The demolition of the Constantinian basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, in the 16th century, in order to build the present church, also required the demolition of the neighbouring circular chapel of St Petronilla. This building stood next to the south door, and probably predated the basilica. Like the chapel of St Andrew nearby, it was probably a Roman tomb of the 2-3rd century, half-buried by the earth platform on which St Peter’s was built.
Inside the chapel, the process of demolition revealed a Roman imperial burial of the 5th century AD. The owner was the empress Maria, daughter of Stilicho and wife of the emperor Honorius.
After listing papal interments, and then mentioning emperors who appear in the literary record as interred here, he continues:
Of the Augustas we know of one who was buried on the Vatican, Maria, daughter of Stilicho and of the most noble Lady Serena, and wife of the aforementioned Emperor Honorius. Her sepulchre was discovered in the year 1544, on the 4th of February, in the pontificate of Paul III; during the demolition of the old round chapel of St. Petronilla, situated on the right-hand side of the basilica. In excavating the foundations of the new chapel, a great sarcophagus of marble was found, approximately six feet under the floor, covered by a slab also of marble, and surrounded in turn by a very thick wall. When this was opened, a body was seen in it, dressed in gold clothing. The head was covered by a veil with many wrappings, but separate; and many ornaments of gold which taken together weighed about 40 pounds. Nearly all the bones were reduced to dust, and there only remained the shins, teeth and skull; which gave an indication that this was the body of a young girl, and it was easy to work out that it was the aforementioned Maria, wife of Honorius, from the items found inside the sarcophagus. To one side was a chest of silver, filled with various vases of crystal, of agate, of other stones; and similarly with little animals of various kinds, with some ornaments of gold. Below this was a box, covered with gilded silver, with some ornaments of heads of chiodetti (?) of silver, inside which were many gold rings, all with precious stones; some necklaces, and other items and toys. All of them are minutely described by Lucio Fauno, and we found them listed one-by-one in a handwritten book of that time, and they are as follows:
Vases, and various pieces of crystal, large and small, 30 in number; between two ancient cups of medium size, one round and one ovate shape with very beautiful little figures in medium relief.
A piece of crystal shaped like a seashell, fashioned as a lamp with gold fittings; which covered up the mouth of the seashell, leaving only a small hole in the middle through which to put oil; beside which was a moveable fly of gold, which you could move with a nail to cover and uncover the hole. Likewise of gold was the tip con il pippioda porvi lo stopino, tirato in lungo, & acuto, con bellissima gratia (?); and so attached to the crystal that they seemed to have been born together.
Some pieces of agate with some small animals, and some vases in number eight, among which there were two beautiful vases, one looking like a big glass ampoule, of the sort used to keep oil or similar liquid; and so made, and so beautiful, that it was a marvel when first seen; and the other vase was made in the manner of a skimmer with its handle, used in Rome to separate water from vettine.
Four little vases of gold of various sorts, and another very small vessel of gold, of ovate form, with its lid adorned with jewels.
A small heart of gold in the form of a pendant with six jewels inset.
Two earring pendants of emerald, or plasma (?), with two jacinths.
A pendent in the form of a group of vua(?), made of pavonazze (?) stone.
Eight other small gold pendents of various sorts, set with various stones.
Rings, and verghette, of gold, of various sorts, set with various jewels and precious stones, in total numbering fifty-eight; and among these one of red bone (osso rosso?) with various stones.
Three little animals of red bone.
A clasp or trinket or necklace of gold, with five jewels of various sorts, set inside; and twenty-four other clasps of various sorts with various jewels embedded in them.
A piece of a very small thin necklace, inset with green stones.
Another gold necklace, with twenty-two “pater nostri” of plasma (?).
Another small necklace, with nine “pater nostri” of sapphire set in an oval.
Another small necklace tirato raccolto, broken into four pieces.
Two gold buttons and fourteen golden shirts.
A tondo of gold, with an “Agnus Dei”, with letters around it, reading: MARIA OUR MOST FLOWER-LIKE LADY. And on the other side LONG LIVE STILICHO.
Two gold handles of gold, with some green stones in them.
Two large hair-pins, or hair-rollers; one of gold, approximately a foot long, with letters, reading on one side: FOR OUR LORD HONORIUS. And on the other side: FOR OUR LADY MARIA. The other silver and without letters.
A plate of gold on which were carved in Greek letters Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel.
An emerald bound in gold, on which a head was carved, which was judged to be the aforementioned emperor Honorius, as a seal, estimated to be worth 500 scudi.
There were also fragments of other emeralds, and other stones, and some large pearls, destroyed by the humidity; that the other things had been preserved so well seemed to be by chance.
All the things found were taken to Pope Paul III, who at that time was pontiff; who (as Giulio Herculano and the aforementioned Lucio Fauno note) obtained forty pounds of gold from the sale of these ne cavo (?), and applied it to the construction of the new basilica.
He goes on to add that these were probably wedding gifts, and references Claudian. Maria was married to Honorius when she was only 12 and he not much older, and she died aged between 18-21, between 404-7.