Walk through the “layers” of Rome!
The Church Basilica of San Clemente in Rome is a real lasagna of history, which is about 400 meters from the Colosseum.
Do you understand what I mean when I say Rome is like a “lasagna of history”? If you are still not sure, then keep reading. Because you are about to go underground Rome and learn all about this super “lasagna of history”!
This church is dedicated to Saint Clement, the third pope after Saint Peter! When you visit this church, you’ll end up exploring three levels. Each of them is very different and belongs to a different era from the other. It’s like a proper lasagna of history! 😜
To be exact:
- Modern street level: basilica built in the XII century
- Level -1: basilica built in the IV century
- Level -2: ancient Roman ruins
But now let’s start exploring this incredible place, from the top to the underground!
After exploring the underground of San Clemente, you might want to discover more hidden gems of Rome. Check out out the “Monti: the hipster side of Rome” itinerary included in our Video Guide!
The overground layer: the medieval basilica church of San Clemente
The first layer we’ll get to explore is the upper one, the only layer which is overground: the “modern” basilica.
When I say “modern” I mean the newest layers of all three, but this basilica dates back to the XII century! It was in fact completed in 1123.
It is therefore a medieval basilica.
As we enter the gate of the basilica of San Clemente we walk through a beautiful cloister. Then we enter the main door and.. wow! 🤩
This basilica inside is incredibly beautiful. Wooden ceiling, cosmati floors, ancient columns and the mosaics! It has all the features of a typical medieval church, which are:
- Cosmati floors: floors made of tiny fragments of colourful marbles, usually in a pattern with big circles and small squares. The “Cosmati” name comes from a Roman medieval family which was specialized in producing these kinds of floors
- Wooden ceiling
- Mosaics in the apse (the semi-dome on top of the altar). This represents the tree of life which starts its journey towards the passion of Christ. Christ is on the cross between Mary and Saint John
- Many different ancient columns on the sides of the central nave. These columns are usually all different from each other because they come from ancient Roman buildings. The ancient Roman ruins were very often stripped of their materials, which were then reutilized to make churches and other buildings
In the center of the nave you can see the Schola Cantorum, which was where the choir was singing during the mass.
Once we filled our eyes with the beauty on the upper layer, let’s walk towards the sacristy. This is where we can access the underground area of San Clemente!
Walking towards the underground level of San Clemente
The sacristy is where you get your tickets to the archaeological area and start walking the stairs down.
Here you will find the ancient basilica of San Clemente, built in the 4th century! This basilica is right below the modern one and in the middle ages it used to be one of the most important basilicas of Rome.
Why building a new basilica on top of the old one?This old basilica was unfortunately severely damaged during the Sack of Rome in 1084 by the Normans. After the Sack the basilica was abandoned and then filled with ground to build the new basilica on top of it.
One of the first written swear words in history! 😅
When you are in the central nave of this ancient basilica, and have the altar in front of you, look to the left.
You will see remains of the beautiful frescoes that once decorated the church. But there is one in particular which you should really notice! Look for the first fresco before the altar.
In the lower section of this fresco you will see a sort of “comic”, characters with written words next to them.
Starting from the right, we have a character whose name is Sisinnio, which is giving orders to his slaves, on the left of the scene. Sisinnio ordered his slaves to bring him Saint Clement, who was imprisoned. Saint Clement in the meantime freed himself, and when the slaves go and pick him up from the jail they mistakenly take a column!
They complain about the weight of Clement, without realizing they are not actually carrying him 😅
In the meantime Sisinnio, on the right of the scene he says: “fili de puta, traite!”, which translates to “sons of xxxxx, keep pulling!” 😅
This is written in vulgar language, the precursor of modern Italian. And this is the very first written swear word in vulgar language in history!
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Moving on to the next room..
As you enter the following room, on the right you will find an altar with lots of inscriptions and a mosaic of Saint Cyril, a missionary from Thessalonica in the Byzantine empire, in today’s Greece.
Why Saint Cyril in the basilica of San Clemente?
Here is a short version of the story.
Cyril set together with his brother Methodius in the IX century (800s), to evangelize the Slavs. They created the Glagolitic alphabet, the first alphabet to write the Slavic language, which was the language understood by most of the population. Thanks to this alphabet the brothers were able to translate the Christian Sacred texts and make them accessible to the Slavs.
The Cyrillic alphabet was created later (not by Saint Cyril) taking inspiration from the Glagolitic alphabet.
And now the connection with Saint Clement.
During a mission in Crimea, Saint Cyril found the relics of Saint Clement. The Pope asked Cyril and his brother Methodius to bring these relics to Rome. The brothers came to Rome and the relics were buried here, in the basilica of San Clemente.
Unfortunately shortly after Cyril died, and Methodius wanted to bring his brother’s body back home to Greece. But the Pope and the Romans were so sad about it, that Methodius decided to leave his brother in Rome. Therefore Saint Cyril was buried here, in the basilica of San Clemente.
Let’s continue our journey through the layers..
The third and lowest level underground
From the Saint Cyril altar we’ll take the stairs and move down to the third and lowest level!
In here we will find ruins of ancient Roman private and public buildings, separated by an alley (which today is of course covered).
The private building was later turned into a Mithraeum (in the 3rd century).
What is a Mithraeum?The Mithraeum was the “temple” of the Mithraic mystery cult, which was a cult as popular as Christianism in the middle ages. This cult celebrated the God Mithra and the ceremonies were taking place in these small temples, the Mithraeums.
Mithraism was a mystery cult that could only be practiced by men and the rituals were only revealed to the initiates. The fact that it was not an inclusive religion like the rival Christianism, contributed in the Mithraism to decline and disappear in the 5th century
If we keep walking through this underground area we will find other rooms from ancient Rome. One of these buildings is believed to be the Ancient Roman Mint built by the emperor Domitian, the so-called “Moneta” (this is where the word “money” comes from!).
You will also notice that these walls had no windows and had very thick walls, to protect the coins inside.
As you explore the various rooms, you will hear at some point the sound of the water. That is the Labican stream, which was used to cool down the coins that were just minted!
How incredible has this journey to the center of the earth been? 🤩
The Basilica of San Clemente really gives you a clear picture of how Rome always stood up (literally!) from its ashes and reborn on top its own ruins!
A true “lasagna of history”! 😊
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How to visit the Basilica of San Clemente
To visit the basilica you need to purchase a ticket, which can be booked here: https://eu5.bookingkit.de/onPage/detail?cw=2d051ec3a783322fa6ab60eb31a79680&preview=1&e=88bbbeb9cb335dd9125e32d96e80b3d9
I hope this article will be useful as a “guide” on your visit to the San Clemente basilica! 😊
Save it for later and let me know in the comments how was your visit or if you are planning to go! 😊