Art & Culture (le cose belle)

A day in Celio: A park, basilica, and ancient Roman houses

It’s spring on the Celian hill. One of the parks I most frequent in Rome is Villa Celiomontana, a quiet, green shangri-la in the southeastern part of the city. Umbrella pines, swathes of grass, purple blossoms, and–after school gets out–plenty of Italian teenagers lying on top of each other. Entering from Via Gulia, sometimes I turn left and read next to the ancient Egyptian obelisk, sometimes I perch on a bench and look out over Via San Gregorio, and sometimes I jog along the paths–it’s a great place for a run. This morning I turned right, walked past the fountain full of huge fish and turtles (baby turtles are adorable), and after a few deep breaths in the verdant green exited out the back to see the ancient roman houses that have been excavated beneath Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paulo. The basilica above them was built in the 12th century and the interior is lined with chandeliers from the renovations done on the interior of the church in the 18th century. Actually, I’ve never seen so many chandeliers in a church before.

But–EVEN BETTER–beneath the basilica are the remains of 2nd and 3rd century Roman houses. The earliest buildings on the spot served as stores and eventually were converted into a large Roman domus, or home. It is thought that this elaborate home was then bought by the Christian community, which established a titulus–a community center/meeting place–here officially in 499. Vivid frescoes from the 3rd and 4th century still survive on the walls. One room features genii (basically naked youths with capes) surrounded by ducks, peacocks, and other birds. Another room contained a nymphaeum, or fountain, with mosaic floors–some with stones of all colors and some just black and white. Above stands a  huge fresco on the wall of a naked woman, hair styled, wearing a large stone necklace, reclining on a couch (Titanic anyone?) being served by attendants. There was even a room they have labelled a wine cellar (but the evidence for such a label seems rather vague).

The domus may also have served as a burial place at some point, because funerary remains (including inscriptions and parts of altars)–some dating as early as the 2nd century–were found during the excavations .

I was clopping around staring, mouth agape, during the entire visit. Although a lot of helpful history is provided, the site is still difficult to understand and the rooms are not labelled particularly well (but better than most in Rome).  I must have looked suspicious because 2 of the museum attendants followed me the entire time reminding me not to take photos. When I was leaving, however, I chatted with them in my limited Italian and they turned out to be incredibly friendly.  But no photos.


Villa Celiomontana: closes at 8pm.

Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paulo: Open 9am-12:30pm; 3:30pm-6pm

Case Romane (ancient Roman houses): Open from 10am-1pm and 3pm-6pm, every day except Tuesday and Wednesday. Tickets 6 euros.

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