Last week, I told you how one of my classes wasn’t held due to the professor being out of the country.
This week, we had a double dose of this “Popes, Politics, and Pop Culture” – and it was nothing short of incredible.
Because we were making up for lost time, we actually had the three-hour class twice today. Normally, this would put me right to sleep. But Sean’s class isn’t like any class I’ve ever taken before. He’s engaging, he’s funny, and he has a British accent from his childhood in South Africa. There was no way I was dozing off.
All morning, we did introductions and talked simply about what communication is. As the head of communications for the Vatican, Professor Lovett really knows what he is talking about. And then some.
Our afternoon session took us to the Basilica of San Clemente. Located near the Vatican, Sean was competely right when he said that it is Rome’s most underappreciated marvels. From the outside, you would just walk past the square, run down brick facade. But what’s inside will take your breath away.
And what’s beneath will completely shock you.
Upon entering the Basilica of San Clemente, visitors walk down a fairly steep decline toward the true enterance. That’s soley because Rome has been built up (literally) so much since the construction of the sacred place in the 14th century. The true front door opens to a beautiful courtyard before larger, grander doors give to the half-domed Basilica. Adorned with gold ceilings and elaborate murals, the space tells Biblical stories tailored to those of the 14th century: well versed in their scriptures, but unable to read entirely.
It’s always true that pictures never do a space justice, but here’s a picture I (rulebreakingly) snuck anyways:
Quitely literally however, this was the tip of the iceberg.
Story has it that one of the priests at this Irish Basilica used the first courtyard to grow, well, potatoes of course. One day, while tilling his enclosed land, he completely fell through the earth beneath him. At least 12 feet! Completely confused, he laid in a hole in the ground surrounded by ancient rubble. Many years and lots of excavating later, it was discovered that there was actually another church that had been on the same exact site.
It’s date? The 4th century.
And these priests had absolutely no idea! With our professor, we spend nearly an hour walking around the underground church filled with artifacts like sculptures of both Greek and Biblical gods, 2D carvings, Latin inscriptions, and even sarcophagus’s. While I was amazed at this discovery and enjoyed our underground tour, it wasn’t until Sean pointed out the carving on a prominent sarcophagus that I really understood the gravity of what we were seeing.
Hand-carved into the marble tomb was a simple portrait of man and wife embracing. While the faces were worn off (and presumably repainted for different couples through time), their body language was warm and loving – completely opposite from the dark room they resided in, or the cold marble in which they were depicted.
This city is filled with plenty of ancient ruins and leftovers of lost cilivizations. But for the first time in since coming to Rome, I saw them not as movie extras in Gladiator, or illiterate, savage human beings. I saw the ancient Romans as real people. Real people who loved their spouses, who lost ones they cherished, who knew real struggle, and felt many of the same exact emotions that I feel. It was heartbreaking, and also liberating.
It completely knocked me off my feet when we saw the final part of our tour.
During excavation of the 4th century buried church, they found a layer deeper. Beneath more rubble, bricks, and deeper in to the depths of the earth, ancient Rome was perfectly preserved.
I still don’t understand how no one knew what they were building upon. I don’t know how so much time can pass to completely cover an empire. What I do know is that today, two stories beneath a beautiful Basilica, my classmates and I walked on the ancient streets of Rome.
In 100 AD, streets were narrow and houses were built tight to each other. We walked these alleys, and saw the insides of incredible homes – most built with diagonally laid bricks, because ancient Romans knew they would withstand an earthquake better. And they were right, because 2000 years later, I stood in their homes.
It was an emotional and inspirational experience down there. The sound of running water was loud, and in a break in the bricks we dipped our hands down to a natural stream and actually drank the cool water. The same stream of groundwater fed the ornamental lake that Nero built during his rule in the city at that same period, just down the road.
Later, that lake would be covered up and a large structure to provide Roman entertainment would be built atop it.
Today, we call that building the Colosseum.
I don’t have words to completely describe the way things were in the dark tunnels and century old spaces we visited today beneath that church. What I do know is that for the first time, I felt that the ancient Romans weren’t just aliens that built incredible structures here over two-thousand years ago. They were living people, their lives were important, and their stories all different. Just like you and me.
Ok, enough emotional babbling. To summarize, I had a really cool day. If you’d like to read more about the history of San Clemente, you can find it here. This is cool stuff, but it was our tour guide, Professor Sean, that really took us all to a level of awe. He gives us history lessons and makes them feel as magical as Harry Potter.
Lastly, we got to the church a little early, so he treated all twelve of us in class to delicious cappuccinos beforehand.
But I think we would have stayed awake anyways.
Thanks for reading.
Ciao, for now.