Rome: San Clemente

The San Clemente.

I must admit I have a love-hate relationship with the San Clemente. It is easily one of the most fascinating churches in Rome, a twelfth century basilica built on top of a fourth century basilica that was itself constructed over Ancient Roman buildings dating back to the first century. On the other hand, it has by far the strictest “no photo” policy of all the Roman churches. There are signs everywhere indicating that taking pictures is prohibited. A guard is zealously patrolling the building to make sure that no one dares take out his camera. This policy evidently aims at making people buy postcards and posters in the shop, which art students and history enthusiasts would probably do anyway (I would, and did), because the merchandise is of excellent quality. Photography is only allowed outside in the atrium. From there, I managed to take a good picture of the interior through the front door. But since that is all that I can show my readers, this post about the San Clemente will be quite brief.

Abridged history

The lowest levels of the church comprise parts of two Roman buildings from the first century. Archaeologists found an altar of Mithras here, the light god who was very popular among soldiers. It is still on display, although visitors cannot get close to it. The buildings may have been part of the Imperial mint (an earlier mint was located on the Capitoline Hill, where we now find the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli), but no archaeological evidence demonstrating that coins were minted here has been found so far. No signs of Christian worship have been found down here either. The first church was founded in ca. 395 when Pope Siricius (384-399) was on the Throne of Saint Peter. It was dedicated to Saint Clemens, who according to tradition was the fourth pope in history (ca. 88-99). His relics were enshrined here in 867.

Atrium of the San Clemente.

It used to be thought that the church was damaged beyond repair or even destroyed during the Sack of Rome by the Normans in 1084. However, this is up for debate and even the church itself now writes that “it was found that the building was unsafe and should be abandoned, possibly (my italics) because of destruction caused in the neighbourhood (ditto) by the Normans under Robert Guiscard when coming to the rescue of Pope Gregory VII in 1084″. The Normans were certainly responsible for damage in this part of the city, not just to the San Clemente but also to the nearby complex of Santi Quattro Coronati. However, Pope Paschalis II’s (1099-1118) decision to build a new church may have been influenced by the fact that the church floor was below ground level, and therefore prone to flooding. On a side note, the Romans seem to have forgiven the Normans, as the street behind the church is called the Via dei Normanni.

To construct a new church, the old church was partially demolished. The roof was torn off and the walls were only left standing below a level of five metres from the floor. What remained of the old San Clemente was filled with in earth. The new church was subsequently built over the old one. It was consecrated in 1108. The San Clemente has been administered by Irish Dominicans since the late seventeenth century, who moved here from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in 1697. The San Clemente was given its present appearance in the early 1700s. Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721) hired the architect Carlo Stefano Fontana – often confused with his uncle Carlo Fontana (1634/38-1714) – to give the church a Baroque makeover. In 1857, excavations beneath the church were started and they continue until the present day.

Exploring the San Clemente

The church is quite unique for still having an atrium, a feature of medieval churches which has mostly disappeared elsewhere in Rome. Inside, we can admire a nice original Cosmatesque floor and a schola cantorum (choir enclosure). The latter dates back to the sixth century and was already present in the first church. The Chapel of Saint Catherine of Alexandria is also one of the highlights of the church. It has beautiful frescoes attributed to Masolino da Panicale (ca. 1383-after 1440). He is best known for his collaboration with his younger colleague Masaccio (1401-1428) in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. The best part of the church is the apse. The twelfth century mosaics in the conch and on the triumphal arch are truly splendid. Note the peculiar mix of Greek and Latin in the names of Saints Paul and Peter: they are labelled AGIOS PAVLVS and AGIOS PETRVS. The apse wall below the conch has fourteenth century frescoes.

Interior of the church.

Tourists can visit the lower levels, i.e. the fourth century church and the Roman buildings, but there is an admission charge. Visitors may walk around unattended, which is good, but the “no photo” policy extends to this part of the San Clemente as well. Among the highlights down here is a fresco of the Madonna and Child which may be dated to the ninth century. A rather convincing argument has been made that this was originally an image of the Roman empress Theodora, wife of the famous Justinianus (527-565). The Madonna indeed closely resembles the image of the empress in the San Vitale in Ravenna. Another interesting fresco can be found in the central nave. It is about the Legend of Sisinnius, a pagan man with a Christian wife who quarrelled with Saint Clemens. The fresco has a text which is considered the oldest written Italian in existence. What is even more interesting is that the text has the words “fili dele pute” (“sons of bitches”) in it, words that Sisinnius yells at his servants, but which one would not expect in a church.


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