A fascinating underground Rome walking tour to discover the Roman temples and early Christian churches buried under medieval basilicas. Visit middle ages jewels, totally off the beaten path.
Have you ever dreamed to feel the mysticism of archaic Christians in a 15 century old basilica? Can you imagine yourself descendig deep stairs and get to an untouched Mithraic temple, buried under two layers of middle age churches? Well, you can experience all this in Rome!
If you think about Rome, the first images that will come to your mind are the majestic Romans’ remains, the renaissance palaces or the baroque churches. Middle age is a rather ignored period, which is a pity, since the centuries of roman empire final decadence and the dark ages that followed gave birth to some of the most fascinating and romantic spots you could find in Rome. Today I’d like to walk you through a half day tour that will dive you in a mysterious, unspotted Rome.
Let’s start our tour from the Colosseo (just to have an easy landmark…). A few steps away, in via Labicana, look for San Clemente Church.
San Clemente is an astonishing church, that dates back to the 12th century. It has beautiful mosaics and some of the nicest original Roman columns, “recycled” to build the nave. Just this would be more than sufficient to justify a visit.
But there’s much more! San Clemente was built on a 4th century basilica, which was itself built over 1st century private houses and temples. The oldest churches were buried under the 12th century one, and were only discovered in the 19th century.
This is the first highlight of yoru Rome underground tour!
Deep stairs will allow you to visit all that, disovering beatiful frescos and, eventually, a perfectly preserved mithraeum, that is, as part of a sanctuary of the cult of syrian god Mithras.
Click to San Clemente web site for more visit and historical infos (www.basilicasanclemente.com)
Once you are over with the visit, head for via dei Santi Quattro and walk up 200 m until a short staircase on your right will get you to the Santi Quattro Coronati church.
Santi Quattro Coronati church
Santi Quattro Coronati church dates back to the 4th (or 5th) century, and is devoted to four anonymous saints and martyrs. The complex of the basilica with its two courtyards, the fortified Cardinal Palace with the Saint Silvester Chapel, and the monastery with its beautiful cosmatesque cloister (one of the very few survived in Rome) is an out-of-time setting, surprisingly neglected by most tourists.
The church and monastery are still in operations, and you will need to ask the nuns to visit the middle age cloister and the beautiful frescos (and leave a donation…). You will also find a strange wooden weel: this is were babies that couldn’t be grown up by their parents due to poverty and/or unwanted pregnancies could be left to the nuns.
Once you are done with your visit, if you feel you had enough of Roman middle age, you may come back to San Clemente and head towards the charming Rione Monti (I’m going to talk about it in a dedicated post), or you can just stop in the beautifull Parco del Colle Oppio (where you could have visited the Domus Area, if only it was opened to public…) and take a rest under the pines shade.
But if you are still hungry of undisclosed Roman treasures, keep walking down via dei Santissimi Quattro and turn left in via di Santo Stefano Rotondo. After 400 metres, at number 7, you will find a courtyard on your left leading to Santo Stefano Rotondo, the most ancient example of a centrally planned church in Rome.
Santo Stefano rotondo church
Built on top of the remains of a 2nd-century Mithraic temple , the church was built at the end of the 5th century A.D. to hold the body of Saint Stephen, whose body had been discovered a few decades before in the Holy Land, and brought to Rome. The church’s architecture is particularly unusual, since it was the first in Rome to have a circular plan, inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem.
Once there, you can’t miss the 34 frescos decorating with an astonishing collection of martyrdom scenes commissioned by Gregory XIII in the 16th century. The frescos are fairly naturalistic depictions of torture and execution. Better to avoid them if you feel too sensitive!
Continuing on via di Santo Stefano Rotondo you will get to the beatiful Santa Maria in Domnica and to the navicella (“small boat”) fountain, made out of an old roman small marble boat. Turn right and take via San Paolo della Croce, to the Basilica of San Giovanni e Paolo.
The San Giovanni e Paolo basilica
Just like S. Clemente, the Santi Giovanni e Paolo basilica several layers of histories, overlapping over the centuries. The original church was built in 398 over the home of two Roman soldiers, John and Paul, martyred under Julian in 362. The church was damaged during the sack by Alaric I (410) and because of an earthquake (442), restored by Pope Paschal I (824), sacked again by the Normans (1084), and again restored, with the addition of a monastery and a bell tower.
What you can’t miss is the visit to the original Roman Houses buried under the church, and discovered in the 19th century. Unlike San Clemente, in this case you will get into magnificent residential complex comprising several Roman houses of different periods. Wonderful frescoes covering most of the buried rooms.
This is the second highlight of your Rome underground tour!
(entrance in Clivio di Scauro, outside the church, on the left, follow the link for additional infos http://www.caseromane.it/en/history.html).
That was the last highlight of the tour. Now you can walk down Clivio di Scauro (note the arched walls, mostly original romans) and get to Circo Massimo. From there you can get back to the Colosseum, visit the Palatino, or head to Aventino. Your Roman experience is not over yet…
To know more about ancient Rome sights have a look at my post “Rome in 5 days“.
Enjoy your Underground Rome tour!
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