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Amber Paulen

San Clemente

San Clemente sits kitty-corner out the window. Trees flank one side to provide tourists with shade; its white facade is relatively small, its courtyard elegant, its outlaying buildings a network of ochre bricks and angles, its frescos fine, its mosaics mouth-watering, its layers deep. Looking at it, one wouldn’t know what rests below. Rome excels at surfaces.

With the Colosseum due passi down the road, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to say I’m living above some undug mystery. Ruins in Rome are like dust: they’re everywhere. And after the Romans came some thousand years more of History. This city was built like rocks form from sediment.

Under simple San Clemente is a subterranean chill, another church, a noble man’s home, a temple and school of Mithras. I can imagine Mullooly’s surprise on tunneling into that first grand grey brick sanctuary for I was awed descending stairs.

That spacious middle church modernly lit was more dungeon than place of worship. Those were the early days of Christianity which must have involved a fair amount of torture. (If anything is guaranteed with religion it’s the talent to inspire disparity.) There are more fine frescoes, mosaics, a sarcophagus.

I went deeper down damp stone stairs to the hallways and alleyways of ancient nobility. When the house was rebuilt after Nero’s fire of 64 they forgot to put in windows or, was it always that far underground? A river rushes under the old Roman kitchen where they washed the dishes, and under other square rooms unadorned. Secret meetings were convened in the obscure mithraeum with dinner on raised stone benches, the sharing of the mysteries, the observance of the tauroctony. Fascinating! Who really knows what they did in there? I’ll stick by Powys’ fictive account of a follower in his masterpiece Porius combined with my imagination.

When I surfaced the heat returned wrapped around my shoulders as I pondered a little longer on the caverns I had come from. Oddly, from the basilica there’s now streaming forceful Sunday opera, two tremulous voices and a piano. How is it possible that I walk these streets not knowing what lays beneath?


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