A History of Italian Culture: The Layers of Rome

Rome is often compared to a palimpsest, a text made up of older, “invisible” texts scraped off durable parchment so that it could be reused. Thanks to modern research techniques, the older writings underneath can now be deciphered, brought back to the surface – and this is often what has happened in the city of Rome too, when it comes to modern archaeology. As holes are dug for subway extensions, or landscape gardening is carried out in backyards – Michelangelo witnessed the rediscovery of the famous Laocoön sculpture in this way – layers of the ancient city resurface. This is a boon for researchers, a nightmare for conservators, and an inconvenience for present-day Romans.

But the beauty of Rome is that you don’t have to muck around in a dusty archaeological site to see this synchronic history in action. In the 1860s an Irish Dominican resident at San Clemente, a church close to the Colosseum, decided to excavate below the glorious 12th-century basilica. Thus, after surveying the bright Byzantine apse mosaic, frescoes by Masolino (one of the fathers of the Florentine Renaissance), and the coloured swirls of the Cosmatesque pavement, you now descend a wide staircase to the lower levels.

Father Mullooly’s works uncovered a 4th-century basilica, in constant use until the construction of the upper church. Popes convened 5th-century church councils here; rare Romanesque frescoes – of a quality usually seen only in northern Spain – are still on the walls; and there is a sense of walking amongst the neglected history of “Dark Age” Rome. One of the earliest examples of written Italian vernacular is still here: a frescoed pagan exhorts his servants to drag away a marble column, crying out: “Come on, you sons of bitches! Get behind it with your backs!”

But there’s even more underneath the second basilica: a late 2nd-century mithraeum with benches and an altar, a meeting space and school used by devotees of Mithras. The complex initiation rites of this pagan cult rivalled early Christianity in popularity until the 4th century. There are 1st-century city streets to walk down here, and you can still hear the rushing of water through the Cloaca Maxima, the principal drain of ancient Rome. San Clemente was traditionally held to be founded over the remains of a 1st-century nobleman’s house, in which one of Rome’s early church groups met, and his house in its turn had been constructed over buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of 64.

It’s hard to think of another vertical history like this one, fifteen centuries in one city layered out clearly before you – and it’s for this reason that, to modern Romans, San Clemente is known as the “lasagne church”.

Dr Kathleen Olive

Has more than 15 years’ experience leading tour groups. She is one of Academy Travel’s most respected tour leaders, and is known to Academy Travellers as a skilled and sensitive presenter. Kathleen has a PhD in Italian Studies, speaks fluent Italian and lectures on the art, history and culture of Europe and Japan.


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