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Secret Rome

WHAT’S UNDERGROUND?

Rome is built on a crust of history. It seems that wherever they break through, a secret museum is found lying beneath the ground. Currently, some 400 excavations are accessible, varying in degree of difficulty presented by the site and in terms of the amount of red tape required to arrange a visit.

One which requires no forward planning, but offers an easy walk through a four-layer cross section of Roman history, is the medieval Church of St Clemente. Simply descend a staircase in the nave to arrive in an earlier Basilica, larger than the one above it, built around 375 AD.

Both churches are richly decorated, the 12th century church with mosaics, the earlier one with frescoes. Sacked by the Normans, it became the foundation for the present church and lay forgotten until 1827 when a determined priest started the 40-year excavation project that brought it to light.

Down a further level is one of the best preserved shrines to Mithras yet found under Rome. This Persian religion, popular with the Imperial soldiers, had more followers than Christ at the beginning of the 4th century. The religion involved the sacrifice of a bull, and in the floor is the channel down which the blood of the animals ran. There are rooms with stuccoed ceilings, the dining room with stone benches, and what is thought to have been a schoolroom for young initiates.

Finally, under this pagan temple, you visit the still unexcavated foundations of the Roman buildings burned in Nero’s great fire and walk the cobbles of a 1,900-year-old Roman street, now 30 feet underground. The Church of San Clemente is at Via San Giovanni in Laterno, open every day from 9.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and from 3.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.

A second and most remarkable excavation is the necropolis of St Peter under St Peter’s Basilica. You need prior permission to visit this and should apply as far in advance as possible.. a month or six weeks at least. First email the office of the scavi (excavation) at scavi@fsp.va. State the names of the visitors, the tour language required and the dates you will be in Rome. The scavi office will respond with a date and  time which you may then accept or not. Children under 15 are not admitted.

Providing you can manage stairs and some uneven walking surfaces, it’s an extraordinary opportunity to spiral down through the centuries. You descend under the biggest and most ornate shrine in Christendom to the shallow grave in Roman soil in which St Peter, the humble fisherman, was buried.The discovery of the necropolis dates from 1939, when workmen preparing to install the tomb of Pope Pius XI in the crypt of the church, cut a small square hole in the floor. Through it, they glimpsed signs of a previously unsuspected Roman cemetery. With the permission of Pius XII, systematic excavation and exploration began and continued all through the war.

In his Christmas radio address of 1950, the Pope was able to announce to the world that the tomb of St Peter had indeed been found. As for the human remains, the Pope could only confirm that the bones of a “strong, old man” had been discovered at the margins of the grave, and that, given the evidence of unbroken veneration of the site, it was believed that they were the remains of the saint.

The area was a mixed Pagan and Christian burial site on the Vatican hill when St Peter was crucified in the nearby Circus during the persecutions of 64 AD to 67 AD. This was where his body was brought in accordance with Roman law, buried in a shallow grave strewn with bricks.Soon the faithful were building their mausoleums near his tomb, constructing the little streets of decorated chambers down which you walk on this tour.

Over St Peter’s grave, a simple marble altar was erected, as described in a letter in 200 AD by the ecclesiastical writer, Gaius. One of the pillars that supported the altar is still in position. This altar was later protected by walls, in one of which a marble-lined niche was found containing the bones believed to be St Peter’s.

The Basilica’s papal altar under its ornate baldachin has been shown to be positioned directly over St Peter’s grave, the two separated by seven metres of earth and connected by 1,200 years of Christian tradition.

Ten people at a time are admitted for the 90 minute guided visit, strictly by prior appointment.   The Ufficio degli Scavi telephone is +39 0669 885 318

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