Some call it the “lasagna of architectural history.” Others say it’s the most extraordinary and well-conserved monument in Rome that, despite being reused, realtered, and rebuilt over 2,000 years, still bears traces of all its past lives. Inside, there’s a Mithraic temple, two medieval basilicas, a house burnt by Nero, the Roman mint, one of the earliest inscribed swear words, and more. All under one roof!
More amazing, it’s only a short walk from the Colosseum and is easily visited in about one hour. No wonder the Basilica of San Clemente is one thing I tell all my friends not to miss when they are in Rome.
How To Visit The Basilica
You do not need a ticket to visit the basilica itself, but you do need to purchase a ticket in advance for the excavations (the lower layers of the “lasagna”). Unfortunately, this part of the site does not have wheelchair access. It is full of stairs and dark hallways, so also not friendly for disabled travelers or anyone claustrophobic. Tickets are €10 and free for children under 16.
As of this writing, visitors are required to abide by a number of COVID-19 regulations, including wearing an FFP2 facemask, having their temperature taken before entering, and maintaining a safe distance from other visitors. You also need a Reinforced Green Certificate (Super Green Pass). But like everything else in Italy, these rules can quickly change.
You can buy entrance tickets here.
The Basilica Of San Clemente
Upon entering the complex through a non-imposing door, you actually step down from street level and walk into a beautiful courtyard. Irish Dominican monks still stroll this quiet space. Fleeing religious persecution, the monks arrived in 1667 and have been here ever since. They even took part in the excavations.
From the outside, the basilica appears as a non-grandiose structure, but once you enter you discover one of the most richly decorated churches in Rome. This basilica is the most recent (top layer of the lasagna) structure, meaning it was built just before 1100 AD. (I know! That seems old, but this is Rome, and we are only getting started.)
Perhaps now is a good time to explain the difference between a church, basilica, and cathedral. A church is a generic term for the building where Christians worship. A basilica, however, is where the Catholic pope meets the people when he visits their diocese. Basilicas typically have a special chair for the pope to sit in with an umbrella-like canopy. Cathedrals are where bishops preside over their flock.
The first thing you will probably notice upon entering the basilica is its spectacular apse decorated with brightly colored mosaics (including gold) called the Triumph of the Cross. The theme of the mosaic is the redemption of mankind and all creatures, hence on the branches of the tree of life, you will see birds, mammals, and sea creatures. Take some time along with a pew seat to gaze upon this magnificent work of art from the 12th century. But don’t forget to look under your feet as well. The floor is also a beautiful example of Cosmatesque inlaid paving. Even if you are not religious, these two features alone will take your breath away.
There are many other works of art to enjoy in this church, including my favorite — the frescos painted by Masolino da Panicale in St. Catherine’s chapel telling the story of her life and martyrdom. (Granted, I am partial — she is my saint’s name.) But there’s also some Roman history here as well. You will notice all the columns in the church are different, a sure sign that they were reused from ancient Roman monuments.
Now it’s time to pick up your ticket near the sacristy. On the way there, you will see arches in the wall that belong to the older basilica hidden below. Once you have your ticket to the underground evacuations, you are ready to descend in time and space…
The Middle Layer: An Older Basilica
Once you are below, you have entered the older basilica built in the 4th century, full of beautiful frescos, their colors still vibrant. This is because around 1084, the older basilica was severely damaged during the Sack of Rome by the Normans, and afterward gutted and filled with sediment. Thanks to this sediment, the frescos were not exposed to light. It also became the foundation for the newer basilica that you just visited.
After admiring the altar in the center nave, turn to your left, where you will see another colorful fresco in which St. Clement is depicted celebrating the mass. But there is more to this fresco than meets the eye. Here you will find the very first swear words in Italian history written in the volgare language, a precursor to Italian. On the lower part of the fresco, you can see Sisinnius ordering two of his slaves to bring his prisoner, St. Clement, to him, without realizing that the holy man has already freed himself. Instead of St. Clement, the slaves are pulling a column and complaining about how heavy the saint is. Underneath the toga-clad Sisinnius, you will see the words: “Traite, fili de le pute!” (“Pull harder, you sons of whores!”)
Keep going to discover another altar, full of inscriptions in various Slavic languages, with a 20th-century mosaic of St. Cyril. This is the saint’s presumed burial place in 869. He is honored for finding the relic bones of St. Clement and bringing them back to Rome.
When you’re ready, take the narrow stairs to descend to the third and lowest “lasagna” layer of the site.
The Bottom Layer: Roman Ruins
Now you have to imagine that you are actually outdoors, walking down a narrow alleyway between private and public Roman buildings. I know it’s hard to imagine with two basilicas on top of you, but this layer was once at street level.
In some of the rooms, you will see stucco decorations on the ceiling, indicating that it once belonged to a relatively wealthy Roman resident. At one point, you will come to a gate in front of a cave-like temple. This is the Mithraeum, where you can see long benches along each side of the room and, in the middle, an altar that shows the oriental god Mithras slaying a bull. Now imagine a secret Mithraic ritual being shared by men (only men were allowed to participate). What the ritual actually entailed is still a mystery, but historians do know that worshippers had to partake in seven initiation steps, and the religion was a favorite among Roman soldiers. As part of the ritual, participants would share a meal while lying on cushioned benches.
Continue wandering and you will discover other buildings from Ancient Rome. Some were once warehouses, and one was the schoolroom for Mithraic studies. Listen carefully and soon you will notice the sound of water. Climb down narrow steps to find a channel of clear water, running over pebbles.
You have now arrived at what is believed to be the ancient Roman mint. You might notice that many of the rooms in this moneta (the word “mint” in Latin is where we get our word “money”) have no windows and very thick walls. This was to fortify the mint from robbers. By the time you reach the last room, the sound of the water seems like a small waterfall. Look down through a small window to see a stream. Called the Labican Stream, this is where the coins were cooled after being minted.
Now it’s time to climb back up to the light, noise, and modernity of the 21st century. Don’t forget to acknowledge the many archeologists (including the Irish monks) who discovered this amazing site full of Roman history. Excavations are still underway and yet another fourth layer has been uncovered, including a large baptismal font and even what they believe to be the Pope’s bathtub, toilet, and dressing room!
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