Our Italian Adventure: Spotlight on Archeological Rome
PART 54: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.
We live in Puglia in the Summer and then back again in the winter.
Step 1: As we explore towns in Puglia, we discover some gems worth sharing. Some of these are well-known tourist magnets; others are lesser known but always amazing.
But recently we did something different. We hopped on a train in Lecce and hopped off in Rome five and a half hours later. Our goal? To experience underground Rome.
Come with us.
Step 2: Why?
Though we love living in Puglia, I periodically get the itch to spend time in Rome since I first lived there in the 1980s (for eight years). Rome always feels like home; it is a pivotal part of my history.
But that is another story.
Since I have seen the main sights in Rome multiple times, we decided to plan a visit to the city that would focus on the archeological areas: underground Rome.
Step 3: How?
We found that we could obtain a deep discount on our first class train ticket if booked in advance. So we planned our trip the month before, located lodgings (see the blog post on monastery stays), and got on the early train at the Lecce railway station.
In the early afternoon, we arrived at the Rome train station and navigated through the confusing maze of buses until we found the ones that would let us off close to Piazza Navona, where our lodging was located. Our first appointment was the following morning at 9:30 am.
Step 4: Sights.
Necropolis tour: St. Peter's
Oral and written history, for centuries, claimed that the apostle Peter was buried below the present St. Peter's, but excavations began in the 1940s. Most archeologists assumed they would not find much after almost 2000 years.
However, archaeologists found a burial ground (aka a necropolis) dating back to the 4th century, which is now the beginning of the Necropolis tour below St. Peter's.
The tour brings a small group of visitors below the basilica floor and then further down below the tombs of the popes to a cold and dark archeological area; walking on ancient streets, visitors pass ancient mausoleums and testaments of love to those who passed.
The tour is organized like a "whodunit," as the guide and participants seek evidence for the location of the burial place of Peter.
I don't want to give the end of the story, but the tour is one of the most amazing experiences that I have had in Rome.
Getting tickets can be challenging (Excavations office, Vatican/Ufficio Savi), but the effort is well worth it.
History was changed when a 15th-century man descended through a hole on the Esquiline hill, candle in hand, and looked up. He didn't know it yet, but he discovered Nero's Golden House, the Domus Aurea, the dream of an emperor more known for his madness than his accomplishments.
Visitors can walk through the excavated rooms of the Domus, accompanied by an archeologist, who brings the rooms and frescoes alive. At one point, visitors put on virtual reality headsets, revealing the complex's glory.
I found that the fascinating part of the visit was the thought of Nero and his guests. Unpredictable and vengeful, an invitation to the emperor's table was not what senators and aristocrats longed for. They tried to avoid Nero as much as possible.
As I stood in the circular room, with its oculus and waterfall, I wondered what Nero's guests felt, standing where I was, as they wondered what his next move would be. Would he require one of the senator's wives to have sex with him in the next room? Would he take offense at an offhand remark? Would he start singing for his guests for hours, expecting long, heartfelt applause?
There I stood, amid it all, almost hearing the thoughts and fears of those who stood on this spot.
Exploring St. Clement's captures the experience of going back in time. The Basilica of San Clemente is a multi-level time machine: there are two churches, one built over the other; the lower church was, in turn, built over Roman buildings of the 1st century.
Just stepping into the ground-level church brings one into the 12th century, with its incredible mosaic apse, ancient floor, and 6th-century marble chancel. Descending further, one enters the 4th-century church, with its stunning medieval frescoes dating from the 8th-11 century.
When one descends even further, one is embraced by the 1st century, with its Mithraic temple and across a narrow alleyway, a large public building, around whose foundations flow the lost waters of Rome.
It is difficult to describe the feelings I had as I sat on a stone seat outside the Mithraic temple, in the very place where ancient soldier worshipers would have sat before being admitted.
As I listened to the underground river rushing behind its stone walls, the mystery of St. Clement's began to reveal itself. The layers of history demonstrate that humanity always seeks the meaning behind the everydayness of life, no matter what era.
House of Augustus and Livia
The House of Augustus and the House of Livia are part of the imperial compound, which contains some of the best surviving examples of ancient Roman painting anywhere. Admiring the same artworks that Augustus himself gazed at two millennia ago is an incredible experience. The most impressive room is that identified as the emperor's study on the upper floor. According to contemporary sources, Augustus would retreat here to think or study privately.
Standing inside the walls of Livia's home, gazing at her garden frescoed walls, or into the intimate study of Augustus, where he planned and plotted the empire, I can't help but feel connected with the real people behind an empire; these people had a dream of greatness and made it come true.
Insights: Exploring the archaeological findings under the streets of Rome reveal the city's roots that many tourists miss. I am grateful that we have the opportunity to visit there from Puglia when the ancient city beckons us.
More next time.
In my book “She Seduced Me: A Love Affair with Rome”, I bring the reader into the stories, past and present, that make the city unique. Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/She-Seduced-Me-Love-Affair-ebook/dp/B09885RSZZ/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=.
And also, on Amazon Italy: