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.