins, including a broken portion of a large arch. In general, these two levels and the periods in which they would have been used account for nearly 90% of the Roman Empire's existence.

These levels are separated by a tiny earthen mound with a hole in it that is lighted, loosely gated off, and said to contain St. Peter's bones. This maze has the papal grotto as well as an early Christian chapel from the 12th century that has roof vents that extend into the basilica's floor.

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Secrets of The Vatican Necropolis

The Reign of The Etruscans

To gain a comprehensive understanding of the necropolis in Vatican City, we must venture back to the era of the Etruscans, which predates the founding of Rome by centuries. The Etruscan civilization established a necropolis on a nearby hill, believed to be guarded by the goddess Vatika, and this hillside settlement was known as Vaticum. In keeping with their customs, the Etruscans typically buried their deceased outside the confines of city walls, leading to the establishment of the necropolis on Vatican Hill. It is essential to note that at this point in history, Christianity had no involvement in this region, and the Etruscans were the earliest known inhabitants of Vatican Hill.

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The Construction of The Church

The land of the Vatican became part of the city of Rome following the Roman conquest that overcame the Etruscan civilization. Over time, the area remained relatively unchanged until the reign of Caligula, who built a circus that served various purposes, including Christian martyrdoms, horse races, and other sports. Tragically, between 64 and 67 AD, St. Peter was crucified by Nero in this very circus, and subsequently, he was laid to rest in the nearby necropolis.

St. Peter's burial site soon became a significant place of pilgrimage. With the Edict of Milan in the year 313, Constantine the Great issued orders for the construction of a commemorative basilica. The construction process involved digging up the necropolis to make way for the foundation of the new church, leaving it situated below the floor level.

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The location of The Tomb

The construction of St. Peter's Basilica commenced in 1506 under the patronage of Pope Julius II. However, during its construction, the grave of Saint Peter, the apostle, was not immediately discovered within the basilica. The complexity arose from the fact that the basilica consists of two floors, and efforts to locate the apostle's remains were carried out in the 20th century.

Excavations proved to be challenging due to the presence of multiple layers of history. The lower layer contained an ancient necropolis, while the higher layer held the Vatican Grottoes, a church-like necropolis featuring three naves, tunnels, and chapels. These intricate layers made it difficult to pinpoint Saint Peter's exact burial site.

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Discovery of The Tomb

In a 100-meter length, excavation work beneath the Vatican has so far revealed a total of 22 mausoleums, all of which are connected by a central channel and are lavishly decorated with mosaics, murals, and lovely sarcophagi. The tomb of the apostle, however, was one of the best kept secrets of the Vatican Necropolis.The riddle started to come together ten years after the excavations first began. Evidence showed that in the fourth century, Constantine the Great carried the bones from the first niche to the new church, where they were laid out in a purple shroud sewn with gold thread. It wasn't until 1952 that a piece of the 'Red Wall' in the necropolis offered unambiguous proof. "Peter is inside," the caption reads in Greek letters.

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St. Peter’s Tomb

Emperor Nero accused the Christians for a large fire that broke out in Rome in the year 64 AD. As a result, St. Peter, who was regarded as the head of the Christians, was crucified. He was eventually laid to rest not far from where he passed away in the Vatican Necropolis. To honor St. Peter's passing, Emperor Constantine I commissioned the building of a large basilica in 326 AD. The saint's last burial site at the Vatican Necropolis was covered by this ancient church. Pope Julius II, who sought to maintain the reverence of St. Peter's burial site, erected a new church on the same location following the destruction of Old St. Peter's Basilica. The new St. Peter's Basilica, which was built in the 15th century, now contains the revered grave of the Apostle within the Vatican Necropolis under its grounds.

Michelangelo made sure that the dome of the Basilica was built over St. Peter's Tomb when he was designing the Basilica. Both of these structures, which were constructed just above the tomb and even the Baldacchino created by Bernini, signify the great regard in which St. Peter is held. Pope Pius XI requested to be interred next to the St. Peter Tomb, which led to the area's renown as a cemetery. There are now 91 Popes and other notable people buried at the Vatican Necropolis.

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Inside of The Necropolis Vatican

Inside Vatican Necropolis, you can witness the Pagan burial site that has several tombs for the dead. These tombs in this level date back to the 1st century and are made of clay and stone. Above this level, you can see the burial ground for the Pagan and Christians that dates back to the 5th century.

This level contains several mausoleums made of stone, ruins, and an arch piece. You can also find a small mount with a hole, which is believed to contain the bones of St Peter between the two levels. You can also spot a rock here over which the original basilica was first built.

Excavations at The Vatican Necropolis

20th Century

The excavations at Vatican Necropolis first started in the 20th century and were carried out from 1940 to 1949. The excavation was initiated by Pope Pius XII with a mission to locate the actual grave of St Peter. The operation was led by Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, a prominent archaeologist.

During the excavation mission, several mausoleums and tombs were unearthed and were named with Greek, Latin, and English alphabets for easy reference. These mausoleums are believed to have been used by many generations and even shared between families. Each mausoleum has held more than 100s of funerals.

