All great cities collect history. Each year, each age, leaves something behind. A city like Rome, which has been around for 2500 years, is an absolute feast if you know where to look. And no better examples of this are two fabulous churches - San Clemente and San Giovanni di Laterano. Where layers of history have accumulated and it is possible to wander a maze of musty dungeons, listen to an underground river, gaze up at titanic statues of the apostles and enjoy frescoes by Borromini. You think you have seen spectacular churches in Vienna, Prague and Venice - wait until you get to Rome.
San Giovanni de Laterano
This isn't just a church - this is the officially Rome's cathedral and the seat of the Bishop of Rome otherwise known as the Pope. For centuries this was the main papal residence when the old St Peters across the Tiber became too run down to provide a suitable residence. Quite simply, this is one of the most spectacular baroque churches you will ever see and its collection of holy relics is amazing. After St Peters and the Pantheon this is one of the most visited churches in Rome, and when you get there you can see why.
There has been a church on the site since the 4th century established by Constantine. It was used by the papacy until the great schism and when the pope's returned from Avignon they found it in a terrible state. In the 17th century as St Peters was spruced up into it's baroque form the same was done to San Giovanni by Borromini. To reach it take the metro to Manzoni and walk along Via Filiberto. Or more memorably walk south from the Colosseum along Via Di San Giovanni di Laterano. This is an amazing road going back 2,000 years with walled palazzo's, overgrown ruins, gelaterias and tourists galore. At it's end is Piazza di San Giovanni where an Egyptian obelisque soars into the air.
The front facade is colossal (see photo)and stretches hundreds of feet into the air. Borromini built it in white marble and topped it with fifteen statues of saints. But it is the portico which really stuns you. Before you enter the church look up at the gold embossed ceiling and ten foot statue of Constantine at one end. And as for the doors - take a good look - you are now examining the doors taken from the Curia (Senate House) in the Roman Forum. What museum in the world wouldn't like to get their hands on them..
The interior is so overwhelming that I saw a tourist backed up against the wall so that his eys could comprehend the vast nave. Boromini decked out the church in high baroque. At the far end is the Pieta (see photo) which stands over the altar and offset with gold and murals. The ceiling was octagonal and glittered in gilt and the frescoes were literally heavenly. The Pieta is worth a good look - a golden memorial with two effigies of St Peter and St Paul. This is not just for show - the heads of the two saints reside somewhere in the church. And below was a candle-pit with an effigy of St James (San Giovanni)- this church has more relics then most countries.
My favourite, though, was the statuary in the chancel - 20ft white marble statues of the saints (see photo). They glared like agonising titans at the worshippers below them. All in all, a stunning church. But what else can you expect from gods representative on earth.
Chies di San Clemente
to outside appearances San Clemente can seem a disapointment. It's tangerine colour is defaced by graffiti (Rome stunned me in how much graffiti there was). But get inside, or to be more precise, get underground, and you will see the layer upon layer of history that this fabulous city has accumulated. If you ever want proof of the antiquity of Rome then a visit here is a must. And the site itself goes back to Domitian, though there is evidence that it was used as an arms store for gladiators in Nero's time. It is named after the third pope, San Clemente, in AD90 and its foundations and underground chapels go back to this time. You will not get closer to the history of Rome then this church.
It is situated along Via di San Giovanni di Laterano not far south of the Colosseum. The interior is nothing special, the usual white baroque with white ceiling and gold altar. Frescoes by Masolino adorn the walls and the presence of nuns and priests confirm the churches holiness. The adjoining courtyard is very lovely with columned loggia, a fountain and a baroque facade.
But it is what is below the church which makes it so special. Dark stone passageways lead down to a Christian Titulus (chapel) that goes back to the 4th century. Orthodox frescoes adorn the walls lit by flickering lamplight and the Tiber can be heard rushing beneath the floor. Even deeper in the underground passageways is an underground chapel to Mithras (the bull fertility god) going back to the 2nd century. Through a small slit you can view stone pews and a statue of a man killing a bull. But I loved wandering the dark stone catacombs. You got a timeless sense of age down here with the musty smell, bleak lighting and echoeing footsteps.