Monday, May 19, 2014

Historical Inspiration for The Lost Catacomb, a guest essay by Shifra Hochberg

Shifra Hochberg, a university professor and debut historical novelist, is my guest here today.  I was impressed by the extensive on-site research she conducted for her new release, The Lost Catacomb (Enigma Press, March).  In the following essay, she intertwines her own background and research journey with information on how she incorporated both of these into her novel.  Set in Italy during three vividly described periods the present day, the 3rd century AD, and WWII – The Lost Catacomb is a thoughtful and erudite yet fast-moving thriller about archaeological and personal discoveries.  At its center is Nicola Page, an American art historian with Italian roots who is brought to Rome to examine the provenance of a newly uncovered catacomb; at the same time, she hopes to uncover long-buried secrets about her family.  I hope you'll enjoy Shifra's post.


Historical Inspiration for The Lost Catacomb
Shifra Hochberg

Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by Italy—its culture, its rich archaeological heritage, and even its cuisine. And surprisingly, for someone like me who was brought up in an orthodox Jewish home, I have also been fascinated by the Catholic Church—by its power, its wealth, and its prestige. My father was a congregational rabbi in a small Canadian city, and at the time of Vatican II, the revolutionary changes instituted by Pope John XXIII became the subject of Sabbath table talk in our home. Groups of churchgoers suddenly appeared and asked to view our synagogue services in this new atmosphere of ecumenical detente, and my best friend, my Catholic neighbor Janet, no longer had to mention "perfidious Jews" as part of the ritual of mass on Sundays after Vatican II was enacted.

My fascination with Italy and the Vatican, however, explains only one part of the impetus for writing The Lost Catacomb. The other part was inspired by my interest in the Holocaust—with the need to understand how it could have taken place and how differing circumstances in different European countries contributed to such a cataclysmic event. And although I had taken a college course on the history of the Holocaust with Prof. Lucy Davidowicz, author of The War Against the Jews, not much had been written at that point in time on the fate of Italian Jewry.

Vatican Gardens

Thus began my research on the history of the Jewish community of Rome, from the days of Julius Caesar through the time of World War II. Over a period of several years I must have read well over a hundred non-fiction books on the history of Italy and the Catholic Church, as well as untold numbers of Vatican and WWII thrillers, not to mention every literary or romance novel about Italy that I could get my hands on.

Entrance to the Vigna Randanini catacomb network,
estate of the Marchesa Letitzia del Gallo

I visited Italy over a dozen times, interviewing families of Italian Holocaust survivors, some of whose stories appear in fictionalized form in my novel. I also tried to see every catacomb open to the public in churches and along the Via Appia Antica, including those of San Sebastiano and San Callisto, which figure in my novel; and as the plot line for The Lost Catacomb began to take shape, my husband's Italian colleague, Prof. Bruno Bassan of La Sapienza, arranged for us to visit the catacombs of the Vigna Randanini on the estate of the Marchesa Letitzia del Gallo, which are generally closed to the public.

Pagan hypogeum, Vigna Randanini

These catacombs had begun as pagan burial places and were later extended to include a Jewish underground tomb network. Bruno, my husband and I were accompanied there by a retired archaeologist from the Vatican who had been involved in excavations and restoration work at the Vigna Randanini. Like my protagonists, Nicola and Bruno—who was re-named in memory of our friend, who died of a massive heart attack before my novel was finished—we saw pagan burial chambers, Jewish hypogea and kôchim or layered tombs. All of the details of this catacomb network as presented in The Lost Catacomb are authentic—the gloomy passageways, the dank and chilly air, the marble plaques with their Greek writing, the frescoes and iconography—everything except the titular lost catacomb, which is the product of my imagination.

Jewish hypogeum, Menorah detail, Vigna Randanini
Apart from several visits to the Vatican Museums and the Vatican gardens, I was also privileged to view a collection of Jewish tomb artifacts that are not open to the general public. This also required special permission and a private Vatican guide. These artifacts included tomb markers from Jewish catacombs which have collapsed over the years and are either no longer safe to visit or have been "lost" to posterity. In fact, they are the only remnants of the once-flourishing synagogai or communities that were scattered around Rome, apart from the Vigna Randanini and the archaeological site of Ostia Antica on the outskirts of Rome, which includes the ancient synagogue where the fictional Mariamne was mater synagogus.

