In my junior year of college, I had the fortune of studying abroad in Rome for six months, which afforded me enough time to wander the city and visit many of its sites. I of course saw the most visited sites in Rome: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Sistine Chapel, and the Roman Forum. But in all honesty, for me, the most memorable sites were those that are less trafficked but nevertheless steeped in history:
1) The Basilica of San Clemente
A priest I knew in Rome said he always showed tourists this church before he took them to St. Peter’s Basilica. When you enter San Clemente, you first come into an 11th century basilica with beautiful frescoes. You then descend one level to a 4th century basilica that St. Jerome, the translator of the Bible in Latin, mentions in one of his letters. You can then descend further to a 1st century nobleman’s house that contains an altar dedicated to the cult of Mithras.
(San Clemente Interior: Sixtus/Wikipedia)
(Mithraic Altar in San Clemente; Image: Ice Boy Tell/Wikipedia)
2) The Scavi under St. Peter’s Basilica
“Scavi” is the Italian word for an archeological excavation. Based on historical documentation, the excavations were undertaken beginning in 1940, and in 1950, what are thought to be the tomb and bones of St. Peter were discovered underneath the current altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. Carbon testing has dated the bones to the 1st century A.D. You must make a special appointment beforehand to gain entrance to the Scavi.
(Scavi of St. Peter’s; Image: Travel+Style)
(Current altar and baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilia; image: maItaly)
3) The “Bone Church”
The crypt of the 17th century church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini contains the bones of around 4,000 monks, which have been creatively arranged as altars, arches, and chandeliers. The Marquis de Sade said of it, “I have never seen anything more striking.”
4) The Curia of Pompey
Many people wrongly believe that Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Forum. In reality he was assassinated in the Curia of Pompey—a meeting place in Pompey’s Theater—which is located in the Largo di Torre Argentina area of Rome. In 2012, researchers unearthed what they believe is a concrete memorial (10 feet wide and 6 feet tall) that Augustus erected to mark the site of his great uncle’s murder. The site is also known as the “cat sanctuary” due to all the feral cats that inhabit the ruins.
(Curia of Pompey)
(Image: sai programs)
5) The Church of the Ara Coeli
This 12th century church (built on the site of a 6th century Byzantine abbey) is located on the Capitoline Hill, whose current piazza was designed by Michelangelo. In 1571 it hosted the celebrations following the West’s victory over the Turks in the famous Battle of Lepanto. On October 15th, 1764, English historian Edward Gibbon was sitting by this church listening to Vespers when he reports “the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.” Years later he produced his famous History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
(Main altar of Ara Coeli; image: Stephen J. Danko)
(Church of the Ara Coeli; C.W. Eckersberg, 1814-16)
6) The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Located near the Pantheon, the church is built on top of an ancient temple dedicated to Isis, which was mistakenly ascribed to the goddess Minerva (hence the name: “sopra”—“over”—Minerva). It is the only Gothic church in Rome, and is noteworthy for its beautiful blue ceiling with gilded stars. It also houses the tombs of St. Catherine of Siena and the artist Fra Angelico, and contains a statue of Michelangelo titled “Christ Carrying the Cross.” In 1633, in the convent next to the church, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and forced to recant his theory of heliocentrism. Finally, the tenor Andrea Bocelli gave a notable concert in the church in 1999.
(Michelangelo’s “Christ Carrying the Cross”)