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S. Clemente to S. Francesca Romana

O
and varying aspects of Roman townscape, but in this
walk and the next we are going to see another one, perhaps


are now coming to the Coelian Hill, one of the few areas
within the Aurelian walls to have retained something of its
uniquely Roman pre-1870 character. Right up to the unifica-
tion of Italy, the town occupied only a tiny proportion of
the vast area enclosed by the walls; the rest was filled with a
picturesque medley of parks, gardens and vineyards dotted
with the ruins of antiquity and the churches which had grown
up among them, since the days of Constantine.

Colosseum, either on foot, which will take about fifteen
minutes, or boarding the 85 or 117 bus in front of Palazzo

Basilica of S. Clemente, which
stands on the left on the corner of the Piazza di S. Clemente.
Archaeologically this is one of the most interesting churches
in Rome. It is also one of the most appealing; to a great wealth
of art and treasures is added the atmosphere of a much-loved
church, upon whose care and maintenance no pains have been
spared. Here too the traveller is welcomed with a warm Irish
brogue by the Dominicans, who are a fount of information
about the complicated building history of their church. This
consists of three successive places of Christian worship, built
one on top of the other between the first and twelfth centu-
ries, and includes a well-preserved mithraeum. S. Clemente
has been in the care of Irish Dominicans since 1667; it was

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S. Clemente to S. Francesca Romana

and his successors that the excavations, begun in 1857 when


archaeology as a science was in its infancy, revealed that the
churchs origins go right back to the days of early Christianity.
A titulus Clementis figures in the list of churches drawn
up at the Roman Council of 499. This would have been the
church dedicated to Pope Clement I (8897?), the fourth
pope, which was built during the reign of Pope Siricius (384
99) over the filled-in courtyard and ground-floor rooms of
a first-century mansion, which had belonged to a man also
named Clement, rather confusingly; it seems fairly certain
that part of the house had been used as a place of Christian
worship from the end of the first or the beginning of the
second century. The existing basilica was built in the eleventh
century on top of the fourth-century church, still occupying
exactly the site of the original first-century house, though it
now stands sixty feet higher, so greatly has the level of the land
risen since classical times.
We shall begin our visit of S. Clemente from a side door

access from the main entrance on the Piazza di S. Clemente.
At first glance the church appears to be a typical example of
eighteenth-century baroque, but a few paces into the nave
bring us face to face with one of the most perfect medi-

columns, and set in the midst of a beautiful cosmatesque
pavement, the choir enclosure is walled with panels of white
and coloured marbles. These are decorated with the early
Christian symbols of the fish, dove and vine, exquisite for the
purity and simplicity of their workmanship. The choir was
the gift of Pope John II (53555); it was transferred from the
lower pre-existing church when the present basilica was built
towards the end of the eleventh century. It is believed that the
church had to be rebuilt because the earlier one was severely
damaged when Robert Guiscard and his Normans sacked this
part of Rome in 1084; certainly it was about this time that
the older church was filled in and the new one built above it.
The nave of the new church was narrower than that of the

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old one, and the choir had to be slightly altered to fit it. At
the same time the high medieval pulpit was added on the left,
together with the beautifully decorated mosaic paschal candle-
stick. These high pulpits with their adjoining candlesticks are
particularly characteristic of medieval central and southern
Italian churches. They probably owe their design to the local
custom of reading the Exultet (which follows the kindling of
the fire on Easter Saturday) from a long illuminated scroll.
On these scrolls, the subjects mentioned in the Exultet were
illustrated by lively miniatures, usually painted upsidedown in
relation to the text; so that as the deacon intoned the verses,
the congregation could watch this medieval form of moving
pictures slowly descending from the pulpit.
Unlike the choir, the high altar has been remodelled
several times. The confessio, or martyrs tomb beneath it,
said to contain the relics of Sts Clement and Ignatius, dates
from 1868, and the columns supporting the canopy, from
the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The canopy itself, however,
may well be contemporary with the choir, and have been
transferred from the earlier church. The anchor which is so
conspicuously displayed on the front may mystify those who
are not familiar with the legends of St Clement. The real St
Clement, who was the fourth pope, was described by second-
century writers as being a contemporary of Sts Peter and
Paul. Certainly he wrote a celebrated and authoritative letter
on church matters to the Christian community of Corinth,
which was read publicly with the scriptures in 170, and was
still being read there in the sixth century. Modern research
has revealed that St Clements literary style indicates a Jewish
background; it is thought that he may have been a liberated
slave in the household of Domitians cousin, the martyred

