Today I would like to introduce you to the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. It's no ordinary church, believe me!
Those who travel to Rome for the first time will probably have a rather long list of things worth seeing: From the Colosseum to the Vatican with St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon and the famous Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. There, one certainly has a lot to do. But those who are still not exhausted or have already been to Rome and would like to see something new, look around for places that are perhaps not on the first page of every travel guide.
This is exactly the kind of place I want to introduce to you today: The Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. Maybe you are thinking now: "Whew, another church again? There are enough of those in Rome ..." Yes, but the Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano is no ordinary church. At least not what is hidden beneath it. But more on that later.
Basilica San Clemente in Rome: Location
The basilica is located about 10 minutes east of the Colosseum, so we are in the south of the city. Between a tax office, a park and numerous restaurants it is not necessarily located where one would pass by anyway. When I was in Rome with my family a few weeks ago, we went to the church because it was recommended to us by a relative. After we had visited the Colosseum, we went to Via Labicana.
By the way, the basilica is dedicated to the martyr Clement I, who was bishop of Rome in the period from 88 to 97, hence the name of the church.
The Upper Church
From the outside, the church does not look special or spectacular at first, it is simply designed and consists mainly of flat bricks. Also from the inside (for the average tourist) it does not seem to be really different from other basilicas. An artistically decorated chancel, marble decorations in the floor and an attached atrium do not necessarily indicate an extraordinary history of this place.
But here comes the clou: the church - or better: the building complex - does not only consist of the basilica itself. It is above all its multi-layered structure that makes it a remarkable sight. As under the church at street level that is directly visible to us, there are two further underground floors. The ancient and up to two thousand years old buildings hidden here are now invisibly slumbering beneath the buildings of the new Rome.
The building complex thus consists of three levels:
- The medieval Basilica of San Clemente at our current street level, built from 1108 onwards, this part is also Upper Church called
- Below this is the Lower churchan early Christian basilica of 384
- One floor below you will find Roman remains of buildings from the 1st to 3rd century, which also contain a temple of the Mithras cult, also called Mithras room
The Lower Church
While the entrance to the basilica above ground is free, one has to pay a few Euros to visit the underground layers. But in my opinion, this is totally worthwhile, as this building with its history is really unique.
A few steps lead to the lower church. Damp, musty air and dark, winding corridors are probably the first things you notice here. But by looking more closely, one sees some really beautiful and centuries old frescos. They are located on the stone walls and some of them are still surprisingly easy to recognize. The small brochure, which you get at the cash desk after paying, helps you to orientate yourself down there and breathe life into what you see.
Once one has explored the first basement floor, one descends further steps and dives even deeper into the history of this place. If you wind your way through the numerous winding corridors, you will not only see the Mithras room but also a former Mithras school. In addition, one discovers a water source, which can be heard from one floor above. With some of the rooms one does not know until today what they were used for at that time. But for a part of this exposed floor one is quite sure that it was a mint at that time.
I find it very fascinating to imagine that where the church of San Clemente in Rome stands today, a life of its own once took place. The entire city was then on this floor level! One begins to wonder and ponder what was going on beneath all the other old streets of Rome at that time..
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*Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take pictures in the whole interior of the church. Therefore I use external photo sources.