Europe 2016

13 – Underneath Rome

Today we had an afternoon tour booked through Walks of Italy called the “Crypts and Catacombs of Rome”. It didn’t start until 2:30 so we had some time to kill. That meant exploring more of the city we hadn’t seen yet.

We caught the train/subway to the north end and started our morning at Piazza del Popolo…. the Plaza of the People. It is the largest urban square in Rome and on this lovely Friday morning, it was not busy or over-run with tourists… just us. It is beautiful, sporting lovely fountains and a center obelisk. Incidently, all the fountains in Rome are drinkable (except Trevi) with pure water flowing into the city from a distant aquaduct. We saw locals filling their water bottles at different fountains, thinking they must be crazy… but in fact we eventually tried it, and it’s great…and cold.

There are 3 main streets leaving the piazza heading south. In ancient times, one led to education (the academy), one to business (the forum) and one to religion (not sure to what). We started with education to see specifically the mosoleum of Augustus. Not much more than a mound of dirt and off limits to the public, it is a sacred place.

Right next to it is the Bascilica of San Carlo, with its gorgeous pink marble, fantastic ceiling and frescoes, many sculptures and most interesting and unusual, the actual preserved heart of Saint Charles (San Carlo). Weird and wonderful.

Moving on to the east, we came once again to the Spanish Steps that we saw yesterday. This time we climbed them just to see the Trinita dei Monti church at the top. It is white, inside and out, top to bottom and really beautiful. I especially liked the Pieta statue by Wilhelm Theodore Ackermann  (1799).

Next, there is a church nearby with a particular Bernini sculpture that I wanted to see (The Ecstacy of St. Therese), so off we went to find it. And we did, but unfortunately it was closed (many churches and businesses close in the early afternoon as Italians take a break from the heat). Disappointed for only a moment because there are many other treasures in the area that we discovered like; the intersection of the 4 fountains, the Chiesa di San Carlino, the Fountain of Moses, the Piazza della Republica and the out-of-this-world Bacilica Santa Maria of the Angels… an ancient church completely redesigned inside by Michaelangelo. Really cool thing about this church is the working sundial inside on the floor. We just happened to be there exactly at 1:00 when the sun spot crossed the brass line on the floor.

Then it was time to find our meeting spot for the catacombs tour… in Piazza Barberini at the Triton Fountain (by Bernini…. Rome’s most famous sculptor).

For the next 3 hours, we along with other families from Australia and Hawaii, led by our guide, Gio (Joy), down under the streets of Rome starting with the Franciscan crypts where the monk’s decorated the walls and ceilings with the bones of 4000 Capuchin brothers (monks) over a period of 300 years. Spooky? Not really. Our guide spun it into a beautiful story of faith and love and it was really quite amazing.

Photos are not allowed in any of the 3 sites we visited so I had to find images online to include in my blog for the afternoon tour.

From there we moved by bus to the Pricilla Catacombs… underground graves created by early Christians at a time when Rome was still pagan and Christians were persecuted (pre-450 AD). These catacombs were dug down into soft volcanic ash which hardens on contact with oxygen… and this particular site is one of the smallest in Rome at only 13 kilometers in total length (the tunnels weave back and forth in a labyrinth). But they are the most important as one of the tombs has the earliest known illustration of Mary and baby Jesus… dated to 250 AD. So amazing to see that along with several other paintings.

The last site on the tour was the Bacilica of San Clemente. It is actually a church today at ground level that you can visit but the real history lies many meters underground where the first church, dating to the 2nd century, was discovered during subway excavation. There is so much history under Rome, the locals fondly refer to it as a lasagna of civilization history.

After the tour, the final shot of the day was of the largest obelisk in Rome in front of the most important church in Rome (remember, St. Peter’s Bacilica is not in Rome… it’s in the Vatican… different country) … the Bacilica di San Giovanni in Laterano…called The Bacilica of Rome. This is “The Seat of the Bishop” … unfortunately it was closed at this time but the outside and the obelisk are impressive.

Wonderful day. Very different. Very educational.

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