Even after years of living here, I’m still in love with Rome. I love walking around and seeing all the layers of its long history. Although most visitors concentrate on Rome’s Ancient, Renaissance and Baroque splendors, medieval Rome is also fascinating to explore.
One of my favorite corners of Rome starts at the tiny, cobblestoned street of Via San Paolo della Croce, which leads over the Celian hill.
If you come here in the silence of early morning, you would be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported back in time to medieval Rome, particularly as you near the lovely Basilica of SS Giovanni e Paolo (Saints John and Paul).
This church was built in 410 AD and restructured in the 11th century by Pope Pascal II, who also erected the stunning bell tower typical of medieval Italian churches. Major renovations to the interior were carried out in the 18th century, but the pretty exterior remained untouched.
This perfect Roman spot has been admired by countless generations of Romans and tourists alike. The following observations about the church and its idyllic position were recorded by Henry James in his Italian Hours:
No spot in Rome can show a cluster of more charming accidents. The ancient brick apse of the church peeps down into the trees of the little wooded walk before the neighbouring church of San Gregorio… and a series of heavy brick buttresses, flying across to an opposite wall, overarches the short, steep, paved passage which leads into the small square. This is flanked on one side by the long mediaeval portico of the church of the two saints, sustained by eight time-blackened columns of granite and marble. … The place always seem to me the perfection of an out-of-the-way corner – a place you would think twice before telling people about, lest you should find them there the next time you were to go.
I love James’ description of this “out-of-the-way-corner”. That’s exactly how I feel when I have this little slice of Rome to myself, before the crowds and the cars. Here above are the heavy brick buttresses he describes.
If Henry James’ description can’t coax you to SS Giovanni e Paolo, then perhaps what lies beneath might do the trick. Underneath these dramatic buttresses are the Case romane , the Ancient Roman houses, which opened to the public in 2002, following extensive excavations.
These are the homes where John and Paul, officers under Emperor Constantine, were said to have lived. They were martyred in 361 and the basilica that takes their names was built over their former dwelling place.
Excavations began in 1887, uncovering a site of more than 20 rooms, some with vivid, well-preserved frescoes.
These homes are a wonderful glimpse into Roman life between the 2nd and 4th century. A small but interesting museum displays objects excavated from the homes. Check the museum’s web site for opening hours and ticket information.
Enjoy your visit to medieval and Ancient Rome at the Basilica of SS Giovanni e Paolo. For more of medieval Rome, see my earlier post about the nearby Shrine to Pope Joan.