St Clements life or death; but it did not prevent his becoming
the subject of many legends, or a fourth-century writer from
composing an apocryphal description of his life and Acts.
According to these, St Clement was banished by Trajan
(98117) to work in the mines of the Crimea, where he made

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so many converts that he was martyred by being bound to


an anchor and thrown into the Sea of Azov. Later the water
miraculously receded, revealing his body laid in a tomb built
by angels. The body was recovered, buried on an island, and
in the ninth century was translated by the missionaries Sts
Cyril and Methodius to Rome. At the place of his martyrdom,
however, the sea continued to recede annually for some time,
providing a fruitful source of miracles. One of these, and
scenes from the Acts, is illustrated by frescoes in the lower
church, which we will see later. This is also the theme of the
fresco by Sebastian Conca high on the left wall of the church,
illustrating S. Clemente in the Crimea.
It is believed that much of the decoration of the apse
behind the high altar was inspired by, if not exactly copied
from, that of the original fourth-century church below.
Certainly the episcopal throne was brought from there; the
word martyr seen on its back is a fragment of Siriciuss
original dedicatory inscription in the fourth-century church.
The name of Cardinal Anastasius, the builder of the present
basilica, is also recorded here. On the wall of the arch above

Apostles, whose warm tones of red and yellow form a perfect
foil for the predominating blue, green and gold of the magnif-
icent mosaic in the semi-dome. This mosaic, the stupendous
Triumph of the Cross, which is the culminating glory of the
whole church, recalls with its exquisite foliage scrolls the small
fifth-century one we saw in the Lateran baptistery. The ground
is gold, typical of the later Byzantine style of mosaics, and it
dates to the first half of the twelfth century, but it is believed
that the design and possibly even some of the original tesserae
were taken from the original one in the fourth-century
church. At the centre is the Crucifixion, with twelve doves (the

on an acanthus plant, from which parts the scroll motif, and
at the bottom two stags drink from rivulets flowing from the
Cross and symbolizing its life-giving qualities. In the band
below, we again have the twelve apostles, portrayed as sheep,

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together with the Lamb of God. On the triumphal arch above


are depicted, from bottom left to right, each portrayal clearly
identified by name, Bethlehem, Isaiah, Sts Paul and Lawrence,
Christ, Sts Peter and Clement, Jeremiah and Jerusalem.
Before leaving the altar area, we should also study the
aumbry or wall-tabernacle on the wall on the right, one of the
most beautiful of its kind in Rome. This was given in 1299 by
Giacomo Caetani, titular cardinal of the church. A small relief


whole aumbry was probably the work of Arnolfo di Cambio,
as the popes head is a miniature copy of Arnolfos portrait of

of the altar, is the magnificent tomb of Cardinal Bartolomeo
Roverella (died 1476), and over the altar in the chapel to the
right of that, the chapel of St Cyril, the exquisite Madonna
by Sassoferrato (160585), other versions of which are to be
found in the Galleria Borghese and the National Gallery in
London. Although this chapel is architecturally very ordi-
nary, it must be remembered that St Cyril, together with St
Methodius, is credited with bringing Christianity to the Slav
peoples, and even with inventing the Cyrillic alphabet, which
is named after him. Since he is also believed to be buried in the
lower basilica, where we shall see a tomb commonly thought
to be his, the importance of S. Clemente, and in consequence
of this chapel, for the Catholic churches of the east cannot be
overestimated.
Over the altar in the chapel to the left of the main altar hangs
Concas Madonna of the Rosary, between Ss. Domenico and
Caterina, and on the wall to the left is the handsome funerary

incorporated columns from a sixth-century tabernacle.
The other great artistic treasures in this part of S. Clemente
are the frescoes in the chapel of St Catherine of Alexandria
(at the other end of the left nave, nearest the main door,
behind a grille). These date from 142831. During restora-
tion the artists preliminary sketches were discovered on the

