Rome has no lack of famous archaeological sites and plenty of easily accessible ruins. But the one thing most visitors don’t realize is that much, if not most, of Ancient Rome still exists in some form. For the best view of the past you need to travel down in the layers, underground in Rome.
The ruins of Ancient Rome are still there, trapped under the modern city. Archaeologists know the locations of many things that are still trapped below the surface, but there are some things that come as a surprise. I read often of new findings related to the ongoing dig for a new metro line. A couple of years ago, the metro project bumped into a famous structure, an auditorium built by Hadrian almost 2000 years ago but lost in time. These stories in the news are so compelling, it may make you want to go back to school and get your archaeology degree and start a dig. If there is so much to find, let’s find it! It doesn’t quite work like that in Rome, mostly because modern Rome is on top of the old and cannot be destroyed in the attempt to find the past.
Where can the curious tourist get a cool experience of underground Rome? I’ve got three great places to visit.
Sitting just outside of the tourist beat, San Clemente church is unknown to most tourists and even some locals.
Rome is a city made up of layers of history under your feet. Everywhere you walk, a different piece of history floats below you. I like to compare Rome to an onion, a layer cake or a lasagna. Hmmm, it’s funny how every conversation in Italy ends up morphing into a conversation about food… Anyway…the best way to see these layers in action is to dive below and see them change. At San Clemente, you start with a church from the Middle Ages, now a church run by the Domenicans. The interior is a mish-mash of historical pieces from other buildings. The floors are carpeted in crazy-quilt marble, the columns are patchwork, all scavenged from Roman monuments.
Down the stairs, underground in Rome, you find a subterranean level with fragments of frescoes from an earlier time, probably from the 600’s. This was an early Christian church. Another set of stairs leads you down to the ancient Roman level. This small piece of Ancient Rome was buried after the great fire of 64AD. It seems strange to us, but people back then tended to just bury damaged parts of the city and build on top. Which means….under the Roman layer you’d find foundations to an even earlier city.
A walk through the Roman level, deep beneath the modern city and along an underground river, helps you understand that this is what the whole city is really like. If you could dig in every direction, there would be more to find.
What is most unique for me is that San Clemente shows how the city has recycled itself over and over again. Pieces from the past used as foundations for the next generations. Like a phoenix, the ashes of the burnt city arose into the next version.
A little-known attraction in the heart of the city, you may have walked right past it if you’ve been to Rome. Under a city owned palazzo next to Trajan’s Column, excavation work has revealed the ruins of an ancient home that may have been inhabited until about the 300’s AD. The home had to have been from a very wealthy family, as they had their own private baths and elaborate floors of exotic marble.
What makes this an extraordinary place to visit is the way it is presented. Rather than ruins that need imagination to piece together, projectors are used to overlay the ruins with images of how it might have once looked. It feels like walking through one of those books with the plastic overlay reconstructions. The multimedia display tells the story of how the house might have been used. It’s a bit of a lengthy visit, clocking in at about 90 minutes, and includes a superfluous (if interesting) presentation about Trajan’s Column. If I had to choose, I prefer this to the Forum as it gives a vivid three dimensional picture of what a house might have looked like in the past and how it disappeared.
One tip for visiting Palazzo Valentini- get reservations a few days ahead for a tour in English. If no English tour is available, there is usually space on the Italian tour, which is still worthwhile just to see the space.
Domus Aurea (The Golden House)
I just recently saw Nero’s Golden House for the first time and was really blown away, in fact my 8 year-old son said it was the best thing he saw in all of Italy. It has been closed for years and only recently has reopened for limited public tours. If you want to feel like a real archaeologist in training, this is the place to go if you can manage it.
The Golden House is hiding in plain sight, just opposite the Colosseum, under a dilapidated city park. It is famous in history as the palace of Rome’s most infamous emperor, Nero, who built a palace for himself so outrageous and enormous that he may have even instigated a huge city fire to make more room. After his suicide, the following emperors dismantled the unfinished palace of the selfish emperor and built conspicuous public buildings in its place to make a political statement. Which buildings were those? The Colosseum and the Baths of Trajan, effectively turning the pleasure palace of an emperor into the playground of the people. You can’t say that the Romans weren’t savvy politicians.
The Golden House was stripped of all of its precious decoration, and the structure was converted into foundations for baths above, with large support walls added to carry the weight. For this reason, the house is completely buried and is not open or spacious. It was so lost to history that when it was found in the 1500’s, it was referred to as a grotto. As a side note, one of the first people to descend into the house was Michaelangelo.When you visit today, what you see are the vast remains of a deconstructed palace with a crazy floor plan. It’s a fragile site. The park above has invasive trees whose roots thrive on the mortar between the bricks. The site was closed to visitors about 10 years ago because it became too unstable, but can now be seen on some weekends in small groups with hard hats.
Personally, I felt it was a breathtaking experience, one of the best archaeological sights I’ve seen. It’s ruined for sure, but more complete than anything else you can find underground in Rome. The scale of the rooms, the height of the walls and the ambition of the project are a testament to the greatness of Rome. Some rooms have frescoes that are reasonably visible, making it easy to understand how elegantly decorated it was. After a visit here, you’ll look at the remains of the Palatine Hill in a different light. And the weirdest part of the visit? Turns out it was never meant to be lived in. The famous Golden House had no kitchens, no bedrooms. It was a party venue. What a party it must have been.
Currently,the Golden House can only be visited Saturday or Sunday in a pre-booked tour with an archaeologist. It’s the real deal, so hard hats and good shoes are required.
Rome is lovely, umbrella pines, ruins, speeding Vespas, but the sleeping city underneath awaits. Not many people go looking for it, so I hope you will.