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Rome's Top 10 : San Clemente

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Nowhere else in Rome can give such a clear idea of the city’s layering and millennia of cultural riches than this wonderful church. The very lowest level remains largely unexplored, dating back to Republican Rome, probably the 2nd century BC. At the deepest excavated level there are 1st-century AD buildings, including an early house of Christian worship and a temple dedicated to the Persian god, Mithras. Above that is a partially intact 4th-century AD basilica. When that edifice was burned in the Norman sacking of 1084, the space was filled in and a new church was built, using some of the original architectural elements. In 1857, the Irish Dominican prior, Father Mullooly, accidentally discovered the lower church and began the long process of emptying out the rubble.

  • Via di S Giovanni in Laterano

  • 06 774 0021

  • Open 9am–12:30pm, 3–6pm daily (from 10am Sun)

  • Adm €3.00 to lower levels


Church Guide

You can usually enter both through the balconied front gate or by a side door, off the small piazza on Via di San Giovanni in Laterano. The entrance to the Lower Church and archaeological areas is through the sacristy vestibule, where you’ll also find books, slides and attractive postcards of the two churches and the Mithraic temple’s works of art. The 1st-century alleyways beneath are no place for claustrophobics, but the refreshing sound of the underground spring down below may provide some relief.


Façade, San Clemente

Cafés and restaurants abound in the area. Try Cannavota for a traditional Roman meal.


Bring a small torch, so that you can make out the ancient decorations in the shadowy Mithraeum. But no photos or videos are allowed, and they mean it!



Top 10 Features
  1. Apse Mosaic

    Few images are more joyous than this 12th-century variation on the tree-of-life, in the Upper Church. Plump cupids, winsome animals and lush foliage evoke a new-found Paradise. The stone and glass squares were taken from a similar work in the destroyed 4th-century church below it.

  2. Legend of Sisinius Frescoes

    These frescoes in the Lower Church relate how a wealthy pagan, Sisinius, was struck deaf and blind for suspecting his Christian wife of infidelity. St Clement cures him but incurs his wrath and Sisinius’s furious commands are the first known inscriptions in Italian.

  3. Mithraeum

    The triclinium, with its platforms along both sides, was used for ritual banqueting, where the male-only congregation imitated the gods’ last meal before they reascended to heaven. The altar painting shows Mithras slaying the Cosmic Bull to bring about Creation.

  4. St Catherine’s Chapel

    The restored frescoes in the Upper Church by the 15th-century Florentine artist Masolino show vibrant scenes from the life of St Catherine of Alexandria. These provide one of the few opportunities in Rome to appreciate the painting of the early Florentine Renaissance.

  5. Miracle of San Clemente Frescoes

    These frescoes in the Lower Church show how St Clement saved a boy from drowning.

  6. Schola Cantorum

    The enclosure for the choir in the Upper Church), a gift from Pope John II (AD 535– 55), was retained when a new choir was built. It is walled with panels of white marble inlaid with colourful mosaics and carved with early Christian symbols.

  7. 1st-century BC Domus

    This mansion belonged to a man named Clemens, perhaps a relative of an early Christian martyr and of St Clement, or perhaps a freed man of Jewish birth. The 4th-century church was built precisely over the 1st-century site.

  8. Cosmatesque Pavement

    This technique, developed by the Cosmati family in the 12th century, involved using fragments of stone from Roman ruins, to create intricate, geometric patterns.

  9. Paschal Candlestick

    This 12th-century spiralling motif, striped with glittering mosaics of ancient glass, is another magnificent example of work by Cosmati artisans in the Upper Church.

  10. Courtyard and Façade

    The original entrance was through the quadroporticus, the medieval colonnaded square forecourt. The fountain and the scrolled façade were added in the early 18th century.

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