Basilica di San Clemente

The Basilica of Saint Clement (Italian: Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano) is a Roman Catholic minor basilica dedicated to Pope Clement I located in Rome, Italy. Archaeologically speaking, the structure is a three-tiered complex of buildings: (1) the present basilica built just before the year 1100 during the height of the Middle Ages; (2) beneath the present basilica is a 4th century basilica that had been converted out of the home of a Roman nobleman, part of which had in the 1st century briefly served as an early church, and the basement of which had in the 2nd century briefly served as a mithraeum; (3) the home of the Roman nobleman had been built on the foundations of a republican era building that had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 64.


This ancient church was transformed over the centuries from a private home that was the site of clandestine Christian worship in the 1st century to a grand public basilica by the 6th century, reflecting the emerging Catholic Church's growing legitimacy and power. The archaeological traces of the basilica's history were discovered in the 1860s by Joseph Mullooly.

Before the 4th century

The lowest levels of the present basilica are remnants of the foundation of a republican era building that was destroyed in the Great Fire of 64. A new house was built on those foundations shortly thereafter. At this time, the home was owned by the family of Roman consul and martyr Titus Flavius Clemens, who was one of the first among the Roman senatorial class to convert to Christianity. Clemens allowed his house to be used as a secret gathering place for fellow Christians, the religion being outlawed at the time.

An insula, or apartment complex, in the basement of the same building was used around 180-220 as part of a mithraeum, that is, as part of a sanctuary of the cult of Mithras. The main cult room (the speleum, "cave", CIMRM 338), which is about 9.6m long and 6m wide, was discovered in 1867 but could not be investigated until 1914 due to lack of drainage. The exedra, the shallow apse at the far end of the low vaulted space, was trimmed with pumice to render it more cave-like. Ventilation was provided by seven holes in the ceiling. A central cult relief of Mithras slaying the bull was not found, but an altar of Parian marble has the tauroctony scene on its front face (CIMRM 339). The torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates appear on respectively the left and right faces of the same monument. A dedicatory inscription identifies the donor as one pater Cnaeus Arrius Claudianus, perhaps of the same clan as Titus Arrius Antoninus' mother. Other monuments discovered in the sanctuary include a bust of Sol (CIMRM 343) kept in the sanctuary in a niche near the entrance, and a figure of Mithras petra generix (CIMRM 344), i.e. Mithras born of the rock. Fragments of statuary of the two torch bearers were also found (CIMRM 342). One of the rooms adjoining the main chamber has two oblong brickwork enclosures (CIMRM 346), one of which was used as a ritual refuse pit for remnants of the cult meal. All three monuments mentioned above are still on display in the mithraeum. A fourth monument, – a statue of St. Peter found in the speleum's vestibule and still on display there – is not of the mysteries.

4th-11th century

At some time in the 4th century, the former home of the Clemens family was extended and converted into a church, acquiring the adjoining insula and other nearby buildings. The central nave lay over the former home, with the apse approximately over the former mithraeum. This "first basilica" is known to have existed in 392, when St. Jerome wrote of the church dedicated to St. Clement, i.e. Pope Clement I, a 1st century AD Christian convert and considered by patrologists and ecclesiastical historians to be identical with Titus Flavius Clemens. Restorations were undertaken in the 9th century and ca 1080-99.

Apart from those in Santa Maria Antiqua, the largest collection of Early Medieval wall paintings are to be found in the lower basilica of San Clemente. Among these, there is one of the earliest examples of the passage from Latin to vernacular Italian: a fresco of around 1100 AD depicts the pagan Sisinnius and his servants, who think they have captured St. Clement, but are dragging a column instead; Sisinnius encourages the servants in Italian "Fili de le pute, traite! Gosmari, Albertel, traite! Falite dereto colo palo, Carvoncelle!", which, translated into English means: "Come on, you sons of bitches, pull! Come on, Gosmari, Albertello, pull! Carvoncello, you put that lever under it!" The saint speaks in Latin, in a cross-shaped inscription: "Duritiam cordis vestris, saxa trahere meruistis", which means "You deserved to drag stones due to the insensitivity of your hearts."

Over the next several centuries, San Clemente became a beacon for church artists and sculptors, benefitting from Imperial largesse.

The early basilica was the site of councils presided over by Pope Zosimus (417) and Symmachus (499). The last major event that took place in the lower basilica was the election in 1099 of Cardinal Rainerius of St Clemente as Pope Paschal II.

The second basilica

The current basilica was rebuilt in one campaign by Cardinal Anastasius, ca 1099-ca. 1120, after the original church was burned to the ground during the Norman sack of the city under Robert Guiscard in 1084. Today, it is one of the most richly adorned churches in Rome. Its original entrance (a side entrance is ordinarily used today) is through an axial peristyle (B on plan) surrounded by arcades, which now serves as a cloister, with conventual buildings surrounding it. At the rear is Fontana's chaste facade, supported on antique columns, and his little campanile (illustration). The basilica church behind it is in three naves divided by arcades on ancient marble or granite columns, with Cosmatesque inlaid paving. The 12th-century schola cantorum (E on plan) incorporates marble elements from the original basilica. Behind it, in the presbytery is a ciborium (H on plan) raised on four gray-violet columns over the shrine of Clement in the crypt below. The episcopal seat stands in the apse, which is covered with mosaics on the theme of the Triumph of the Cross that are a high point of Roman 12th century mosaics.

Irish Dominicans have been the caretakers of San Clemente since 1667, when England outlawed the Irish Catholic Church and expelled the entire clergy. Pope Urban VIII gave them refuge at San Clemente, where they have remained, running a residence for priests studying and teaching in Rome. The Dominicans themselves conducted the excavations in the 1950s in collaboration with Italian archaeology students.

On one wall in the courtyard there is a plaque affixed by Pope Clement XI, who praises San Clemente, declaring, "This ancient church has withstood the ravages of the centuries." Clement undertook restorations to the venerable structure, which he found dilapidated. He selected Carlo Stefano Fontana, nephew of Carlo Fontana as architect, who erected a new facade, completed in 1719. The carved and gilded coffered ceilings of nave and aisles, fitted with paintings, date from this time, as do the stucco decor, Ionic capitals and frescos.

In one lateral chapel there is a shrine with the tomb of Saint Cyril of the Saints Cyril and Methodius who created the Glagolitic alphabet and Christianized the Slavs. Pope John Paul II used to pray there sometimes for Poland and the Slavic countries . The chapel also holds a Madonna by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato.

Current Cardinal Priest of the Titulus S. Clementi is Adrianus Johannes Simonis, archbishop emeritus of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Pope Paschal II (1076–1099) was one of the previous holders of the titulus.

Other burials

  • Saint Ignatius of Antioch (relics)

Building Activity

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