Sublime Discoveries at San Martino ai Monti Art & Culture

Thursday, November 19, 2009 by Christian Miele United States

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As you wander through the streets of Rome, you tend to notice vestiges of the ancient city cropping up everywhere, and it's always fun to discover the odd column, statue or inscription when you least expect it. Now, if that excites you, think about the thrill of finding a whole building, underground no less. Well, hold on to your hats, because that's exactly what you'll find at San Martino ai Monti on Viale del Monte Oppio, not too far from the Colosseum. I'd been intrigued by San Martino ever since I drove by it and noticed the sign, declaring it to be a basilica from the 3rd century. Third Century? Holy Moses, that's old! Now, there's plenty of old stuff in Rome, really old stuff, but 3rd century is about as old as you can get for anything Christian, so I had to go check it out. I wasn't overwhelmed when I entered San Martino for the first time on a grey and drizzly Friday morning; to most casual observers nothing evocative of the 3rd century leaps out. Like many ancient churches, San Martino has the traditional basilica layout, some ancient columns and later decorations, in this case mostly from the Baroque period. But quite frankly, that's what I expected. I knew the church itself couldn't be so ancient, if there was anything to see from the 3rd century, it had to be underground. Usually, underground archaeological areas are not open to the public, and I figured this would be no exception. The large area under the altar, called the crypt, was closed off. Luckily I wandered into a large side room where I found the caretaker. "Scusi, si possono visitare i sotteranei?" ("Excuse me, can I see the underground areas?") To my elation, the caretaker said yes, and to let him know when I was done so he could turn out the lights. So I approached the crypt, unlocked the small wooden gate and walked down the stone steps into the vast Baroque crypt designed by Filippo Gagliardi. But I was looking for something older than 1650. Then, to my left, I noticed a heavy iron door with a massive sliding latch lock. Without hesitation, I slid the latch, heaved the door open and was greeted by ancient worn steps leading down to a cavernous third century interior. Now I was overwhelmed, and an intense rush of emotion swept over me as I realized that I had just opened a gateway to the past. It may sound silly, I know, but standing at the precipice of those ancient steps, in the underbelly of some barely visited church in the heart of the eternal city, one on one with a far-distant past, it felt like I, and I alone, had really discovered something. And that sense of discovery didn't stop, because with every step I became more and more immersed in that distant past, a past so alien to us all. Each vaulted room was a revelation, bursting with surprises: altars, arches, niches, inscriptions, reliefs, statue fragments, whole columns just laying there - what's that? an ancient sarcophagus? How about about a 3rd century mosaic? or a 9th century fresco? There is no end to the wonder you'll discover down there. I didn't know anything about the history of San Martino when I first went, but it was amazing nonetheless. Later I found out that the subterranean area was most likely used as some sort of commercial space, maybe as storage, though some historians suspect that it could have been a home where early Christians would gather. In any case, this property did belong to some wealthy Christians very early on because it was donated by them to the Church once Christianity was legalized in the early 4th century under Constantine. Speaking of whom, Constantine has most like been to San Martino because a synod (like a rehearsal) for the Council of Nicea was held here in 324 AD. Just think, the ideas which form the very tenets of modern Christianity were batted around and discussed and debated right in this little-known Church, ideas which would have huge ramifications for the entire Western world!
All for free, and all for me, and you. This, my friends, is the magic of Rome.

Christian Miele United States


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