There’s a lot buried beneath the surface of Rome, and with the exception of a few guided tours it’s impossible to see any of it.
According to legend, the city was founded on April 21, 753 BC. If this is true Rome has been here for almost 2800 years. The Tiber River has been slowly filling up the area with silt and man has been building one city on top of another since her founding.
This is especially noticeable underneath her churches which were often built on top of earlier churches.
Take Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the home office, so to speak. There has been a church on that spot since the time of Constantine the Great, that means since about 320 AD. The construction of the current incarnation of the great Basilica (the one we see today) was begun in 1506. I have no idea how many other churches were built on the site before that.
As a child my family took me on a guided tour down below the basilica and I remember the trek going on forever. There were electric lamps to light our way and I don’t remember how far down we went. I would say that we were between 50 and 60 feet below the current church. Despite the seemingly endless hike we never got to Constantine’s original church.
In this particular case we’re talking of constructions that began in about 320 AD and that’s pretty late in the day when speaking of Ancient Rome. Who knows what was there for the almost 1000 years of Roman history before that.
The area around the Vatican would have been on the far, far outskirts of Ancient Rome. In the days when Julius Caesar was conquering England there were nothing but fields there. You can tell this by the Italian name given to that area of town: Prati (meaning Fields ).
The Monti area of town, where Judy and I live is much older than that.
A simple trip to our basement can be a history lesson. The basement is dark and damp due to the fact that there are rivers running underneath it, yet there are windows down there, windows that now look out on to a vista of hundreds and hundreds of years of solid silt, windows that at one time in the distant past must have looked over a street that ran a few meters below them. Our basement is now buried about 10 feet below the current street level. That means that at one time there must have been a street at least 12 to 15 feet below the current level of Via Urbana.
In the basement of our old apartment on Via del Cancello there was a fountain that looked like a trough for watering horses. This too was located about 10 feet below Via del Cancello and I don’t think that horses were brought down a stairway to get a drink of water. It only makes sense that at one time that fountain was outside and used to water horses at street level!
About 10 years ago Judy and I went to a concert in the basement of the French Cultural Association located near Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi. At intermission I found myself following a strange sound and realized that is was the sound of running water. I mentioned this to our upstairs neighbor who told me that there was an underground river running beneath that building toward Piazza Firenze.
These are just basements.
There’s a wine shop on Piazza Navona. It’s the only enoteca (wine shop) on the piazza and Judy and I used to meet there for a glass of wine after work. The bathroom is inside, one floor down and below the bathroom there is a large room for special parties. Below that there’s another, and then another and another. There are even more rooms down there but I stopped descending because I had to climb back up several lights to go to the bathroom.
Near the Campo dei Fiori one finds the ruins of Pompey’s Theatre, Rome’s first permanent (i.e. non-wooden) theatre. That’s where you’ll find you’ll Ristorante da Pancrazio, underground, tucked into the remains of the theatre. It’s a fascinating place to eat although it tends to be a bit damp.
The incredible wealth of artifacts, of ancient architecture that is under the surface boggles the mind. There are entire churches down there, ancient public buildings, pre-Christian pagan alters, sewers and many, many Roman villas with mosaic floors and silted up gardens. There are ancient apartment buildings down there, one of which can be seen to the side of the stairway that leads up to the Capitoline Museums. There are huge, empty underground quarries, some connected by tunnels, where the Romans used to mine tufo, a soft stone they used in construction. Unfortunately many of these quarries were never filled in and they threaten the stability of some buildings.
They have been trying to complete the Rome subway system since 1955 but every few meters they come across remains of some priceless ancient construction and work must stop so that archeologists can examine the find. If the find is thought to be important it must be thoroughly excavated. This has caused so much delay in the completion of the subway that there is currently no idea when it might be finished.
This is why there is no underground parking in the center of town, why few tunnels have been built to ease traffic and why there are so few underground pedestrian walk ways.
The Catacombs along the Via Appia Antica (where many Ancient Romans buried their dead) can be visited. These seemingly endlessly meandering caverns are creepy, to say the least, and are still used by a certain segment of the population today, although not as burial grounds. Several years ago an ‘Ancient Roman Chop Shop’ was uncovered. Car thieves were driving stolen cars inside, stripping them and building new cars with the dismantled parts.
Tours of the Cloaca Maxima (the sewer of ancient Rome, possibly build around 600 BC) can be taken. They’re fascinating tours although a bit smelly, because as is the case with much of what the Ancient Romans built, it’s still working.
My friend Pietro Bellotti has lived in Monti all of his life. As a child he remembers his grandfather hiding arms for the partisans under the basement of his house, in and among the underlying streets of Ancient Rome. There were so many streets down there that Mussolini’s soldiers never found the cache despite the fact that they were tipped off to it’s existence.
Water runs underneath many parts of the city. Rome is blessed with an abundance of underground water, very good drinking water. This being the case, why did Roman engineers built a series of aqueducts to bring water into the city from the mountains? This was done because in ancient times it was impractical (actually impossible) to pump ground water up to higher areas of the city (where the rich and powerful lived) since any pumping would have had to be done by muscle power. By bringing water from the mountains, the higher elevation of the source made it possible to get water directly to all areas of the city through the use of gravity alone. As pumping technology improved the aqueducts were needed less although some of them are still working.
Water was a luxury that all Ancient Romans aspired to, and although water was not delivered directly to most homes, it was available in neighborhood fountains that all could use. The baths were open to all and were one of the things that differentiated Romans from other cultures. The Romans put a premium on cleanliness.
This water delivery system, much of which still works, is hidden beneath the city. As it comes out of the tap, Roman water is fantastic, yet most Italians drink bottled water. There are so many brands of bottled water that I have yet to taste them all. Judy and I prefer Aqua di Nepi.
Many years ago Judy was working on a project about the fountains of Rome and she made contact with a hydraulic engineer who offered to show her the workings of some of the cities fountains. They met at a metal door near the traffic tunnel that runs toward Piazza di Spagna. A key was produced and Judy found herself in a warren of pipes heading in different directions, all gravity fed. There were no pumps sounding, just the sound of running water and the never-ending dripping of small amounts of water leaking from impossibly old pipes. It was dark inside and her guide went ahead, lighting the way with a huge flashlight. They went up and down stairwells, beside pipes the size of a human torso, past others the size of a human arm. They walked along underground cat walks and through drains where run off was being siphoned back into the system. More doors were unlocked and relocked as they moved deeper into the complicated workings of Rome’s water delivery system.
They finally reached a stairway and climbed up what seemed like several floors. Here there were windows! Where on earth were they? The engineer pulled out yet another key and opened a door that seemingly led into a huge outdoor space. The light of day was blinding, the sound of rushing water deafening. He motioned her forward. She found herself on a small balcony overlooking the back of the Fontana di Trevi, an impossible view of one of the worlds most famous fountains. She was standing next to the statue of Neptune who was attempting to harness an unruly sea-horse. Below her people were snapping pictures and throwing coins in the fountain hoping someday to return.
Rome December 9, 2013
©Paul Adam Goldfield 2013