Just a few short steps from the Colosseum, the Roman Basilica Church of Saint Clement is a treasure trove of history waiting to be discovered and appreciated.  Although the sanctuary is breathtaking in itself, the real wonders are discovered in the crypt and undercroft, the lower levels of the church where the styles and structures of earlier periods intersect and reference each other in an endless dance of architectural and cultural evolution.  Here, it’s easy to marvel at why Rome is considered ‘The Eternal City’.

 

                

 

The original foundations of this church belong to a nobleman’s mansion, known as a domus.  The domus, dating back to the 200’s AD, was itself built upon a previous building made of porous limestone blocks (tufa) covered by a layer of travertine.  This aristocratic house was neighbored by an insula (kind of a Roman apartment building for the middle and lower classes) with a pathway between these two buildings less than a meter-wide.  A temple to the Indo-Iranian deity Mithra was in active use at the beginning of the 3rd century.  On top of these structures, the original Church of St. Clement rests, being built in the latter half of the 4th century.  The entirety of this original church is completely underground- demonstrating just how many layers of history Modern Rome rests upon.

The original St. Clement Church, forgotten for a time, was rediscovered in 1857.  Like its medieval successor, it has three naves divided by colonnades.  Key features like the apse, nave, portico, and entrance are also mirrored in the architecture of the upper church.  Indeed, with the flooring of the upper basilica resting squarely atop of the lower columns’ capitals, these two churches built upon one another uniquely illustrate the architectural and cultural phases through the passage of time.  By examining the stratigraphic succession, at least three distinct architectural phases can be identified:

1) Roman building under the ancient basilica, made of tufa blocks and covered by travertine slabs, dated late 1st century A.D.

 

2) Roman building made of bricks, under the apse of the ancient basilica, in which during the second half of the 2nd century A.D. a Mithraeum was settled;

 

3) The new building made by the Christians on the tufa block structure at the beginning of the 3rd century A.D.

 

4) Medieval Church atop the early Christian basilica, made by Pope Pasquale II after the previous church was destroyed by the Normans in 1084.

 

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