San Clemente: Three layers of history in Rome, a wealthy house and two basilicas, one on top of the other
One of the things I love about Rome is that it is filled with secret little treasures that you can discover wandering about. Basilica di San Clemente is a church in Rome with two hidden secrets underneath.
Go down a flight of stairs and find another Christian basilica from the 4th century, marvel at the wonderfully preserved frescoes and then, go down another flight of stairs to find a wealthy man’s house from the 1st century.
But here’s a brief summary of how San Clemente came to be
The first building on the site was a republican house that got destroyed in the great fire of 64 in Rome. A man named Titus Flavius Clemens then built a new house on the site. Titus was a wealthy consul and one of the first in Rome to become a Christian and so he allowed other Christians to worship at his home, back when Christianity was illegal in Rome.
The basement of the house was allowed to be used as a mithraeum, a special place of worship for the god Mithras.
In 1084 this original basilica burned down in a sack of the city. The new basilica was built around 1099. Irish Dominicans have been in charge of the Basilica since 1667. Source: Wikipedia and Basilica San Clemente’s website.
What you can actually see when you visit today
Certain spaces of the house are visible in the 1st century building like the cubicula (bedrooms) and a room that looks like a kitchen because at its far end it has a stone structure, covered with stone slabs, one of which (when I visited) was removed.
Once you got closer you could see water coming through with a great amount of pressure. The guide explained to me that this water comes from one of the original eleven aqueducts of ancient Rome. Only very wealthy people could afford to have running water at home.
Other theories suggest that this building had an industrial character and that coins were made here.
Another area looks like a courtyard, except that it now has a roof, but it would’ve seen the sky in the first century.
Interior cubicula still have the original floors in the fish spine shaped small bricks.
Going up one floor you can visit the 4th century Basilica and see its wonderful fresco paintings which are undergoing some restoration work.
The 12th century Basilica which is the one on top is one of the most interesting in Rome, with its fantastic apse in Byzantine style and its paintings and it is reached through a side door, instead of its main entrance.
The main resource is the Basilica di San Clemente’s website, which has a very good animation of the three layers in its home page.
• View a map that will show you how to get there.
• Watch a very interesting 1:30 minute video that talks about the restoration work and the excavation.
• See a 360° view of the 12th century Basilica (Today’s Basilica).
• Explore a quick view of the three layers apart and some pictures.
I just find it fascinating to discover all these layers of history in one place, don’t you?
Rome just continues to amaze me, has it done the same to you? What other fascinating places have you discovered in Rome?
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When planning a trip to Rome and visiting San Clemente, be aware that the priests are very strict about opening hours. The last visit to the excavation is allowed at 5:40 pm. If you arrive there at 5:41, you will not be able to visit the floors below.
Mass is regularly performed in San Clemente, so be sure to act respectfully, remember you are on holy ground. If you’d like to attend mass at San Clemente, I encourage you to, be a catholic for a moment and feel the sacred atmosphere of this beautiful space.
Photography is not allowed anywhere in the church and the priests and nuns are very firm about this, you’ve been warned!
The excavation is humid, dark and narrow, so consider this if you’re a bit of a claustrophobic. The rooms are lit as they would’ve been in ancient times, so the light simulates that of torches, bring glasses if you have difficulty seeing under low light conditions.
Getting to San Clemente is a good 15 minute walk from the Colisseum.
Admission to the excavations is €5.
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