San Clemente – Underground Rome Galore!
The church of San Clemente (a.k.a. Saint Clement’s) is conveniently close to the Colosseum and is home to one of Rome’s most famous underground sites. The history of the excavations would be a fairytale—if it weren’t true! In 1857, the Irish Dominican Friar Joseph Mullooly (who lived in the San Clemente’s monastery) started excavating beneath the “modern” church. The “modern” church dates to the 1100s, but was partially redecorated in the “very modern” 1600s! Nevertheless, its original apse mosaics (a detail of which is in the photo) and its sumptuous cosmatesque floor are just two of its overwhelmingly beautiful details.
Enough dawdling at ground level! Let’s join Mullooly, who dug under this church and was rewarded with one of the most unique and interesting discoveries of his time: about twenty feet down was an early Christian basilica dating to circa 350 A.D. Although it is not the first Christian church to be built after Emperor Constantine’s Religious Tolerance Act of 312 A.D., it is among the first churches to be built in Rome! Used for hundreds of years, it boasts frescoes from shortly after the year 1000. The wealthy donor, Maria Macellaria (Mary the Butcher), and her husband sponsored the frescoes shortly before the church was abandoned and rebuilt. Many of these frescoes are still visible. Excellent examples of Medieval art, we will discuss some of them (like the one in the picture).
Inspired by his discoveries, Mullooly dug another twenty feet down and reached the first century A.D.–the Roman empire! This level held two surprises. The first was a sprawling utilitarian building. Some scholars argue that it was imperial Rome’s mint; others say it was a warehouse. The second is a Mithraeum. This chamber or sanctuary was dedicated to the worship of the ancient Persian god of light and justice, Mithras. What was Mithras doing in Rome? Although it is uncertain how early Mithras-worship reached the Roman empire, it is certain that Roman soldiers stationed in foreign lands and foreign soldiers being stationed throughout the empire contributed to its spread. Rome is, in fact, full of Mithraea—most of them, however, are closed to the public.
So if you want to time-travel, explore multiple moments in Roman history, and/or thrill yourselves and your kids with an underground experience, sign up for this tour! San Clemente can be paired up with myriad other sites, depending on your interests and the ideal tour duration. Vicus Caprarius is an excellent add-on, if you want to continue the underground theme and don’t mind a quick taxi ride. In the immediate vicinity is the tiny Nymphaeum under Via Annibaldi. Otherwise, San Clemente pairs up well with the Homes on the Celian Hill, since they both springboard us into ancient Roman religions. Must-sees (like the Colosseum and Forum) also pair up well with San Clemente, for their vicinity and the themes they shares.
Tickets to the excavations of San Clemente are euro 10 for adults. Depending on their ages, children enter for free or are eligible for discounts.