The minor basilica of San Clemente rests in a valley between the Caelian and Oppian Hills. Underneath the twelfth-century building is buried an ancient fourth-century church, mentioned by St. Jerome in 390 A.D. Lower down is a first-century A.D. Roman patrician’s house, as the entire site was once owned by the family of Titus Flavius Clemens. In 95 A.D. Clemens was martyred for refusing to participate in cult worship of the Roman emperor, instead professing belief in the monotheism of Christianity. At least one room in Clemens’ household remained in use for Christian worship, but after the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. it became safe to dedicate the entire lot to a church in the name of Pope Clement, the third successor of St. Peter.
To construct the fourth-century church, the builders “simply filled in the ground floor rooms and the courtyard to the level of the first storey,” writes Fr. Leonard Boyle in A Short Guide to St. Clement’s (1963). The late Vatican librarian was one of the many Irish Dominicans who have resided in San Clemente since the seventeenth century. In 1643, Pope Urban VIII could no longer ignore the scandalous accusations of apostasy, assassination, and the hoarding of “a great quantity of salami and ham” aimed at the members of the Ambrosian order who occupied the basilica. In disgrace the Ambrosians departed the Roman residence, and the Dominican Friars, exiled from Ireland since the Elizabethan persecutions, took their place.
San Clemente sits between two major Roman roads, Via Labicana and Via San Giovanni, which rise to the major basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. For many centuries this was a risky location. When the Norman Duke of Apulia, Robert Guiscard, entered Rome in 1064 to relieve Pope Gregory VII from Henry IV’s siege, he set fire to the city from San Giovanni to the Colosseum. The damaged San Clemente was stabilized in time to host the papal election of 1099. San Clemente’s proximity to the basilica of San Giovanni, where the election usually took place, was likely more important than its physical condition. Gregorian reformers sought to limit the interference of the Holy Roman Emperor, and a quick procession from San Clemente to San Giovanni “would ensure a swift enthronement of the new pope; the Emperor would be presented with a fait accompli difficult to reverse,” according to Joan Barclay Lloyd in The Medieval Church and Canonry of S. Clemente in Rome (1989). By happy coincidence or divine will, it so happened that Rainerius, titular cardinal of San Clemente, was elected pontiff and safely escorted to San Giovanni to become Pope Paschal II.
After a futile attempt to save the fire-damaged church, laborers filled in what was left of the old San Clemente to create a foundation for a new basilica. By compacting rubble around the old walls and piers they unknowingly fortified the structure to withstand centuries of use. Valuable and sturdy pieces of marble were salvaged and reused in the new basilica; most noteworthy are the sixth-century marble screens from the time of Pope John II that today enclose the medieval schola cantorum.
In the Middle Ages, papal processions began at San Giovanni and pivoted in front of San Clemente towards the Colosseum. The pope might even stop to rest on an herb-scented bed at San Clemente. The apostolic poverty of the friars did not limit their celebration of the Church’s feasts, solemnities, and seasons. On Maundy Thursday, they invited the poor of the neighborhood to have their feet washed and gave them money, as well as bread, broad beans, and eel to eat. The church was honored with a titular cardinal and a “station day” during Lent, which includes a visit from the pope. “The munday in the secunde weke is the stacion at a cherch of seynt clement” writes the English friar John Capgrave in 1450 of his visit.
The friar also records the golden legend of St. Clement, which comes to us from St. Gregory of Tours. In Trajan’s reign, Clement was tied to an anchor and drowned in the sea. Angels built him a shrine on the seafloor that reappeared every year on the anniversary of his martyrdom when the tides ebbed miraculously. A fresco in the basilica depicts the legend of a pious mother who brought her boy to the shrine only to forget him and mourn his drowning when the tide flowed back. The next year he was found perfectly alive in the shrine. The friars of San Clemente never tire of mentioning with a holy twinkle in their eyes that the boy reappeared in the fresco painted one year older and taller.
