The Basilica of San Clemente

It begins, as so many things in Rome begin, with a stout foundation of antique travertine, and rises high, in delicately quaint mediaeval brickwork – little tiers and apertures sustained on miniature columns and adorned with small cracked slabs of green and yellow marble, inserted almost at random. Henry James, Italian Hours

The quotation from Henry James does not refer directly to the Basilica of St. Clement but  to the nearly unique recycling of architectures in Rome, where every building springs from a previous one, thus creating an overlapping of architectures. One of my favourite expressions is that Rome can be considered a “huge  architectural  quiltwork” .
One of the most extraordinary examples of a layered city  can be found in the Basilica of  Saint Clement, a church located in the Colosseum area. Unlike other churches or buildings where you can visit only one level below, this basilica has two  underground levels open to the public!

This basilica is dedicated to  St Clement (92-101 AD) who is considered the third successor to Saint Peter in Rome. Unfortunately very little is known about  this pope, and the  story of his life is often combined  with colorful  legends.

Saint  Clement was a  martyr under emperor Trajan: he was exiled to Crimea and  forced to work the mines, but since  he stubbornly persisted in his  missionary activity the Roman soldiers bound him to an anchor and threw him into the Black Sea.  Sometime later, his body was  recovered  at the bottom of the sea when the waters miraculously receded . The remains were later brought to Rome and buried under the main altar of this church.

The visit normally begins with the upper basilica (built in the 12th century) which was for a long time mistakenly considered the only  church dedicated to Saint  Clement built originally in the 4th century. In 1857 Fr Joseph Mullooly,  Prior of Saint Clement’s, began excavations under the present basilica, uncovering not only the original, 4th century basilica directly underneath, but also at a lower level, the ruins of  1st century buildings.

To enter  the present day basilica I prefer the entrance on Piazza di  S. Clemente rather than the one on via di S. Giovanni in Laterano. Once you walk through the little gateway you’ll find yourself in a little and peaceful  medieval courtyard: when I am here I always like to think about the pilgrims of yesteryear, resting, drinking the water from the fountain or massaging their sore feet after a long day walking or on donkeyback.

The present day church  repeats the plan of the 4th century church below but it is smaller on one side. As you enter the first thing that will catch your eye is the superb mosaic on the apse: the crucifixion of Christ in a feast of gold and green acanthus spirals. Christ’s cross is no longer a symbol of torture and suffering but  the new Tree of Life planted on the hill of Paradise restored by Christ. This mosaic is probably a faithful reproduction of the one in the 4th century basilica.

The richly coloured floor is a typical example of cosmatesque floor which can be found in several Roman churches. It is a style that was devised in medieval times by a family of craftsmen, the Cosmati, who often used recycled materials for their ornamental geometric patterns.

If you look at the columns and capitals you’ll notice too that they are all different: due to marble shortage it was customary in the Middle Ages and also later on  to dismatle other buildings such as  temples to recycle their columns and other materials.

On the right side is a little door that will take you to the ticket office for the excavations below: the upper basilica has no admission fee but there’s a 5 euros ticket for the levels below.

Descending the stairs to the 4th century level is like travelling in a time machine: a dark subterranean area that was once the 4th basilica. At the bottom of the staircase you’ll be in a corridor with some openings overlooking the church naves: it was the narthex, a porch where  penitents and catechumens could hear mass. Here we can find some of the frescos regarding the legendary life of Saint Clement.

Upon entering the 4th century basilica one has a slight disappointment: the low ceilings, the rubble walls instead of the ancient free standing columns and a   few frescos only survive from  the obliteration done around 1100 when the church, considered  unsafe, was filled with rubble and the new one built on top. It takes a few minutes before you realize this was a church!

In the left nave a stairway will lead you to the other levels: humidity increases as you descend and the stairs metal railings are moist. Before excavations reached this level this entire area was flooded: you can still see and hear the water stream that once flooded all this area now  flowing  in a tunnel dug by the archaeologists.

This 3rd level, which is also the most ancient, shows ruins of two different buildings separated by a narrow alleyway (once in the open air!) and both dating from the 1st century AD: one is a brick building maybe a Roman house with a Mithraic temple of the end of the 2nd century installed in it; the other is a  larger structure, constructed around a courtyard, probably a warehose
In the 4th century, the ground-floor rooms of this structure and the courtyard were filled in to the level of the first storey so to provide  foundations for a church in memory of Pope Clement.

