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Travel and retreats: From temple to church

26 January 2024

Diana Bentley visits a trio of Roman churches with links to antiquity


The Church of San Nicola in Carcere, Rome, whose outer walls incorporate columns from Roman temples

The Church of San Nicola in Carcere, Rome, whose outer walls incorporate columns from Roman temples

THE buses and taxis dash around Rome’s Piazza Venezia in the bright sunshine. I walk in the shadow of the extravagant Victoria Emmanuel II Monument, then past the glorious stairs that lead up to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Piazza Campidoglio, the city’s last remaining Renaissance square.

History surrounds me at every turn in Rome, not least in the city’s 900-odd churches, of which there are more than in any other city in the world. Of these, only St Peter’s Basilica and six other churches are in the Vatican City, itself located in the centre of Rome; but I’m on the trail of three that have special links to its illustrious ancient past.

Walking by the lofty open-air Theatre of Marcellus, inaugurated in about 13 BC, I catch sight of my goal — San Nicola in Carcere (Basilica of St Nicolas in Prison) — which stands close by. Three ancient Republican temples once stood on this spot, a stone’s throw from the Tiber. The basilica’s origins are thrillingly clear in the columns of the ancient temples embedded in its walls.

Rome’s fruit and vegetable market, the Forum Holitorium, used to be held around the temples — dedicated to Janus, Juno Sospita, and Spes — which, in the Middle Ages, are believed to have served as a prison. The church was built on the site of these remains. Consecrated in 1138, it was dedicated to St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, an important saint for the Greek and Byzantine community who had settled in Rome.

Away from the traffic, in the cool and welcome calm of the church, I admire a wooden model of the temples and some ancient columns used in its interior. Then, for a few euros, a friendly churchwarden ushers me down the stairs that lead to underground caverns beneath the altar, to walk among parts of the giant stone walls of the temples, and a section of the path that lay between — now more than 2000 years old.

I close my eyes and imagine the hubbub of the ancient market, with its noisy hawkers and shoppers, and the priests who once presided here. In the gloom, I’m struck by the extraordinary life of this site: a place of ancient worship and now a sacred place for another long-lived faith.

Later, I’m off to find another site where the ancient is vividly fused with the modern. Not far from the Colosseum, and near the now grassy slopes of the Circus Maximus, where the crowds once cheered on the charioteers, I climb up the Caelian Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, to find Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio (Basilica of Saints John and Paul).

The saints — two former Roman soldiers — died under the persecutions of Emperor Julian the Apostate in 362 and were buried here, on the site of what was once their home. A church was first built here in 398, and refashioned over the centuries. I’m dazzled by its gorgeous cream and gold interior, and its stunning chandeliers (said to be sourced from the Waldorf Astoria as a gift from the Archbishop of New York). It’s easy to appreciate why this basilica is considered one of the most beautiful churches in Rome, and is a favourite location for weddings.

istock View of the Cealian Hill, as seen from from Circus Maximus, with the Basilica Santi Giovanni e Paolo (left)

On a side street beside the basilica which was once a Roman road, I discover one of the best-preserved residential complexes from ancient Rome: Case Romane del Celio (Roman houses of the Celio Hill). Here, as well as the home of the martyred soldiers, other houses used by early Christians up to the fourth century were uncovered. Now, they are all combined into one intriguing suite of 20 rooms beneath the basilica. I pass through rooms with colourful mosaic floors, frescoes, and places for worship, and wander about a small museum with relics from the site.

Then it’s back to the bustling centre of Rome. Sitting resplendent in a crowd-filled square lies the Pantheon, one of the most remarkably preserved monuments of antiquity and a visitor’s must-see. I join a long queue to enter, and chat with my fellow pilgrims as I wait. The vast columns of the Pantheon’s portico soar up beside and above us, the inscription bearing the name of Marcus Agrippa, the comrade and general of the Emperor Augustus, who completed the original temple in about AD 27 to honour an assortment of gods.

Emperor Hadrian is credited with refashioning the Pantheon between AD 118 and 125, and creating what we see today: a stunning example of the grandiose vision of Roman builders. Inside, the magnificence and extraordinary symmetry of the interior is overwhelming: the world’s largest unsupported concrete dome soaring above, its oculus — or central opening to the sky — is almost nine metres wide. The spectacular marble floor is a work of art in itself.

The Pantheon became Rome’s first temple to be Christianised, when Pope Boniface IV had the remains of martyrs moved here from the Catacombs of Rome, and, in 609, consecrated the building as the Basilica Santa Maria ad Martyres (Basilica of St Mary and the Martyrs). I sit in a pew near one of the basilica’s side altars and enjoy a remarkable sense of peace, despite the crowds. Flowers are strewn in front of the tomb of the artist Raphael, who asked to be buried here.

Later, I walk out into the bright light of the bustling square. Rome has many churches, I know, but walking in the footsteps of ancient Romans in places that are now vibrant centres of worship is a memorable journey of discovery. Rome is truly the eternal city.

Travel details

British Airways flies to Rome from several UK airports, including London and Manchester. Cheapest each-way flights: £59. Flight plus three-night hotel from £191 (britishairways.com). Alternatively, visitors can travel by train from the UK to Rome with suggested overnight stops in Basel and Milan: trainline.com

The Pantheon: pantheonroma.com

Basilica of Saints John and Paul: basilicassgiovanniepaolo.it

Basilica of St Nicolas in Prison: +39 06 6889 2781

Roman Houses of the Celio Hill coopculture.it/en/poi/roman-houses-of-the-celio-hill

Turismoroma is the city’s tourist portal which has information on Rome’s churches, transport and hotels: turismoroma.it.

Helpline: + 39 06 0608

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