This is an excellent example of why it's amazing that this city has any Metro system at all: try and dig a hole almost anywhere and you run into something ridiculously old. Like an iceberg with the smallest bit visible above the surface, the greater piece of San Clemente lurks silently below providing a fascinating journey through two millennia of history.
The tip of the iceberg is a bright, 12th-century jewel-box church with a glittering Byzantine apse mosaic, interesting choir, Cosmati pavements, and ciboria over the altar housing the remains of St. Clement that echoes those of ancient Roman temples. The apse is the star, no doubt about it, but one of my favorite pieces here is an enormous, twisted Paschal candlestick inlaid with mosaic flowers and geometrics in brilliant colors. The relics of St. Cyril, said to have formalized the Cyrillic alphabet, are thought to reside in one of the side chapels.
As difficult as it is to think about a church nearly 1000 years old as 'new', a trip down the stairs from the card shop (where you buy a ticket) reveals the next piece of the iceberg: the original 4th century basilica. It was built in the era of Constantine when worship of the faith came out of hidden corners and into public view with the erection of many such churches. This basilica was once at ground level but was filled in after earthquake damage and general wear-and-tear made it unusable. Remarkably preserved, it has a nice array of Medieval frescoes.
Still deeper into the depths - and into the past - are the remains of 1st century Roman structures, possibly a warehouse, likely built on even earlier ruins of the 64 AD fire. Some of this space was thought to have been shared by early, secret Christian worshippers and their pagan neighbors; the ceremonial room of a Mithraic temple is down here too. It has a fascinating altar that, interestingly enough, is positioned directly below those in both churches above.
The basilica is free and there's a small fee to explore the lower scavi. The bad news? No photography is allowed in either. See this excellent website for some historical background...
...and this for general visiting info:
“Rome! Rome! the city of the Caesars, the city of the Popes, the Eternal City which has twice conquered the world, the predestined city of the glowing dream!”
— from “The Three Cities Trilogy: Rome” by Emile Zola (1840-1902)
From the Upper Church of San Clemente a set of steps (see photo #1) leads to the Lower Church, the columns of which were bricked up in the ninth century. One side of these columns can be seen in the wall (see photos #1 & #2).
The self-guided tour of the Lower Church, the third-century Temple of Mithras and the Roman apartment complex is an exciting trip back in time. Although dimly lighted, the passageways are best navigated by the able-bodied.
Photos #4 & #5 of this set were taken in the Upper Church. Photo #4 is of the main altar; and photo #5 is a fresco at a side altar.
The modern day (still 12th century!) level church is probably the least interesting part of this church although there is a charming little courtyard. It's the excavations below which are the real attraction. One level down below ground and you come upon the 4th century church (remains of) which are interesting enough but I found the most interesting part to be another level down where there is a first century AD mithraic temple along with remains of Roman homes. Whilst the Mithraeum was very small it was quite a unique site and we enjoyed it greatly. The downside is that on a hot day as it was the lower levels become very humid and uncomfortably warm. Entrance to the upstairs church is free, the admission charge is only for the 2 lower levels. Sadly you can't take any photos in here.
S. Clemente is a beautiful 12th century basilica, built on top of a 4th century church, built on top of a Roman insula and Mithraeum and all these structures are almost complete! To walk down and through them is a hugely atmospheric experience: you really feel that you are going back in time. Well worth the small entrance fee, but try to avoid school parties if you possibly can!
If you love history, you should really visit San Clemente while you're in Rome. You may already know about it, but it's basically a church built on top of a church built on top of a church. There's an admission fee, but it's reasonable, and you can descend into the excavations below the church, seeing the depth of the city's history quite literally!
One of the most fascinating churches in Rome, la Basilica di San Clemente is layered with history. The visible structure itself was built in 1108, over the ruins of an abandoned church, and has survived largely intact to this day, despite Renaissance and Baroque period renovations. Although deceivingly simple on the outside, its interior is astonishingly ornate and contains incredible 12th century mosaics of the Tree of Life. What makes this church even more interesting, however, is the fact that it sits atop two layers of ancient constructions that are open to the public for viewing. Immediately below the 12th century structure are the ruins of the 4th century church of San Clemente with very well preserved frescoes dating from the 6th to the 9th centuries. Further below are the cavernous ruins of a 3rd century Mithraeum (pagan temple of Mithra) next to a 1st century insula (Roman residential building) and a mansion. The mansion is thought to have served as a clandestine Christian place of worship while the religion was still outlawed in Rome. Note that photography is not permitted within the church or the excavations, but I took a discreet photo of the nave (see attached).
“The long supremacy of the Papacy, succeeding so soon to that of the Empire, has been the means of bringing Rome down to our own times; else would the place have most probably been an utter ruin.”
— James Fenimore Cooper, (1789-1851) “Gleanings in Europe, Italy: By an American,” 1838, 33 letters describing Cooper’s travels between 1828-1829
ROME’S BASEMENT The present Basilica of San Clemente is thought to be the one mentioned in AD 392 by St. Jerome who wrote ‘a church in Rome preserves the memory of St. Clement to this day.’ San Clemente was the third bishop of Rome. He is the author of an epistle to the Corinthians, which was written AD 96 in the name of the Church of Rome to deal with disturbances in the Church at Corinth.
San Clement, a fourth-century martyr during the reign of Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117), was bound to an anchor and toss into the Black Sea because his missionary work so angered the Romans. When the waters receded revealing, a tomb built by angels; his body was recovered. The relics of St. Clement lie beneath the basilica’s high altar.
