San Clemente: Almost Overlooked by One Day in Italy
Basilica di San Clemente wasn’t anywhere on my itinerary for Rome. It wasn’t in my notes, it wasn’t in my list of “if I have time”s – I don’t know how I hadn’t come across it, as everyone else seems to know about it! I wound up stumbling upon it, curious about the relatively plain exterior only because there was a school group outside. The building looks like any other on the street at first glance; its not what you’re used to seeing in Rome as the outside of a grand church. The school group intrigued me, though. Silly as it sometimes feels, when I travel now a lot of the things I’m interested in are the things my elementary school would’ve taken us to on field trips: locally focused museums, “how-to” demonstrations of local products, the historical parts of town. You know, everything that’s really boring in elementary school.
After my amazing Colosseum Underground Tour (the highlight of my time in Rome!) I had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the arena, one that had been recommended by a colleague of mine at work and one that’s most notable quality was that it was, as previously mentioned, overlooking the arena.
But when one is having lunch around the Colosseum, what more do you really want?
Afterwards, not really feeling like heading over to the Forum yet, I decided to explore a bit. That’s when I saw it. A yellow building, not so very different from any other with a few sparsely placed narrow windows n the second floor, flat roof and decorative entrance (but what old building in Rome doesn’t have a decorative entrance commemorating something or other?). The only thing that might’ve given it away as a church, if I had been more observant, was a small white bell tower off to one side. A group of school kids were milling out front; was it a school? They seemed to be tourists.
I moved a little closer and read the words above the very normal, basic green door: “Basilica Di S. Clemente”.
I’m sure the church is lovely, but all I remember are the excavations. To your right after you enter through the normal green door is a cinderblock room, very un-churchy, with a desk enclosed behind a clear plastic wall. This is where you buy your ticket to the excavations, which are then accessible to your right.
I wasn’t sure if I should do it; like I said, I hadn’t heard of San Clemente or these excavations and thought there was a good possibility they’d be incredibly lame. But it was five euro, I was 3000 miles from home with no idea when I’d be back, and I figured “why not”?
I’m so glad I did.
I proceeded to the right of the ticket booth through a narrow doorway and into the “lower church”. A lot of churches in Italy have an upper, newer church and an older, lower church. The difference is that until 1857AD, no one knew this lower church was here! Somehow, right in the middle of Rome, there was buried treasure.
In 1857AD the prior of San Clemente, Father Joseph Mullooly “discovered” the lower church and began excavations (the church was given to the Irish Dominicans shortly after they were expelled from Ireland in 1677). Much to his surprise, beneath the 4th century lower church there was a building dating back to the 1st century AD. This building was a temple to the sun god Mithras, a god of Persian origin. Here’s a short timeline:
1st Century: Nero destroyed the buildings that were on this site and an apartment building and mansion were built, separated by a narrow street.
2nd Century: It’s believed that persecuted Christians met in the mansion to worship.
3rd Century: The courtyard of the apartment building was turned into a Temple to Mithras.
313AD: Constantine ended (legal) Christian persecution in the area.
Later this century, a large hall was built spanning over the inner courtyard of the apartment building where the Temple of Mithras had been established and the ground floor of the mansion, filling them in with dirt and rock.
380’s: After Constantine made Christianity the state religion, the hall became the basis for a church in honor of Pope Clement.
circa 1100AD: The 4th century Basilica di San Clemente (the “lower church”) was felt to be unsafe and so was filled in with rock and rubble to the top of its pillars, on top of which the current basilica was built.
1857AD: Father Joseph Mullooly gets the crazy idea to dig.
April, 2011AD: I get to take it all in.
These are active excavations – you walk along on temporarily constructed metal ramps a lot of the time, plastic sheets are covering various areas of the walls and you can literally see where they’re continuing to dig and uncover new artifacts. The only light is artificial; instead of a church you feel like you’re walking through a formerly inhabited cave with a mystical, almost spooky energy vibrating off the walls. Sections are quartered off where archeologists have left their work for another day – or perhaps for when the tourists are gone. It’s a living, breathing dig site, and more and more things are being found.
It was exhilarating. Just when you think that all of Rome’s secrets have been uncovered, an Irish priest proves you wrong. Take a few minutes the next time you’re in Rome to treck the few short (but uphill) blocks from the Colosseum to San Clemente, walk down through the excavations, feel the mystery and excitement of discovery… and then come back here and thank me. 🙂
Hours and ticket information can be found on the Basilica’s Official Website.