In his timeless nineteenth-century guidebook, Walks in Rome, Augustus Hare recommends San Clemente as a church “that was already important in the time of Gregory the Great, who here read his thirty-third and thirty-eighth homilies.” After a visit to San Clemente, the Irish poet Denis Florence MacCarthy wrote of his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the summer of 1869:
Pensive within the Coliseum’s walls
I stood with thee, O Poet of the West!—
The day when each had been a welcome guest
In San Clemente’s venerable halls:—
Longfellow recalls his evening with MacCarthy at San Clemente with Cardinal Manning in a letter to the American historian George Washington Greene. After good food, wine, and conversation, the men went “into a small coffee room, where the inquisitor tried to light a fire, with small success,” Longfellow writes of his Dominican host. “Someone cried out, ‘Ah, Padre! The days have gone by, when fires can be lighted by inquisitors!’ and there was a great roar of laughter.”
John Ruskin often took a stroll to San Clemente before dinner, and Henry James spent much time there, too. “You ask about your old friend San Clemente,” James wrote to his friend, the literature scholar Grace Norton, in November 1869. “I paid him a visit the other afternoon & found him full of sweet antiquity & solitude. It’s since you were here I suppose, that he has been found to have an elder brother buried beneath the soil, on whose prostrate form he has settled himself so placidly.”
James refers to the excavated lower basilica, buried and forgotten for eight hundred years until it was rediscovered in 1857 by the Irish Dominican Fr. Joseph Mullooly. As the prior of San Clemente, he observed the difference in elevation from the nearby Colosseum to the medieval basilica. He was also aware of another Dominican discovery earlier that year at Santa Sabina by the priest-artist Fr. Jean Baptiste Besson, who, while gardening on the side of the Aventine, stumbled upon a large Roman building complex that extended below the church to the level of the Tiber.
Alert to such a possibility in the case of his own church, one day Fr. Mullooly noticed a Corinthian capital on the floor of the sacristy. The subterranean shaft was intact but only barely exposed. The capital matched a similar support in the vaulting of the priory cellars. Following his intuition, he had laborers cart away hundreds of baskets of rubble to reveal an underground passage under three fourteen-foot columns, the first step in excavating the entire fourth-century lower church. Fr. Mulloolly’s men also opened an adjacent brick apartment and discovered a rare, fully intact Mithraeum—a pagan temple built in honor of the god Mithras. When a trickle of water swelled into a flood in the Mithraeum, workers dug a drain underneath San Clemente and linked it with the Cloaca Maxima sewage system under the Colosseum.
The Mithraeum of San Clemente preserves a last gasp of pagan Rome. Not from Mount Olympus but from the East, from the land of Mani and Zoroaster, “from the same mysterious Persian garden,” writes G. K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, “came upon ponderous wings Mithras, the unknown god, to trouble the last twilight of Rome.” In his guide to San Clemente, Fr. Boyle dismissed as insignificant the threat of the Mithraic cult to early Christian Rome. One observes with curiosity the many coins tossed into the Mithraeum. Perhaps a few Romans are still hedging their bets?
San Clemente’s excavations also preserve the moment when “the Latin tongue became the broken dialect of a mixed people, out of which the modern Italian speech was to grow, decadent in form, degenerate in strength but renascent in a grace and beauty which the Latin never possessed,” as Francis Marion Crawford puts it in Ave Roma Immortalis of 1898 (Russell Kirk’s favorite history of Rome). Upon a ninth-century fresco depicting the life of St. Clement is the earliest attested written Italian. The fresco tells the story of a nobleman and his wife, Theodora. She has converted to Christianity and is secretly attending Mass. Her husband grows jealous of her unexpected absences and suspects infidelity. When he spies on her at Mass, he is struck blind and deaf. St. Clement visits their house and he restores the man’s sight. The nobleman is ungrateful and orders his men to tie up and drag away St. Clement and his companions. By a miracle, the nobleman and his servants mistake a cluster of marble columns for St. Clement and his followers. While his men strain to drag away the marbles, the nobleman shouts at them in spicy vernacular Italian: “Go on you sons of harlots, pull! You, get behind with a lever!” As he walks away, Clement remarks in placid Latin: “Because of the hardness of your hearts you have merited to pull building materials away instead of me.”
