Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Living on a layer cake

Largo Argentina, Rome
One of the things I love best about long occupied cities is the thought that one is walking around on top of a human layer cake. Unseen under your feet are the remains of other humans and earlier civilizations. I was reminded about this again with the arrival of an e-mail from the Archaeological Institute of America, which included an article on a recently discovered Roman villa under a building at Assisi.
Read it here Assisi's Roman Villa - Archaeology Magazine
Largo Argentina, Rome (alternate view)

One of my favorite places in Rome is a small excavated area at Largo Argentina, where while waiting for the bus you can look down on Roman remains. There are four Roman temples and part of Pompey's Theatre down just a few feet below contemporary ground level. 

Although lower Manhattan does have underground remains, some of which were recently exposed when an 18th century ship was uncovered, one doesn't usually see them and they most definitely are not as impressive. 

Diagram showing relationship of (from bottom to top)
the Circus of Nero, Old St. Peter's Basilica and
the current basilica.  The boundary wall shown at the top
of the Circus, was the boundary wall of the cemetery
containing the grave on which both basilicas were built.
And, one of the most interesting elements in Rome are the layer cake churches.  St. Peter's is probably the most famous.  It sits on top of the remains of the original basilica, built on the orders of Constantine in the 4th century and incorporated into the "new" St. Peter's, built in the 16th century.  Constantine's building, in turn, sits on top of a Roman cemetery dating to the 1st century, which contains the remains of both pagan Roman and early Christian burials, including that of St. Peter. 

When walking in that cemetery (which is rather like walking through the mausoleum section of a modern cemetery) it is astonishing to think that above you are two large churches, and that the top of the two is the largest church in the world.
Portion of the necropolis underneath St. Peter's basilica

Rome has other churches similarly layered, among them:  San Clemente, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, San Crisogono.  All are built over early Christian places of note.
Life of St. Clement
Italian, 12th century
Rome, San Clemente
Fresco from underground portion of
San Clemente

All are well worth a visit.  And they are eloquent reminders of the continuity and survival of the Catholic faith from the first century to the 21st.   They remind us of the history that has come and gone in that time and the often hostile events the Church has endured:  the Roman Empire, the Barbarian Invasions, hostile medieval kings and emperors, the Avignon years, the Great Schism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Fascism, Communism.  As Jesus promised, the gates of hell have not prevailed, nor will they, for He is with us till the end of the world.