With a local guide we had a very different type of tour and got a new perspective on historic Roma – totally underground explorations of homes, baths, temples, and even early Christian churches that disappeared for millennia until being discovered in the past one hundred and fifty years. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden in some of the complexes, so our photographic record is slim. However, Atlantic magazine published an excellent article entitled “Underground Rome” in its April 1997 issue that we are excerpting here to provide some insights into our experience.
“BENEATH modern Rome is a hidden city, as still as Rome is chaotic, as dark as Rome is luminous, with its own peculiar animals, powerful odors, frigid waters, and spectacular ancient remains. Explorers will find theaters, baths, stadia, imperial villas, apartment buildings, fire stations, and pagan temples — even an enormous sundial that used an Egyptian obelisk as a pointer. Millions of people come to Rome each year in search of antiquity, and walk unsuspectingly across these buried treasures during their tours of the celebrated surface ruins. Though structures like the Pantheon and the Coliseum are certainly impressive, they represent only a small fraction of the ancient city, and wind, rain, and air pollutants have not treated them kindly over the years. Wrapped in a thick protective blanket of earth, Rome’s subterranean structures have endured the incessant chiseling of people and elements far better…”
“Ancient Rome slipped from sight gradually, in a 2,500-year process of natural silting and intentional burial that was already well advanced in classical times. Roman architects frequently tore the roofs from old buildings and filled their interiors with dirt, to make solid foundations for new structures. They embedded earlier buildings in tremendous landfills that raised the ground level of the entire site by several yards. Sometimes they entombed whole neighborhoods in this way. After the Great Fire of A.D. 64 devastated two thirds of the city, Nero spread the debris over the wreckage of republican Rome and then reshaped the city to his liking. Later, during Rome’s long, bleak Middle Ages, nature continued the interment. The population shrank to tiny pockets within the broad ring of the imperial walls, abandoning the ancient city to relentless erosion that wore away the uplands and redistributed them over low-lying areas. Roman buildings that remained exposed contributed significantly to the landfill. Archaeologists have estimated that the collapse of a one-story Roman house produced detritus six feet deep over its entire plan. Considering that Rome once boasted 40,000 apartment buildings, 1,800 palaces, and numerous giant public buildings, of which almost nothing survives, it is clear that the ancient city is buried under its own remains.”
Our first stop (no photography allowed) was the contemporary San Clemente church, dating back to 1100 A.D. The Atlantic article describes our experience well: “A GOOD place to begin exploring Rome’s layers is San Clemente, a twelfth-century basilica just east of the Coliseum. Descend the staircase in the sacristy and you find yourself in a rectangular hall decorated with fading frescoes and greenish marbles, lit by sparse bulbs strung up by the excavators. This is the original, fourth-century San Clemente, one of Rome’s first churches. It was condemned around A.D. 1100 and packed full of earth, Roman-style, as a platform for the present basilica. A narrow stair near the apse of this lower church leads down to the first-century structures upon which it, in turn, was built: a Roman apartment house and a small temple. The light is thinner here; cresses and fungi patch the dark brick and grow delicate halos on the walls behind the bare bulbs. Deeper still, on the fourth level, are several rooms from an enormous public building that was apparently destroyed in the Great Fire and then buried by Nero’s architects. At about a dozen yards belowground the massive tufa blocks and herringbone brickwork are slick with humidity, and everywhere is the sound of water, flowing in original Roman pipes. No one has excavated below this level, but something is there, for the tufa walls run another twenty feet or so down into the earth. Something is buried beneath everything in Rome.” — Atlantic magazine, April 1997
The last underground house that we visited was in the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome, an area full of buried buildings from ancient Rome due to its low lying position near the Tiber River which frequently flooded – under Santa Cecilia church, the contemporary church building having been built on top of what was, reputedly, Cecilia’s home. “The story of the martyrdom of St. Cecilia: Cecilia was a powerful Roman patrician who was killed in AD 230 for complicated political reasons—most of which had to do with the fact that she was (a) influential, (b) vocal in her politics, and (c) a woman… After locking Cecilia in her own steam room for three days failed to do her in — indeed, Cecilia came out singing, for which she later was declared the patron saint of music — the executioners tried decapitating her. The three allowed strokes of the axe failed to finish the job however, and Cecilia held on for another three days, slowly bleeding to death and converting hundreds in the process with her show of piety (and this obvious evidence of the power of the God protecting her).” – reidsitaly.com