Expedition: churches

Over 17K steps today (thank you, Fitbit; no Apple Watch yet!), from an expedition to the Caelian Hill. That’s immediately south-southeast of the Colosseum. Look for the cluster of gladiators with Aussie accents checking their smartphones, and head uphill.

We found a quiet park (Celimontana) and a closed park (Celio). I was bummed because the one I really wanted to see was the Celio. Still, in the Celimontana, it was shady and we got to listen to flocks of noisy parrots in the treetops. Yes, in Rome.

We checked out several indoor locations, one museum and two churches. Well, actually the museum included church ruins, so maybe two-and-a-half churches. Rather unlike us….

The churches constitute a study in contrasts. Here are the two active churches.


The left one is San Giorgio in Velabro. The name harks back to the ancient Roman name for this area, the Velabrum. For decades, guidebooks have said this was a marsh, as mine does, but recent coring across the neighborhood indicates that it never was a marsh or a tributary of the Tiber or a boat basin (among the comments you may read/hear). The church dates back to the 9th C, and I love that the grey granite? columns run out toward the rear on the right, and different columns are substituted (only one in photo); indeed this part of the floor is also higher, suggesting it was an earlier structure incorporated into the church. The entry around the doors had to be rebuilt after a Mafia bombing (why here?) in 1993 caused considerable damage. The rest of the church was restored in the 20th C. The ceiling is obviously a substitute. The painting over the altar is simple, yet brilliantly colored. Since we didn’t plan on visiting this church, I only discovered later that we could have peeked into a niche and seen the skull of St. George, who is famous for dragon-killing.

The church on the right is Santa Maria Nova. The city is overrun with Marian churches (honoring Mother Mary), with very few names mentioning Jesus. He dominates altar-paintings, of course….

This church is on top of a small rise that must have been taller before the valley gathered sediment (8–10 METERS in the Forum area, more that happened after abandonment, and has been removed to reveal the ruins we see today) and perhaps it was borrowed a bit. The ancient Romans named all hills, valleys, and parts of hills around their city, as well as neighborhoods. This low hill in the valley was the Velia. The only access is from the Colosseum along an old section of Roman road, and indeed we walked uphill.

An earlier Santa Maria church in the Forum was relocated here in the mid-800s, making this the new St. Mary’s. The Madonna and Child painting with the shutters that to me is the visual focal point of the apse, is of the Glykophilousa type, a “sweet love” image of the duo, with the Madonna embracing the Christ child, and the child stroking the mother’s face. It dates to the 6th C. I found the bright colors on the ceiling dramatic, set off by a maize of white-and-gold borders. Again, without the guidebook, we didn’t know to look behind grills in the south wall at paving stones described as being from the Via Sacra (road into the Forum from the east), and bearing the imprint of the knees of St. Peter, praying for the punishment of Simon Magnus, who was flying about. We also didn’t know to check out the crypt, including a Bernini.

Serendipity only floats you along so far.


We toured the Case Romane museum, which is a maze of ruins beneath the Basilica Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio. It is named for two brothers, martyred under the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian, in 362. I have studied the map of the rooms we walked through, and it just felt like strange little spaces, with doorways leading from one to another. I was further discombobulated because the floor and ceiling elevations were up and down, and at most three rooms in a row had floors on the same level, and perhaps that consistency was introduced to make them accessible parts of the museum. Some ruins date to ancient Roman times, but part were the rooms of early Christians, late 3rd C, and into the 4th C. As near as I can tell that’s a goat and a camel near the corner, hanging from a rope to the torso, and with no hind legs. Haven’t a clue what this imagery meant to the occupants of this space.

Other activities today: we walked the length of the Circus Maximus (gigantic), and looked at archaeology in action at the SE end (the turn); I even saw a trowel! We saw cats at the Largo Torre Argentina (everyone does; they live there). We noticed little lizards in the park. We saw napping men on benches in the Piazza San Marco (noticed in other parks, too). We enjoyed the decrepit nature of the fenced-off Arch of Janus, which is really not an arch per se, but a squarish four-arched triumphal monument—only now its only triumph is that it still stands.