Memorial to victims of the Ardeatine
Cave massacre, Fosse Ardeatine
To further ensure the authenticity of my setting, I also visited other places that appear in The Lost Catacomb that are not at the top of any must-see list for the average tourist in Rome. These include the Via Rassella, where the Italian Resistenza attacked a group of Nazi soldiers; the Ardeatine caves, where the Nazis executed ten Italians for every German killed in the attack; the Gregorian University, where the fictional Cardinal Rostoni studied; and of course La Sapienza, where the fictional Bruno is a professor in the Archaeology Department.

 Other sites include the ghetto and Tempio Maggiore; Santa Maria in Trastevere, where the kindly Father Donato tended his flock of parishioners; Tiberina Island, with the Fatebenefratelli Hospital where both the real and the fictional Bruno's father hid during the war; and even the street where the Villa Wolkonsky—which housed Nazi headquarters in Rome—was located.

Main artery of the cardo,
excavations in Ostia Antica

Having gathered so much material, the challenge then became how to pare it down and make it readable—that is, how to avoid having it sound like a "dryasdust" treatise on history (to quote the famous 19th-century writer, Thomas Carlyle). The narrative needed complexity, but not the kind of complexity that would be dependent on dense historical detail that might bore the average reader. I wanted the end result to be a novel that would reach a wide reading audience—including lovers of historical fiction, those with a specific interest in the Holocaust, and thriller fans who wanted something more than the usual shallow commercial fare.

So I began by making the narrative itself more multi-layered by having Nicola's search for the provenance of the lost catacomb be paralleled by her search for her family roots in Rome. Excavating the past thus became a dual motif. The next logical step was to make Nicola's love story—her relationship with Bruno—be echoed by two other interfaith love stories, that of Mariamne and the lost pope (a figure I based on the tantalizing gap found in the real Liber Pontificalus) and that of Nicola's grandmother Elena and her Jewish boyfriend Niccolò.

Vatican Gardens, the Pope's personal emblem

The motif of loss referred to in the title of the novel also enters the narrative repeatedly, in the form of more than one lost catacomb, a lost pope, lost manuscripts and treasures, lost identity, and lost lovers. And throughout I tried to add a metaphoric backdrop—namely the stars—symbolizing fate and a preordained historical narrative vs. free will or the extent to which man can alter his fate. I also incorporated the myth of Andromeda, which works ironically at times, symbolizing the possibility of rescue—or the failure to be rescued—from the threat of monstrous evil. Yet another layer of complexity was added through the epigraphs that precede each section of the novel and whose function is to elicit a certain element of suspense or expectation, as well as other, more subtle, literary allusions that appear from time to time in the text, including subtexts from Faulkner, Milton, and Shakespeare.

Arch of Titus, relief of Temple treasures being brought to Rome, Foro Romano

The photos accompanying this post were taken by me at the Vigna Randanini, the Vatican Gardens, the Foro Romano, the Ardeatine Caves, and Ostia Antica, and I hope that they will help readers further visualize some of the important elements of setting in The Lost Catacomb.



Shifra Hochberg has a Ph.D. in English literature from New York University and has published over 20 academic essays, mainly in the field of nineteenth-century fiction. Her latest essay, on one of John Donne's poems, is forthcoming in Christianity and Literature. Shifra currently teaches at Ariel University in Israel and is working on a new novel, this time set in France.

Visit her website at


  1. Wonderfully interesting post. I'm currently reading a series of HF by Manda Scott set in 1st Century Rome, and just finished reading Monuments Men so this post and this book seem esp. meaningful to me. I'm adding the Lost Catacomb to my wish list.

  2. Thank you for the marvelous post with the visuals

  3. Something so moving about time-worn statuary.

  4. Thank you for such an interesting post