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wall beneath and put into frames. These are moved around
according to what maintenance work is being carried out,
and if you wish to see them but cannot find where they are,
ask at the counter where tickets are sold for the excavations
beneath. The frescoes were once attributed to Masaccio, but
are now more generally assigned to Masolino da Panicale,
though some authorities believe that both artists had a hand
in the work.
Those on the left of the chapel represent legendary scenes
from the life of St Catherine of Alexandria her dispute with
learned doctors, her missionary work and conversion of the
Emperor Maxentiuss wife, who was executed in consequence;
also the miracle of St Catherine being freed from death on the
wheel by an angel, her ultimate decapitation, and her body
being carried by angels to Mount Sinai, where the famous
monastery called after her still stands. The Crucifixion above
the altar is the work which is most closely associated with
Masaccios name; as he died in 1428 or 1429, it is probably
the earliest in the series. The paintings on the right wall
represent scenes from the life of St Ambrose of Milan. On
the wall immediately to the left of the grille, we can see a fine
picture of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, many
of whom in the past have scratched their names, prayers and
dates upon the painting. Some of these graffiti date from the
second half of the fifteenth century.
Before making our way down into the shadowy depths of
the lower church and excavations beneath it, it is pleasant to
rest for a moment in the sunlight of the colonnaded medieval
forecourt, the only one of its period to have survived in Rome.
Like the basilica itself, this stands directly above its fourth-
century predecessor; the gate leading into it from the Piazza
di S. Clemente is really the main entrance to the church. On
the outside this is surmounted by a distinctive overhanging
porch which now looks charmingly picturesque, but it had
a far grimmer function in the Middle Ages. Then it formed
part of the defences of the church and monastery, like the
machicolations of a castle. Evidently Cardinal Anastasius who

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built it had no intention of being caught napping by another


Robert Guiscard.
Returning to the basilica, we pass through the vestibule on
the right and descend into the fourth-century church. At first
it is very difficult to imagine it as such; walls subsequently
built to support the nave and aisles of the eleventh-century
basilica have resulted in its appearing rather as a series of four
long passages of varying width. Its height too has been dimin-
ished by the new basilicas having been partly sunk into its

not far from where we entered and started to dig his way back
through the refuse of centuries to discover St Clements early

man, for even in those early days of archaeology he had the
foresight to commission artists to make copies of the frescoes
in which all the pristine freshness of their colour, just as they
were discovered, was recorded (three copies now hang in the
vestibule through which we pass to reach the lower church).
It seems strange to the layman, but paintings such as these
appear to survive centuries of burial in damp earth almost
unscathed, while a hundred years exposure to the air has
caused them to fade disastrously.
On reaching the bottom of the steps we find ourselves in
the long passage leading straight from the foot of the stairs.
This was the narthex of the old church; it lies directly beneath
the forecourt we lately left. One of the frescoes here, a ninth-
century Last Judgment which was on the left wall, has been
removed and now hangs in the atrium of the sacristy. The
two remaining frescoes on the opposite wall date from the
eleventh century and are of considerable importance in the
history of painting. They were the gift of Beno de Rapiza and
his wife Maria Macellaria, represented together with their
children beneath the right-hand fresco, which portrays one of
the miracles recounted in the apocryphal Acts of St Clement.
This last is a curious composition, showing a child in a
curtained pavilion, with fish swimming above and to one side
of it; on the left are a kneeling woman and a religious proces-

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sion. The painting represents the miraculous survival of a


child who was carried away when the waves returned to cover
St Clements tomb after its annual exposure. He was found
there alive and well when the sea ebbed again the following
year. The other fresco, to the left of the opening, portrays the
translation in 868 of St Clements relics from St Peters to this
church; the name of the pope involved is erroneously given
by the artist as Nicholas, when in fact it was Hadrian II. It will
be recalled that the relics were believed to have been brought
back from the Crimea by Sts Cyril and Methodius.
Passing through the gap between the two frescoes, we now
enter the nave, which has been much reduced in size by the
walls built to support the upper church. Immediately on the
left of the door are more, ninth-century frescoes, although
not of the same quality as the eleventh-century ones in the

halo of the living, on the left of the picture, and others on
New Testament subjects, including Christs Descent into
Limbo. On the left-hand wall of the nave, however, there are
two splendid frescoes. The first we come to is of S. Alessio
conducting an improbable existence under the stairs of his
fathers house, where he passed himself off as a servant for
seventeen years, unrecognised, while it must be admitted that
the subject of the last fresco calls for lively treatment; the story
is a very funny one, especially for a pious legend. Two panels,
set one above the other, illustrate the story of Sisinnius, a
jealous pagan husband, who followed his wife Theodora to a
church where St Clement was officiating. In the upper panel,
Sisinnius is seen arriving and being struck blind and deaf as a
result of his unworthy suspicions. In the lower one St Clement
is seen visiting Sisinniuss house and curing him. It also shows
the ungrateful man giving vent to his rage and ordering his
servants to bind the saint and his companions and to drag
them away. However, Providence intervened with unusu-
ally humorous results, making Sisinnius and his henchmen
mistake some columns lying on the ground for St Clement
and his entourage. They are seen struggling with these