Fr. Mullooly sought permission from the Holy Father to expand the excavations in breadth and depth. Pius IX gave his blessing but told Fr. Mullooly to be careful not to bring the entire upper church down upon his head. He secured expert assistance from Vatican archaeological authorities and he was also fortunate to receive financial donations from many Catholics and antiquarians abroad. Fr. Mullooly and San Clemente were supported by the then Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, along with the Royal Society of Antiquaries, the Duchess of Lucca, Prince Philippe of Belgium, and Cardinal Manning. Donations poured in from halls of power (five scudi from the Prime Minister William Gladstone) and ivory towers (another five from the Oxford professor Dean Stanley). Hundreds of humble pilgrims and supporters from as far as America and Australia added their widow’s mite. Tolstoy sent one scudo, just enough to cover a day’s labor at the site.
For centuries, life at San Clemente was austere. Each friar slept on a straw mattress on wood boards in a room lit by a lantern. The small quarters contained a desk and chair but no toilet or water for washing. The community shared only two breviaries as they kept the canonical hours. This was made easier by the presence of older friars who knew the psalms by heart. Without clocks, they kept time by watching the sun or listening for the angelus bells that divided the day in Rome. The back of the choir loft was used as a granary for the additional winter insulation. The General of the Order tried to relieve the chill and the damp with weekly chocolate and coffee. After the Risorgimento, San Clemente was stripped of income-producing property, which put further strain on the Dominican community. When the excavations opened for visitors, the modest entrance fee permanently stabilized the basilica’s finances. Prior Thomas Burke began to worry whether San Clemente was still spiritually enriching to the Dominicans. “It was so easy to fritter time away there,” he writes, “being gracious to bearers of letters of introduction, shepherding the crowds that the excavations have brought upon us.”
Fr. Burke was an inspired preacher and a great wit who reinvigorated the community at San Clemente. Foreign protestant dignitaries, difficult to impress, were sent to hear Fr. Burke’s Sunday homilies. He was especially fond of playing jokes on Fr. Mullooly. When a marble bust was found in the excavations, Fr. Burke used all his Irish charm to persuade the homely Fr. Mullooly that the bust perfectly represented him. When a respected French archaeologist visited the dig site, Fr. Burke recruited him into the act. As the scholar inspected the marble bust, he declared it to be Adonis. Turning excitedly back and forth from the bust to Fr. Mullooly, he shouted, “Mais, c’est vous!” Ever after, Fr. Mullooly repeated the Frenchman’s judgment on tours with confused tourists. “I am told it bears a striking resemblance to me,” he said of the Adonis, setting his guests wondering if this was Irish self-deprecation or delusion.
By 1867, Fr. Mullooly had unearthed over fifteen hundred years of history in under ten, including relics of St. Clement and St. Ignatius of Antioch. When Pius IX visited the basilica and excavations, the crowd cried “Viva il papa!” to which he enjoined them, “Eviva il nostro padre Mullooly! Bravo! Bravo!”
Buried in the crypt of San Clemente is the aforementioned Fr. Boyle, the loyal historian of the basilica. His grave is inscribed, “Omnia disce: postea videbis nihil esse superfluum” (Learn everything, and later you will see that nothing is superfluous). Boyle joined a long tradition of learning at San Clemente that dates back to the sixth century, when St. Servulus lived and died on the porch of the church. “Read he could not,” recalls St. Gregory the Great in his sixth-century Dialogues. But Servulus patiently asked passersby to read to him from the Bible. Sick from birth with crippling palsy, Servulus begged for alms but gave them to the poor of Rome. As the hour of his death approached, he invited friends and strangers nearby to chant the Psalms with him. “Do ye not hear the great and wonderful music from heaven?” Today visitors with eyes to learn and ears to listen can still hear a few notes from Heaven in a harmony of Latin, Italian, and Irish brogue.