Yesterday was our second last day in Italy.
We had a tour booked with 3 Millennia Tours in the afternoon to explore underground Rome. Since we were to meet our guide by the coliseum we decided to explore that area in the morning.
In the end we practically relived our first few days in Rome back in 2006 when we stayed by the coliseum. Back then we got settled in the hotel, explored the neighbourhood, and enjoyed a great lunch at a restaurant caled Le Naumachie. After lunch we hooked up with mom and Rose and headed out to San Giovanni in Laterano.
Here's what we did this time . . .
The only thing missing was mom and Rose!
While we were on that trip we had taken a Catacomb/Underground Rome tour, also with 3 Millennia Tours. Our friend Nancy wanted to visit the catacombs but there was no one else booked on this tour so we joined along in order to reach the company's minimum number. I am glad that I did for this tour was a very different tour!
The van drove us along the Appian Way to the catacombs with the guide pointing out interesting sites along the way. The catacombs she had hoped to show us was inexplicably closed yesterday so she took us through the catacombs of St. Callixtus. Normally she avoids it since it is the most accessible from Rome thus it is the busiest one.
Of all the catacombs, those of San Callisto are among the oldest and certainly the largest with 12 miles of tunnels spread over 33 acres and five levels that housed the remains of half a million Christians. In addition, 16 early popes and more than 50 martyrs and saints were buried there. We were surprised to discover that this was the resting place of St Cecilia who we had read about when we visited St Cecilia in Trastevere the other day.
On the tour, you also get to ogle some of the earliest Christian art—frescoes, carvings, and drawings scratched into the rock depicting ancient Christian symbols like the fish, the anchor, the dove, and images that tell some of the earliest popular Bible stories.
It was in the catacombs where we met some of the requisite ugly tourists that we seemed to have missed to date. The first was a woman who had an episode the second she got down into the catacomb . . . who the hell goes on a catacomb tour if you are claustrophobic? She was followed by an old codger who complained rather loudly that the guide was unable to speak English . . . he was, we had no trouble following him. I guess we were due - three weeks in Italy and no tourist embarrassment (other than the odd fashion disaster) was a run that was destined to be broken.
After we left the catacombs our next stop was the church of San Clemente - one of Rome's most impressive sites. We were shocked to see this church only 2 blocks from where we stayed in 2006. Both Paul and I commented on how ticked mom would be to have been this close to such an amazing site and missed it!
One of the most impressive archaeological sites in Rome, San Clemente is a historical triple-decker. A 12th-century church was built on top of a 4th-century church, which in turn was built over a 2nd-century pagan temple to the god Mithras and 1st-century Roman apartments. The layers were rediscovered in 1857, when a curious prior, Friar Joseph Mullooly, started excavations beneath the present basilica. Today, you can descend down to explore all three.
The upper church (located at street level) is a gem even on its own. In the apse, a glittering 12th-century mosaic shows Jesus on a cross that turns into a living tree. Green acanthus leaves swirl and teem with small scenes of everyday life. Early Christian symbols, including doves, vines, and fish, decorate the 4th-century marble choir screens. In the left nave, the Castiglioni chapel holds frescoes painted around 1400 by the Florentine artist Masolino da Panicale (1383-1440), a key figure in the introduction of realism and one-point perspective into Renaissance painting. Note the large Crucifixion and scenes from the lives of Sts. Catherine, Ambrose, and Christopher, plus an Annunciation (over the entrance).
To the right of the sacristy (and bookshop), descend the stairs to the 4th-century church, used until 1084, when it was damaged beyond repair during a siege of the area by the Norman prince Robert Guiscard. Still intact are some vibrant 11th-century frescoes depicting stories from the life of St. Clement. Don't miss the last fresco on the left, in what used to be the central nave. It includes a particularly colorful quote—including "Go on, you sons of harlots, pull!"—that's not only unusual for a religious painting, but one of the earliest examples of written vernacular Italian.
Finally we descended an additional set of stairs to the mithraeum, a shrine dedicated to the god Mithras. His cult spread from Persia and gained a hold in Rome during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Mithras was believed to have been born in a cave and was thus worshipped in underground, cavernous chambers, where initiates into the all-male cult would share a meal while reclining on stone couches, some visible here along with the altar block. Most such pagan shrines in Rome were destroyed by Christians, who often built churches over their remains, as happened here.
We also saw the remains of what may have been a Roman mint, a series of 'condominimums' where less affluent Romans would have lived, narrow roads, and a couple of underground rivers delivering that clean, pure water to Rome that we now get from the fountains all over the city.
What an amazing find and how shocking that we stayed 2 blocks away in 2006 and were oblivious to it!
When we emerged out into the twilight our driver delivered us to the Piazza Navona where we meandered back to the apartment. We had planned on going out for dinner but we were all pretty tired so it became 'eat the leftovers from the refrigerator and go to bed early' evening!