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unwieldy objects, while the accompanying inscription records




DELE PUTE, TRAITE, he shouts, i.e. Carvoncello, get behind
with a lever. Pull, Albertel and Gosmaris. Pull, you sons of
harlots! This is vernacular rather than Latin and used to
emphasize the coarseness of the pagans, whereas the Christian
St Clement, being more refined, speaks Latin: (PROPTER)

i.e. (On account of) the hardness of your heart, you have
deserved to pull stones. The first of these inscriptions is of
very great importance as being the earliest one known to have
been written in Italian.
We now pass through an opening on the side of the nave
opposite these frescoes, cross one passage, and go through
another opening into the last passage on this side of the
building. This was originally the right-hand aisle of the
church; to our right we come upon a painting set back in a
small niche, which appears, and was for long believed, to be

interest has, however, been aroused by some suggestions that
it is in fact a contemporary portrait of Justinians empress
Theodora, who died in 548. To the left, against the wall, is
a first-century ad sarcophagus with a relief of Phaedra and
Hippolytus; this will have been reused by Christians.

nave, to the left of the central one, at the bottom of which
there is a modern altar, which marks what is believed to be
the tomb of St Cyril, a much revered spot to judge by the
statues and plaques on the wall. To the right of this we can go
through to an apse, which is not, however, that of the original
fourth-century church, but a smaller one built to support the
apse of the new church above. A door on the right of the
small apse leads into the far larger one of the fourth-century
church; this is one of the very few parts of that building to
stretch beyond the confines of the house of Clemens, which
lies beneath. It was specifically designed to do so, and it is not

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the only example of its kind in Rome; another possibly even


more striking one occurs in S. Prisca on the Aventine. The
reason for the layout was that in the house adjoining that of
Clemens there existed a centre of Mithraic worship. At one
time Mithraism was viewed as a rival of Christianity and
was protected by Commodus and Diocletian. Even after the
disestablishment of the pagan cults in 382, it was still powerful
as the chief religion of the rank and file of the western legions.
Mithraism was only finally crushed by Theodosiuss victories
over Maximus and the legions at Siscia in 388, and Arbogastes

it was formally outlawed. Shortly after this, the clergy of St
Clements must have acquired the now abandoned Mithraic
temple, and when they built their new church, they extended
the apse so that it stood above the spot where one of the last
rites of paganism had been celebrated (cf. also the Mithraeum
of S. Prisca on pp. 51314).
Both these large adjoining blocks were constructed towards
the end of the first century, over the filled-in remains of even
earlier buildings devastated by Neros famous fire of ad 64;
they were separated from one another by a narrow alley. The
Mithraic house was a typical Roman insula or block of flats,
in which some ground-floor rooms were adapted to this form
of worship, about the end of the second century. At the same
time the characteristic cave-like triclinium, for the consump-
tion of the religious banquet which formed an important part
of the Mithraic ritual, was built in the courtyard of the insula.
We reach the level of the temple of Mithras and the original
house of Clemens down a flight of steps beyond the modern
altar. Turning left and then right at the bottom of the stairs,
we find ourselves at the entrance to a room which served as
the vestibule of the temple. It is believed that this was reserved
for the initiates; remnants of seating provided for them and

however, and far more evocative is the triclinium across the
passageway on the left. With its vaulted ceiling covered with
small stones in imitation of a cave, and its rocky grotto at

