Father Corbo, the archaeologist friar of the Holy Sepulchre
His discovery of Peter’s house in Capernaum still lay in the future when the “mendicant friar of the Holy Places” was entrusted by the Custody of the Holy Land with the excavation works to be carried out as part of the restoration by the Catholic parties of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Three years later, in 1963, the three principal religious communities at the Tomb chose him as the archaeologist for the works to be carried out in the common areas, a responsibility that he carried out night and day during the ensuing 17 years, and for a further two years overseeing the publication of his monumental work “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: archaeological aspects from its origins to the Crusader period”.
Father Virgilio Corbo came to the Holy Land at the tender age of ten from his native Avigliano, a small town in the Lucanian Apennines, to be a student at the Minor Seminary of the Custody of the Holy Land. Under the guidance of Father Bellarmino Bagatti, during his enforced stay between 1940 and 1943 at Emmaus el-Qubeibeh, Father Corbo had has first experiences with archaeological excavations, an experience that was heightened by the archaeological renown of the lands adjacent to the monastery, from which the friars were permitted to leave once per week.
His initial field of research focused on the Byzantine monasteries of the Judean Desert, a subject treated in his thesis presented to the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies in Rome entitled “The excavations at Khirbet Siyar el-Ghanam (Shepherd’s Field) and neighboring monasteries”, subsequently published in the Collection Maior of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in 1955. He then devoted himself to archaeological investigations on the Mount of Olives in an area near the Sanctuary of the Ascension and in the Grotto of the Apostles at Gethsemane.
In 1960 he began his long activity as an archaeological expert at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, at the same time carrying out other important archaeological investigations at Herod’s Fortress (1962-1967) and Mount Nebo (1963-1970).
Beginning in 1968 Father Corbo along with Father Stanislao Loffredda worked at the site which made him most famous, conducting 19 excavations along the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum which restored, thanks to the tireless works of the fathers, the house of Peter that the first Christians had transformed into a place of worship.
His Franciscan faith in the Gospel and his passion for archaeology were fused together in a corpulent physique and a volcanic spirit which continually impelled him to further research on an authenticity that he defined as “historical and moral” regarding the sites of the Redemption.
From his preface to the three volumes on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one can readily capture the spirit with which the friar archaeologist approached the site of Golgotha and the Empty Tomb, “with the same anxiety as the Apostles”: “Here began the pilgrimage of the Apostles and the pious women on the dawn of the day of Resurrection. Here is where the pilgrimage of the Church has arrived for two thousand years. Here the pilgrimage continues unceasingly in order to again hear the angelic message ‘ecce locus ubi posuerunt eum… non est hic. Resurrexit!’.”
If today we have a much better understanding of the structures of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and no longer only idealized plans, this is due to the expertise and great passion of Father Corbo, who with great skill and with the “intuitive love towards He who is the triumphant figure of this monument”, tamed the fatigues of labor and the resistance of men.