We met at the Basilica di San Clemente – just east of the Colosseum. It’s a 12th century church – or so thought everyone – administered (from the mid 17th century) by an Irish Dominican order. During the 19th century an Irish priest named Joseph Mulooly decided to dig. And dig he did. As he and a small group of friends, priests and amateur archaeologists dug, they cracked through a wall and wound up staring at a fresco in an alcove that was built in the 4th century. They kept going, and going and going. Excavations still proceed today.
Today, San Clement is a 12th century church, built on top of a 4th century church, which in turn was built on top of a Mithraic temple from the 2nd century, which was built on top of what is believed to be a “Domus Ecclesia” – an early Christian house church. One of the beautiful things (there are many beautiful things about San Clemente) is that these layers are visible – both in the current day church, where you can the arches of the 4th century building exposed in a nave wall and in the space below- and accessible. You can see where walls were to added to the 4th century church as structural support for the church above; you can see fragments of columns, pediments, entablatures, capitals embedded in the rubble and spolia from earlier construction layers; fragmented and weirdly intersecting geometries of vaults and arches, beautiful frescos and paintings, an active stream (on the lowest level). We walked through all these spaces – and had the building almost completely to ourselves.
The church has a Turkish connection as well. Trajan, during his persecution of the early Christian communities of Rome, had Clement (third after Peter himself), tied to an anchor and drowned. The saint’s body was miraculously preserved in an underwater tomb, built, so tradition goes, by angels. A little later, Saints Cyril and Methodius were dispatched by the Byzantine Emperor in the 9th century to minister to the Slavic communities north of Constantinople and the Black Sea. In the Sea of Azov, on the now southern edges of Russia and the Ukraine, Cyril (of Cyrillic Alphabet fame) and Methodius discovered Clement’s body – completely preserved – and brought it back to Rome, where it was eventually interred beneath San Clemente.
Oddly enough – but palimpsest-ically appropriate – there’s a Turkish Döner restaurant right across the street.