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Rome’s underground attractions

Having disappeared from the annals of history until a century ago, the Basilica Sotterranea di Porta Maggiore has been restored — and its cleaned-up carvings suggest this mysterious place was dedicated to the cult of femininity

Rome’s underground attractions

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Basilica Sotterranea di Porta Maggiore
It’s an odd feeling, standing in a church that isn’t a church, four miles from the Vatican. We’re in the nave of the basilica, flanked by two side aisles. The roof is vaulted, the atmosphere respectfully hushed. “So it’s a basilica, but not a church?” I ask. “Correct,” says my guide. “In fact, one of the theories is that it was dedicated to a cult of femininity.”

Today, the entrance to the Basilica Sotterranea di Porta Maggiore sits in the least spiritual place imaginable: on a busy roundabout that surrounds a grand, third-century city gate, cramped under the railway line into Termini station where trains used to empty their toilets. 

Hidden deep underground for the best part of 2,000 years — it was constructed in the first century AD and discovered in 1917 — centuries of pollution, grime and worse had sunk down through the earth.

As we descend the 44 stairs  — the basilica was always underground but as the city grew in the intervening years it was buried further, to a depth of 30ft — I’m expecting the worst. And then we step inside an interior so clean it seems to glow in the lamplight. It’s not my imagination; my guide explains the stucco used was laced with mother of pearl, so the walls are pearlescent. 

Nobody knows what went on here, buried outside the city walls on the Via Praenestina. The Romans, who documented their empire in meticulous detail, never mentioned this place of worship or meeting house, as it’s thought to be. It was wiped from history. One theory links it to a magician during Nero’s reign; another suggests it’s a nobleman’s tomb. But the current thinking, says my guide, revolves around the cult of femininity. 

Those bulges on what seem, at first, to be plain white walls? Stucco figures of spes — toga-wearing women. On the domed roof of the main apse, the death of Sappho has been painstakingly carved from the plaster. I assume I’ve misheard — the death of who? “Sappho, the Greek poet,” explains my guide. “Can’t you see the cliff?”

My eyes prick as we look at the stucco detail. On the vaulted roof, the rape of Ganymede is represented opposite a school scene. Cherubs flit around the spes, winged victories circle Medusa heads and at the far end is Sappho.

There she is, a woman holding a lyre, teetering on a rocky ledge, with a male figure — the sea? — holding what looks like a safety net beneath her. This story meant enough to someone 2,000 years ago to inscribe it on the apex of a building they’d hewn from the ground. Restorations are ongoing here — and, fittingly, the team charged with bringing it back to life is all-female. This one, I think, should be kept for the girls.

A ‘group’ booking in English is possible if you bring an official guide — entrance costs €40 (£35) for up to 20 people and a guide costs around €130 (£114) for three hours.

San Nicola in Carcere
Part of ancient Rome’s Forum Holitorium (vegetable market), this church was built over three temples, the remains of which are beneath the current building. Hulking blocks of tufa form the still-standing walls which act as church foundations; look up to see the Roman columns — they prop up the nave, punching through the floor, seeking support from the temple stone below.

Case Romane del Celio
Under the church of San Giovanni e Paolo on Monte Celio are two third-century houses, still linked by an original alleyway, that provide an astonishing insight into upper-class life in ancient Rome. With walls still elaborately decorated — bright murals of mystical and mythological scenes, and startlingly coloured faux marble panelling — it has the feel of a more mysterious Pompeii. Opened in 2002, it still retains the sense of being newly discovered. Entry €8 (£7).

San Clemente
Nowhere peels away time like San Clemente, where there’s a labyrinth of history lurking under the current 12th-century, Byzantine-mosaicked church. One level down is a fourth-century church; down another, straddling the foundations of a building that was most likely destroyed in the AD64 Great Fire of Rome, is a mithraeum dedicated to the Persian cult of Mithras. Walking through it, layer by layer, is a dizzying way to comprehend Roman history.

Vatican necropolis
At the heart of the Vatican, underneath St Peter’s Basilica, is an entirely different Rome — a pre-Christian necropolis, complete with streets, intact buildings and elaborate tombs with wall paintings and grand sarcophagi. Hour-long tours take you down — past the emperor Constantine’s first church, into the tomb-filled underworld and past what the Vatican claims are the remains of St Peter himself — before spitting you out in the modern basilica. Entry €13 (£11.50).

Cripta dei Cappuccini
Thanks to the slant of the hill, this crypt underneath the capuchin monastery on Via Veneto is sunken, rather than underground; a corridor of six niche-like chapels decorated in human bone (the remains of 3,700 monks). Chandeliers made from arm bones, robed monk skeletons lying on pillows of leg bones, garlands of vertebrae and winged ‘cupids’ of skulls and shoulder blades — it’s a surprisingly uplifting sight. Entry €8.50 (£7.50).

Fonte di Anna Perenna
This extraordinary place changed the history of religion when it was unearthed in 1999. Dedicated to a mythological nymph, Anna Perenna, people would come to this fountain shrine to lay curses on their enemies — the first evidence of witchcraft in ancient Rome. Now in a self-contained room, it’s an eerie place, while its wax dolls, cauldron and curses are at the Museo Nazionale Romano. Open on the first and third Sunday of the month, tours in Italian are €5.50 (£4.90). For English, book the group option, €40 (£35), and bring a guide.

Published in the Rome 2018 guide, distributed with the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)