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A Thanksgiving Trip: Rome’s San Clemente

The American University of Rome mounted a wonderful thanksgiving dinner. Over 120 came from as far away as Sacramento. The atmosphere was familial and warm as we packed this host in our underground theatre and ate turkey and an idiosyncratic Italian version of stuffing.

Thanksgiving dinner in the Barnabite Theatre at AUR

For those parents of our students who had travelled to be with us, we laid on tours. When asked where I might lead one, I instantly thought of San Clemente, a church with two thousand years of glorious Roman history (and archaeology). San Clemente, I always say, is a window on Rome in all its glories.

On a grey autumnal morning, thankfully, San Clemente never disappoints. The light in the late 11th century basilica illuminates Masaccio’s 15th-century limpid frescoes depicting the life of St. Catherine. The paintings, whether by the master or his pupil, are haunting.

AUR families exploring San Clemente

Down we descend as though we were entering catacombs or a crypt, but instead the steep stairs lead to the huge private Late Roman house-church that became a 9th-century basilica, refurbished by Pope Leo IV. Here we pause in front of a portrait of this ambitious pope, then paintings from its final decades where an irreverent artist has graphically used Italian for the first time to urge a sinner onwards. My American cohort love the irreverence.

San Clemente in Rome

Better still is the tight passageway past the tribute to St. Cyril, graced by a fresh red rose, down to the cavernous Mithraeum. In many ways the secretive cult is a harbinger of the Christian basilica above that was to displace the house. Dark, and the echoing sound of a stream beneath us, it is not hard to imagine how eastern Mithraic cults were celebrated here. Dodging files of school-children we weave our way through the store-rooms and chambers below the massive ashlar-built late Republican town-house that perished in Nero’s great fire. The vaulted rooms and the sound of water passing towards the Colosseum lends these rooms the air of a dungeon, and I sense the release in my party as we pay homage to the bust of the priest- archaeologist – Joseph Mullooly who unearthed these layers of Rome, and, return to the present church by now filled with a congregation.

St. Cyril

As we enter the uppermost basilica an AUR adjunct professor salutes me. He is with a large group of entrepreneurs about to take mass – the sense of continuity may be illusory from Republican times to today, but it is intoxicating.

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