Fathers Virgilio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda
Two archaeologists at the doors of Peter’s House
On 16 April 1968, in the year of St. Peter’s centenary, the site at Capernaum was reopened after 42 years under the direction of Father Virgilio Corbo.
Building on the experience he had acquired at the Herodion fortress, Father Corbo directed the investigations beneath the Byzantine era octagonal church that had been brought to light in 1921 by Father Gaudenzio Orfali; the apse from the church had been discovered four years later by Father Antonio Gassi.
The mosaics were removed in order to better preserve them, thus allowing deeper excavations beneath the Byzantine structures. Within a week after works had been initiated by Father Corbo, along with Fathers Stanislao Loffreda, Bellarmino Bagatti and Godfrey Kloetzly, the Fathers already had in hand a large quantity of fragments of painted plaster, belonging to the earlier domus ecclesiae, on which numerous graffiti were preserved. Some of the graffiti contained Christian symbols and invocations to Christ carved by faithful and pilgrims, a sign of the ancient veneration of the site.
Excavations were also carried out in the areas enclosed by the boundary wall of the Byzantine church, and the results showed that a series of walls and pavements had succeeded one another, from the ancient Roman to the late Roman periods.
Beginning with the second season of excavations, Father Stanislao Loffreda ofm worked continuously alongside his colleague Virgilio. In view of the results that had been achieved, on 30 October Father Loffreda was given permission to open a small excavation trench underneath the floor of the 4th century domus ecclesiae. The archaeologists needed to determine the age of the house they had found.
The preservation beneath the floor of layers of increasingly older ceramics convinced them to carry out a more extensive excavation. An intact pot that had never been used, oil lamps from the time of Herod, fragments of colored plaster and a succession of different pavements led to the conclusion that, a half century after Jesus’ resurrection, this particular room in the house had been enlarged and embellished. A room used for the gatherings of the first Judeo-Christians in which Christ’s presence in Peter’s house was commemorated; the place itself where, according to the Gospels, a number of miracles took place. The news of these exceptional discoveries reverberated in news columns everywhere, and the echo was not limited to the academic world: Capernaum was soon to become one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the Holy Land.
From 1968 to 1986 Father Corbo directed nineteen archaeological campaigns, which yielded four principal results:
- a retracing of the history of Capernaum from the Middle Bronze Age to the Arab period;
- a more precise dating of the monumental synagogue from the 4th-5th centuries (recent studies have further moved the date forward to the late 5th century);
- the discovery beneath this synagogue of traces of an earlier synagogue from the time of Jesus;
- bringing to light the remains of Peter’s house, transformed into a place of domestic worship.
At the same time the excavations were being carried out, Father Corbo also supervised the restoration of the ruins at Capernaum, and the re-positioning throughout the area of architectural elements from the synagogue and other recovered items, so that they can be more easily appreciated by pilgrims and tourists.
Finally, he saw his grand wish of a revival of worship at the “House of Peter” realized, with the construction of a new Memorial, inaugurated on 29 June 1990, which he had carefully monitored throughout all of the stages of its execution. Father Corbo, who died the following year, is buried in Capernaum beside the venerated room, as had been his great wish.
Beginning in 2000 a further four seasons of excavations were carried out under the direction of Father Stanislao Loffreda, focusing on the Arab and Byzantine parts of the residential area located to the east of Peter’s house and the synagogue. Apart from the excavations, over the past decade Father Loffreda has continued publishing the volumes of the series “Cafarnao [Capernaum]”, now numbering nine.