21st Century

In 2003, more of the necropolis was unearthed during the construction of a car park. Ground-penetrating radar and 3D imaging were used for non-invasive exploration into the necropolis. The site is now open to visitors, and some tombs have undergone restorations.

In 2023, the Vatican Museums expanded access to the Via Triumphalis Necropolis. This is the place where bones of people who were buried between the 1st century B.C. and 4th century A.D. have been excavated, studied, and returned to their final resting place.

St. Peter’s Grave

The small area known as Peter Campus, marked as field P, is believed to be the grave of Apostle Peter. Tradition holds that Peter was martyred in the Circus Nero and laid to rest in the nearby necropolis. Approximately 100 years after Peter's death, a shrine was constructed over his grave.

,Despite laws safeguarding the Necropolis, Emperor Constantine I chose to construct a basilica directly above Peter's supposed grave. This led to the filling of the necropolis with soil and debris, excluding St. Peter's tomb and it was intentionally preserved by the excavation office at Vatican Necropolis.

Construction and Architecture of the Vatican Necropolis

Caligula's Circus

The origin of the Necropolis Vatican can be traced on the southern slope of the Vatican Hill, just besides the circus constructed by Emperor Caligula. This circus, also known as the Circus of Nero, was used for horse races, games, and Christian martyrdom.

An Egyptian landmark structure was placed at the top of the circus, which still stands today at St. Peter's Square. As Roman law prohibited burial within the city, the construction of Vatican Necropolis and the circus were carried outside the city limits.

Construction of Old St. Peter's

The construction of Old St. Peter's Basilica began between 318-322 CE and lasted for 40 years. This construction marked a significant shift in the architecture of Vatican Necropolis. The basilica which was completed in the 4th century boasted a vast central portion with aisles, an atrium, and numerous chapels and altars.

During this time, the basilica was a major pilgrimage site and the Roman necropolis was still in use. However, Emperor Constantine I decided to build a basilica just above the supposed grave of the Apostle Peter. To obtain the necessary amount of flat area for the planned construction, Emperor Constantine I excavated part of the necropolis of the Vatican hill.

This caused the necropolis except St. Peter's tomb to be filled with soil and building debris.

Plan Your Vatican Necropolis Tour

Location & Timings
How to reach

Location: Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Città del Vaticano, Vatican City

Timings: Mondays to Fridays: 9.00 AM - 6.00 PM.Saturday: 09.00 AM- 05.00 PM

Last entry: April to September: 04.15 PMOctober to March: 03.00 PM

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By Metro: The Ottaviano-S. Pietro station on Line A is used to reach the Vatican Necropolis which will take 11-15 minutes.

By Train: The nearest station is St. Pietro train station by taking the train from Roma Termini which will take about 35 minutes to reach.

By Bus: You may go to the Vatican by using buses 40, 64, 62, and 81, the bus takes about 30 minutes to reach at the destination.

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Tips and Tricks

  • Purchase your Vatican Necropolis tour tickets in advance since there is a daily limit of 250 people to the Necropolis.

  • Select a guided tour to discover the Vatican Necropolis while learning everything there is to know about it.

  • Only people aged 15 and up are permitted access.

  • You won't be turned away if you adhere to the dress code.

  • Please leave your bags, luggage, parcels, and containers in the cloakroom.

  • Arrive at the meeting location at least ten minutes before the visit.

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FAQs Of Vatican Necropolis

What is the Vatican Necropolis?

The Vatican Necropolis is an ancient Christian cemetery, home to the tombs of some of the most important saints in Christianity, including Peter the Apostle.

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Can you tour the Vatican necropolis?

Yes, one can take a tour of the Necropolis. However, the section allows only 250 visitors each day, and booking one’s tour in advance and online is highly recommended.

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How long is the Vatican Necropolis Tour?

Just the Vatican Necropolis tour in itself would take about 1-2 hours. However, touring the entire city should take up one entire day, if one is planning to visit the Basilica as well as the Vatican Museums.

How do I get into the Vatican necropolis?

To get to the Necropolis, one would first have to arrive at Vatican City. One can take a metro, bus or tram to reach the city from anywhere in Rome. The St. Peter’s Basilica is only a short walk from the City gates.

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Is it important to book Vatican Museums tickets in advance?

Yes, it is important to book Vatican Museums tickets in advance. Due to the popularity of the Vatican Museums, they attract a large number of visitors throughout the year. By booking your tickets in advance, you can avoid long queues and ensure that you gain entry to the museums, especially during peak tourist seasons. Additionally, booking in advance allows you to select specific time slots, providing more flexibility and convenience for your visit.

What Lies Under the Vatican City?

The Vatican Necropolis sprawls about 5-12 meters underneath the Vatican City. It is located below even the Vatican Grottoes, which house Papal crypts and are located directly beneath the Basilica.

Where is St. Peter’s Tomb?

St. Peter’s Tomb is located just underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, along with the rest of the Necropolis. It is believed that the Apostle was initially buried in the Vatican Hill, and later removed to the Necropolis as a mark of respect.


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