Ancient cave sanctuary to be stabilized for visitors

The Archaeological Park of Pompeii has embarked on a new plan to stabilize and conserve a 5th century cave sanctuary at the ancient site of Stabiae. Currently the Cave of San Biagio is closed to the public and hidden behind structural supports. Authorities aim to consolidate the cave and facing ridge with the ultimate goal of making it safe for visitors.

The Cave of San Biagio is located at the foot of the Varano Hill directly underneath the Villa Adriana, one of the Roman luxury villas overlooking the Bay of Naples in the ancient resort city of Stabiae, an exclusive enclave for the wealthy. The cave has lived many lives. It began as a side-effect of construction. Tufa was mined from the slopes of the Varano Hill in the 1st century B.C. to build the stately pleasure domes of Stabiae leaving five man-made caves.

Archaeologists believe one of the caves was used as a pagan temple before being converted to a Christian cemetery in the 5th century. It held the remains of members of one prominent Stabiae family and several other individuals. The cemetery became an oratory dedicated to Saint Michael by Benedictine monks in around the 7th century. They too used the cave to bury their dead, enclosing coffins in brick vaults from floor to ceiling.

The cave is 33 meters long by three meters wide (108 x 10 feet), a numerologically ideal measurement in terms of Christian symbology. The entrance opens into a rectangular atrium supported by tufa arches. Traces of late medieval frescoes have been found on the atrium wall. The nave is decorated with frescoes on the left wall, including the busts of Saint Michael, Saint Raphael, Saint Maurus and the archangel Uriel. The walls were frescoed several times. The first cycle dates to between the 5th and 6th centuries, the second to the 10th and 11th centuries.

By the 14th century, the cave was described in contemporary records as a church dedicated to Saints Jason (the name changed over time into “Biagio”) and Mauro. The Benedictines continued to own the land and administer the sanctuary until they abandoned the site in the 17th century. Local rumors spread that there was a treasure hidden in the cave, making it a target for vandalism and looting. In 1695, church officials ordered it closed as it had become a wretched hive of scum and villainy. The sanctuary to the saint was removed and reinstalled in the cathedral of Castellammare di Stabia.

The abandoned cave was briefly used to store gunpowder in the 19th century, but its ancient history, human remains and frescoes were largely neglected save for one publication in the late 1800s. The Cave of San Biagio was finally explored systematically only in 1950. Archaeologist Libero D’Orsi was the first to investigate the cave, discovering the Christian burials dating back to late antiquity. The vaults built by the Benedictines to seal in their deceased brothers had collapsed and the fresco cycles heavily damaged by misguided treasure hunters.

Monitoring involves the execution of coring up to a lower quota than the tax level of the San Biagio cave, the positioning of inclinometers to measure any instability on the Varano ridge, topographic surveys, and preventive stratigraphic essays. The laboratory tests on the samples extracted from the cores will be carried out at the Federico II University of Naples, and will provide the data necessary for the continuation of the scientific activities

“It is a unique context to recover and enhance, which adds to the historical framework of the archaeological evidence of the Stabia area,” declares the Director Gabriel Zuchtriegel. “The whole territory is the object of great attention by the Archaeological Park which is investing a total of around 4 million Euros in Castellammare di Stabia in recent years. In addition to the investigations into the cave of San Biagio, we have a series of research, maintenance, restoration and accessibility projects in the field of the ancient villas on the Varano plain and a project to expand the Libero D’Orsi Museum at the Quisisana Palace. Given the uniqueness and complexity of the heritage present in the area, we can define Stabia as a true cultural giant and as such it must be told.”