Fr Michele Piccirillo: Priest and expert in Byzantine archaeology

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The Independent Online

Michele Piccirillo, the Franciscan father and professor of archaeology, who has lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, was an enthusiastic and dynamic character who took forward the study of early Byzantine archaeology, particularly mosaics, in Jordan, Palestine and Syria. He was an inspiration to all he came into contact with.

Born in Casanova di Carinola, Italy, in 1944, Piccirillo joined the Franciscan brotherhood in 1960, becoming a priest in 1969 at the age of 25, and thereafter he combined a pious and academic life. While devoting himself to Christianity, he was simultaneously committed to studying biblical and early Byzantine archaeology.

Piccirillo belonged to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, where he had taught biblical history and biblical geography since 1975. Unearthing the earliest churches in the Holy Land and promptly publishing his findings gained him world-renown and great support from European and American institutions to conduct his work in Jordan, Palestine and Syria. His reputation was unrivalled and he was invited to lecture all over the world. He wrote dozens of scholarly articles and numerous books, most notably the landmark Mosaics of Jordan (1993), bringing the corpus of Jordan's mosaic art together. But his volumes on Mayfa'ah Umm al-Rasas (1993), Mount Nebo (1998) and The Madaba Map Centenary 1897-1997 (1999) were no less important. One of his lasting contributions to the academic field was to demonstrate through archaeological evidence the continuity of early Byzantine traditions into the Islamic periods, a theme now commonly accepted among most scholars of the subject.

Equally significant were Piccirillo's efforts in conserving and protecting archaeological monuments, particularly mosaic pavements. He was a co-founder of the Madaba Mosaic School in Jordan and was responsible for upgrading it to become the Madaba School for Mosaic Art and Restoration. The work was extended to the Umayyad palace of the Caliph Hisham at Khirbet al-Mafjar near Jericho in Palestine. In Syria he also supported mosaic studies and preservation, as was highlighted by the conservation and building of an impressive shelter over the huge fifth-century Church of the Holy Martyrs at Tayibat al-Imam near Hama.

His professional qualifications included a Licentiate in theology (PAA 1970), a Licentiate in Holy Scripture (PIB 1974), and a Laureate in archaeology (University of Roma 1975) and Professor (Ordinary 1984). He also served as director of the Museum of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem (1974-2008) and as director of their archaeological mission in Jordan, focusing on excavations at Mt Nebo, Umm al-Rasas and the Madaba area. His endless energy and persistent field research made him a leading scholar in the field.

After his death in Livorno, Italy, Piccirillo was laid to rest on 1 November 2008 at Mt Nebo, to which he devoted much of his life to uncover and preserve. The impressive shelter currently being built over the Memorial Church of Moses at Mt Nebo will be the final testament to his legacy. He will always be remembered for the impact he had on the studies of mosaics, but equally for his humility and his compassion for all those around him. For those of us working closely with him in Jordan, Palestine and Syria, his loss is particularly great.

Konstantinos D. Politis

Michele Piccirillo, priest and archaeologist: born Casanova di Carinola, Italy 18 November 1944; died Livorno, Italy 26 October 2008.