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Eat, Pray and Love Rome: visit S. Crisogono

‘There's a power struggle going on across Europe these days. A few cities are competing against each other to see who shall emerge as the great 21st century European metropolis. Will it be London? Paris? Berlin? Zurich? Maybe Brussels, center of the young union? They all strive to outdo one another culturally, architecturally, politically, fiscally. But Rome, it should be said, has not bothered to join the race for status. Rome doesn't compete. Rome just watches all the fussing and striving, completely unfazed. I am inspired by the regal self-assurance of this city, so grounded and rounded, so amused and monumental, knowing she is held securely in the palm of history. I would like to be like Rome when I am an old lady.’

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray, Love.

Mulling on Elizabeth Gilbert’s rhapsodic view of Rome, I always advise friends to give the Colosseum a miss. There’s so much more to see. To be provocative I usually suggest visiting S. Clemente behind the great arena, but less visited and no less intriguing is S. Crisogono.

Just across the Ponte Garibaldi, at an entry to Trastevere (Rome’s restaurant district), the great barn of a baroque church at first seems a little charmless. But pass by the praying individuals, and beyond the far end of the north aisle lies a door to an anonymous side room. Press 3 euros into the hand of the moustachied guardian and like magic he pulls on another door as if it were a cupboard. This is the entrance to the excavated sub-church and a different Rome.

9th C. crypt from above

Here is the palm of history, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it. Deep excavations early in the 20th century revealed the sub-structures of a monstrous late antique basilica, re-purposed with a grand annular crypt in the early 9th century, and then re-decorated – rather grandly in the 11th century as Rome suddenly enjoyed newly found mercantile wealth. (Now, the historical canon says the crypt belongs to Gregory III’s papacy in the 730s, but I’m doubtful…..)

9th-century mural paintings

You are most likely on your own in this tour, tip-toeing gingerly across old excavation surfaces. The air is damp, the building shakes as a tram passes by, but it is the sense of discovery that emboldens you into the twilight. Large imperial sarcaphogi re-purposed for medieval prelates and pilgrims, are mixed with Lombard fragments from the great transennae that surrounded the early medieval sanctuary. But it is the fragmentary paintings that catch the eye. Those from the 8th or 9th century are posed yet unfazed. Elizabeth Gilbert would surely approve. Those from the age of the Normans – including one of St. Benedict - are more rigid in form, the faces being severe, dare I say, stressed.

11th-century paintings

Rome needs to network its churches and deploy them strategically to take the visitor pressure off the tourist honey-pots. Each, like S. Crisogono, is a wonder where you have time to contemplate the past and the present . Each has a regal self-assurance that is every bit as fascinating as the huge Roman ruins that draw the crowds and queues.

Sarcophagi and Lombard sculpture

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