In Rome, I am on my way to a true underground treasure, the church of San Nicola in Carcere. On the way, my guide Marco and I pass the Victor Emmanuel II Monument and Marco points out its shining white marble contrasts with the warm tones of the rest of the city, earning it the nickname of the “wedding cake”.
Walking down the gently curving Via del Teatro di Marcello, past the theatre itself, the largest in the Roman Empire and built on land cleared by Julius Cesar, we come to San Nicola. It is a hot day and a relief to plunge into the cool interior. Beams of sunlight stab down from the high windows to dramatically light the marble floor and columns, and illuminating the ornate ceiling prominently bearing the papal arms of Pope Pius IX. The church in Rome's Ripa area is a fantasy of gilt statues and rich chandeliers, full of the excess that prompts an Irish visitor beside me to say: “The Roman Empire has never gone away. It is just under new management.”
While its roof dates to the 19th-century, the church itself was rebuilt in the 16th century. However, an archaeologist such as Marco is not going to get too excited by a building that is a mere 400 or so years old. What we have come to see lies underneath and we plunge down steps into a crypt whose bare bricks could not be more of a contrast to the ornate church itself. Here, Marco’s eyes light up like a kid opening the presents brought by Santa Claus to whom the church’s Saint Nicholas – patron saint of sailors and children – is a distant relative. “We are standing in a Roman temple from 260BCE,” he says. “This is the temple of Janus and over there is the temple of Juno, built in about 195BCE – 300 years before Julius Caesar.”
As my eyes start to pick out walls and find the scale, I realize how massive those temples were. The church stands on the remains of three that dominated the Forum Holitorium, Ancient Rome’s vegetable market. A small scale model in the crypt helps me understand the alignment and that the church still looks out on the same road, a triumphal route where conquerors passed in chariots. “A slave whispered in his ear ‘Remember, you are only mortal’” says Marco. “They would have stopped at each of these temples to make an offering.” I put my hand on a foundation that has stood in this spot in Ripa for more than 2,000 years and a chill runs through me that is not from the dampness of the cellar. I am touching history.
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