The Basilica of San Clemente, located just a five-minute walk from the Colosseum, is a rather special Roman location, in that it presents not one or two, but three layers of history.
The top layer, still a current church, is a beautifully decorated 11th/12th century creation. It’s built above a 4th Century basilica which is in turn built over an ancient Roman complex including a home, a Mithraeum, a school and even parts of a warehouse. This part of the complex may have been destroyed in the fire of 64, which allowed Nero to clear land for his nearby Domus Aurea complex.
The main entry from street level takes the visitor into a beautiful courtyard. Entrance to the top layer is free, although there is a €10 fee for the lower levels.
The basilica is dedicated to St Clement, the third Pope who died around 100 AD in the Black Sea region. His remains were brought back to Rome by the Byzantine saint/scholar St Cyril, who also invented the Cyrillic alphabet. There are lots of reminders of that heritage, including a stone in both Cyrillic and Italian, and the remains of a beautiful fresco detailing the miracle of a child saved by St Clement can be found in the church’s middle layer.
In the 1850s an Irish Dominican friar started to explore lower levels – having heard a small spring that one can still hear in the lower levels today. As one descends into the darker (and cooler) lower layers, the sound of that spring is a constant accompaniment. The complex is beautifully lit, and there are lots of info panels, for example detailing the Mithrauem.
Sadly, no photos allowed inside, but check out the great video on the church’s official site at http://basilicasanclemente.com/eng/index.php/tour/video