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the far end, this might well be mistaken for one of those
underground nymphaeums which served as refuges from
summer heat in Roman palaces and villas. In actual fact the
whole design was dictated by the curious creed of Mithras,
a god born of a rock, who at Apollos command killed the
bull which was the symbol of fertility. In this struggle Mithras
was helped by a snake and a dog but betrayed by a scorpion,
which spilled some of the bulls precious blood from which
all things living were created and thus introduced evil into
the world. The scene showing Mithras plunging a knife into
the bulls back is portrayed on the altar now at the far end
of the triclinium, though it probably formerly stood in the
room of the initiates. After his victory, Mithras banqueted
with Apollo, and was conveyed in his chariot to heaven. The
ritual banquets held in the Mithraic triclinia commemorated
this event. Other gods such as Helios, Selene and Serapis were
associated with the cult; reliefs of the first two are also to be
seen in this mithraeum.
Mithraism was a highly moral religion strictly limited
to men, loyalty and fidelity being regarded as the ultimate
virtues; it also held out hope of a life hereafter. In view of the
discovery of a mithraeum in the heart of the City of London,
it is interesting to note that it was the British legions who
revolted after the disestablishment of the pagan cults in 382,
electing as their leader Maximus, who fought paganisms
penultimate battle against the Christian Theodosius in 388.
Not all of the Mithraic insula beneath S. Clemente has
yet been excavated, but a room leading out of the end of
the passage on the right is believed to have been the school
or instruction room for postulants; in it are seven niches
with graffiti, thought to represent the seven stages of initia-
tion. Beside this is an iron door leading to a tunnel, built in
191214 to carry off the water, whose flow has been constantly
audible ever since we descended into the lower levels, to the
Cloaca Maxima, some seven hundred yards away beside the
Colosseum. This water, which flooded the mithraeum for

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external tufa wall of Clemenss house, some thirty feet below



is a relic of some ancient aqueduct, or simply the canaliza-
tion of some underground spring, but the supply is pure and
plentiful and was used by the Dominicans during the water
shortages of the Second World War.
Returning to the vestibule of the mithraeum, and entering
the small room on the left, we cross the narrow alley which
once separated it from the house of Clemens. After ascending
and then descending a few steps we find ourselves at last in this

house has so far been excavated, but it is known that the few
rooms which have, with their floors in charming herring-
bone brick, bordered on the great courtyard over which the
nave of the fourth-century basilica was built. Passing through
them in the dim light and silence, broken only by the sound
of the running water, is a rather eerie experience, and inevi-
tably one wonders what dramas of fear and courage, of faith
and despair, of sorrow for the ordeal and death of beloved
martyred friends and relations they must have witnessed
during the period of persecutions.
Our exploration of S. Clemente will probably have occu-
pied the best part of three-quarters of an hour, much of it
spent underground, so a short climb to the breezier heights
of the Coelian Hill will not come amiss. To get there we cross


Coronati. Walking up it we pursue exactly the opposite route
to that taken in the old days by the papal cavalcade of the
possesso on its way to the Lateran; and thereby hangs one of
the most fabulous tales of Roman folklore. The papal caval-


because in the lower part of the street there was a house
known to the Roman populace as that of Papessa Giovanna.
Some fragment of a classical relief, showing a woman with her
breast bared and a child in her arms, marked the spot; this was

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removed and the whole house pulled down by order of Pius



legend, or perhaps even gave rise to it, is not known. But the
fact remains that for centuries the Romans told the story of
how an Englishwoman called Joan succeeded in being elected

woman of England, even survived among the papal portraits

ordered its removal in 1592 and the substitution of that of
Pope Zacharias (74152).
The legend dates from the twelfth century, some three
hundred years after the beautiful Joan was believed to have

disguised herself as a monk in order not to be separated from
her lover, who was a Benedictine. Together they travelled the
world, going to England, and to Athens, where they studied
philosophy at the famous schools. Here the lover died, and
Joan went on to Rome, where her brilliance and profound
knowledge of philosophy and theology opened all doors
before her. She acquired another lover, but this did not quench
her ambition to become pope. She was duly elected, but at the
very moment when she was on her way to take possession of
the temporal power in the Lateran, Joan gave birth to a child

killed by the outraged populace and buried by the roadside.

the ponderous mass of what at first appears to be a medieval
castle on the hill. This is the fortified Abbey, the only one
in Rome, of the Ss. Quattro Coronati, often used in medi-
eval times as a temporary papal residence or as a lodging for
important guests. The approach is steep, but finally some
steps on the right bring us out on to a small open space before
the tower which rises above the dark medieval door of this
massive building. Two successive courtyards lead us to the
door of the church of the Ss. Quattro Coronati. This was for
long believed to have been founded in the sixth or possibly
even in the fourth century, and to have been associated with

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