Mithraism  was  religion of Persian origin imported in Rome probably by soldiers. Mithra was  a god born out of a rock  to bring salvation and most of the time is portrayed in the act of slaying a bull. The places of worship dediated to  Mithras were normally  built below ground and windowless. In cities, the basement of an apartment block might be converted; elsewhere they might be excavated and vaulted over, or converted from a natural cave or grotto.  A considerable number of mithraic temples came to light in Rome during archaeological excavations. In this temples  most rituals were associated with feasting: initiates reclined on stone benches arranged along the longer sides of the mithaeum  and animal sacrifices were made too.

Olive oil

This morning  it was raining  hard over Rome so we decided to drive to the Roman Hills (Castelli Romani) to buy some good olive oil.  Our olive oil  supply bought in Tuscany last summer was at the end: I had been trying desperately  to squeeze the last few drops  from the bottle last night but I was unsuccesful in dressing my salad…

I had a recommendation  in the area of Velletri so we drove there. I called the owners before leaving  to be sure they had olive oil for sale.

After 40 minutes we arrived  in a beautiful countryside and the sky was clearing up, you could see the coastline in the distance.

The owner of the farm and his wife welcomed us on the door: the first thing I noticed was the  garden full of lush velvety camelias ranging from red to pale white. The Velletri area is renown for the camelia plants and there is  a camelia fest every year in March.

They were a very nice couple, friendly and enthusiastic. They showed us all the garden, with the camelias, citrus plants, cactaceous plants and the large olive grove (some 600 olive trees).

Then they led us into the frantoio (olive press room ) where the olives are pressed to produce the new oil in November:  the press was quiet and all shiny awaiting next season.

Then the wife brought a tray with toasted bread slices and here comes the best part of the morning: olive oil tasting!

We tasted the 3 different qualities they produce: delicate, classic and Itrano (made out of of olives typical of  the Itri region).

The first two were very good but similar in taste, while the Itrano was stronger with a distinctive fresh “grassy” taste that smelled of  artichokes and other herbs. They were all delicious but the Itrano was superb!

In Italy olive trees  are planted all over the country and the variety of fragrances, colours and tastes is incredible. Some of the most famous extra virgin olive oils come from Tuscany, Liguria and Umbria but many lesser known areas produce good olive oils such as the Roman countryside.

We decided to buy a small tank of classic to be used as an all purpose and 3 bottles of Itrano quality just to dress  foods without cooking the oil so that its flavour will remain intact.

olive oil, bread and mimosa

Before leaving the owners gave some mimosa flowers and a humongous grapefruit from their garden and we left very happy and satisfied.

humongous grapefruit and Lorenzo's hand

Snow in Rome!

Normally Rome is not a city where we experience snow very often. We are some  20 miles away from the coast and we have a typical Mediterranean weather with mild winters. Snow is an exceptional event.

Last time we had some snow for a few days it was  1986: it was general chaos!!!

Cars, buses and scooters were not snow equipped and the traffic went mad. Schools were closed and it looked like Doomsday!

This morning started snowing seriously and the snow was sticking on the streets, but now it is raining again and the snow will melt quickly probably: this could be a real disappointment for the kids  coming out of the schools at 4.30 pm! They won’t be able to  play with snowballs or make a snowman.

The adults driving back home from work instead will be relieved, since Rome is a already extremely chaotic when it rains, guess what could it be with some snow inches on the road surface!

Here are some pics from our window taken this morning, we  live in a suburb so there aren’t spectacular views:

umbrella pines in the snow

Here instead is a picture of the Colosseum in the snow from the news website:

Vatican museums Sistine Chapel tickets

If you plan to visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel in the busy season you may like to prepurchase tickets to avoid long lines.

Normally worst days for linewise are Saturdays and Mondays since on Sundays the Vatican Museums and the Sistine chapel stay closed (except the last Sunday of the month when the’re open and free). Though it is sometimes difficult to predict lines.

To prepurchase tickets I always recommend the official Vatican website ( ) where you can buy your admission tickets ( from 60 days before the date required. Sometimes tickets are sold out, but do not get discouraged, try again some days after since  other tickets are often avaialble.

With  other companies offering the same service tickets will  be more expensive.