In 1857 Father Joseph Mullooly, then the Prior of San Clemente, began excavations under the present basilica. He uncovered not only the original, fourth-century basilica directly underneath, but also at a lower level, the remains of the first-century home of Flavius Clemens, a Roman Consul and cousin of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96). Clemens’ wife Flavia Domitilla was a Christian convert and the family transformed its home into a clandestine house of prayer for the Christian community.
The basilica is not big but very beautiful. The mosaics and the canopy over the main altar are exquisite. Entrance to the church is free; but entrance to the excavations is by paid admission. Log on to the basilica’s web site; it is excellent.
Rome has layers. That's noticeable in a lot of places, but the San Clemente Church has an archeological site that really shows off the (literal) depth of Rome's history.
Admission is 5 Euros, which seemed steep until I went down to the site. Worth every pfennig.
This Basilica is a 3 in 1. The XII century basilica on the top, a 4th century basilca in the middle and a first century building at the bottom. These people just fill a place up with dirt and build on top of it. Very interesting place. Don't be the first tour of the day as they have motion lighting that warms up. Myself and two ladies from California were the first of the day. It was badly lit for us. We notice how the other tours had much brighter lights as we were leaving.
I twisted my left foot on one of the steps I missed. Leaving me limping all week and still paying the price for that missed step.
Worth visiting, you bet! I would go again, only a little later than 9 AM.
To take a trip to the underworld of ancient Rome, take a trip to this church. While the church is fairly unimpressive, it is the underground passages and artifacts that are so cool. For 3 Euro, you can enter and climb down the steps and see parts of the original church which was built in the 4th century BC! It was mostly destroyed and rebuilt 3 times, and you can see reminents of all three. On the lowest level you can hear water flowing from the ancient, Republican-era drain and also visit the Temple of Mithras, a pagan creature who slayed the primordial bull and then fertilized the world with its blood. There are many surviving, well-preserved frescoes, which with the crypts make the trip very worthwhile!
The Basilica di San Clemente is a church like no other in Rome. From outside it another of Rome's many medieval churches, however it is also a magnificent archeological site. The Basilica di San Clemente is in fact a church built upon another much older church. The first church was actually built in the 4th century on top of a secular Roman house that was intially built in the 1st century. This house may have some religious origins also as it was built beside a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras. The house was originally owned by the Roman consul, Titus Flavius Clemens. Both the two churches and the archeological remains of the house can be explored by way of passages that proceed down to the older ruins from the 12th church on top. As you visit the remains of the house you can see various sleeping chambers and kitchens. Perhaps the most important artefact is the scupted Roman sarcophagus. There are many other secular and religious artefacts scattered about the remains. The 4th century church was destroyed by the 11th century by the Normans. The most important remains from this church are the superb frescos that date from the 9th to the 11th century.
The Basilica di San Clemente can be visited daily from 9am to 12:30pm and from 3pm to 6pm except for on Sundays when it opens at 10am. Admission is free.
All through Rome we hear about buildings being built on top of older buildings. At Basilica S. Clemente we had a great look at this because the 3 different levels have been excavated and preserved and you can visit them. On the top is a 12th cen. basilica. It sits atop a 4th cen. Christian basilica which in turn sits atop a 2nd cen. Mithraic Temple and some even earlier Roman buildings. We walked down steps to the 4th cen. church which was excavated to reveal a partial fresco on the walk still entact. Then we walked down to the 3rd excavated level. The Mithras Temple is a cult for men only. A very well preserved stone altar to the bull where sacrifices were made was found in the main room. Catacombs were discovered here in 1938 which date from the 5th and 6th centuries and are below the structures. It's amazing to be able to go back that far in history.
The basilica was built in the early 12C upon a foundation consisting of the rubble-filled remains (to the level of its pillars) of a church of the late 4C destroyed in the Norman sacking of Rome in 1084. Both churches were dedicated to St. Clement,the 4th Pope. The church is 300 yds.distant from the Colosseum in the valley between the Oppian and Coelian hills. The present church has important murals, a spectacular mosaic apse, preCosmatic tile floors and a fine structure.The forgotten filled in lower church was rediscovered and excavated starting 150 yrs ago by the resident Irish Dominican monks and they have dug below it and unearthed a Mithraic Temple and Roman buildings (at the street level of the Colosseum) of 2C AD. The present church is at today's street level. A tour takes an interesting hour (or 2) and we never fail to bring our adult children and grandchildren to enjoy this unique experience. The site is not known to most VTers. There are only a couple of mentions in the vast array of Things to Do and a few in Off the Beaten Path. I suspect that this will not be easily seen either, in the mass of Rome entries. The Green Michelin gives it 2 stars (and the mosaics 3!). We have enjoyed it so much that we have made a Travelog about it on our Rome travel page.
This is one of the oldest churches in Rome...you'll read about its history in any guidebook you take along. It has several layers, churches on top of churches, and all on top of a Mithras temple, which was built on top of old Roman streets. You can pay a small fee and venture underground to the archaeological areas, and you are given a lot of freedom to wander about. Not recommended for the feeble or handicapped, but worth the effort if you can manage the steps and areas of dimmed lighting. Mostly it is well-lit, though, and an amazing maze of little rooms underground. It doesn't take long to explore, and it is a beautiful little church, very near the Colosseo area.