The mysteries of underground Rome

Rome is a city rich in works of art, but its underworld is full of unique wonders. We are showing you some of them.

Stefano Grossi Gondi-September 19, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes
catacombs Rome

Testo originale del articolo in inglese qui

Rome is a famous city, frequented all year round by tourists who go on the classic tours to visit the monuments of the Roman Empire, as well as the works of art of the centuries in which the Church ruled the city. The basilicas, the numerous churches, as well as famous landmarks of Roman life such as the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, etc., daily attract tourists from all over the world; they are recorded in over 4 million visits every day.

Non ci sono soltanto i luoghi sotto la luce del sol, ma la città nasconde molti luoghi nascosti, con una lunga storia, in alcuni casi poco conosciuta. 

The city has been built in overlapping straits, and thanks to these levels there is a visible and an invisible city, which extends under the feet of the unwitting tourists, available to those who have some experiences in the field of art and archeology.  


The most notable, with a long history to tell, are the catacombs, which began to develop in the II century and were created in the areas full of tuff and pozzolana. They are mostly located in the southern area of Rome, in particular between via Appia and via Ardeatina, and constitute a unique experience. In the underworld of Rome about 40 catacombs have been discovered, which would cover another 150 kilometers of cunicoli.

Not all of them are visitable, but there are at least two that absolutely deserve the attention of tourists: the Catacombs of San Callisto and those of San Sebastiano. In the former, 16 Popes were buried, in addition to an unspecified number of Christian martyrs, thus becoming the Official Cemetery of the Church of Rome. The catacomb of San Sebastiano is instead more relevant on the artistic point of view. It is not only about the frescoes and the stuccoes contained inside the underground loculi, but also about the Basilica Superiore, which contains what was perhaps the last work realized by the great Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Salvator Mundi, which the artist himself wrote to have painted "only for his devotion". In history, besides these two Cathedrals, those of S. Pancrazio, S. Lorenzo, S. Agnese and S. Valentino have never been abandoned.


Four in particular are the churches celebrated for the richness of their underworld. Starting from S. Clemente (near the Colosseum), in which climbing the stairs you go from the medieval church to the early Christian church, rich in frescoes of incredible polychromy, and from there even further down, until the discovery of the Mithraeum and of an ancient imperial building considered by many scholars as the ancient Zecca of Rome, rebuilt after the tremendous fire that destroyed the Campidoglio in the 80s after Christ. There is no other place in Rome that can prove so clearly the great stratification of the city.

S. Cecilia is located in Trastevere, and here, in a construction project, it passes from an important domus nobiliare ad una modesta insula popolare, arched from an underground crypt. Probably, the place was occupied by the house where the young martyr lived together with her husband Valeriano and where the martyrdom took place. In the church there is an artistic treasure: the moving sculpture by Stefano Maderno depicting the martyr Cecilia in the position in which she was restored during the Giubilee of 1600.

Sempre a Trastevere si trova la chiesa di S. Crisogonounder which the original church, built in the V century after Christ, still stands today. About 8 meters under the road, you will enter the ancient central nave, with the possibility to admire the remains of the frescoes with images of Saints and stories of the Old Testament.

S. Lorenzo in Lucina It is located in the ancient tract of via Lata (today via del Corso); besides being one of the oldest churches in the city, it houses a series of works of art and important religious attestations such as the relics of the martyrdom of the saint to whom the church is dedicated: the famous graticola and the priggioni. The excavations have brought to light an archeological area with a wide wall stratigraphy that allows to reconstruct the building dynamics from the II century AD. Of extraordinary importance has been the discovery of the ancient paleochristian baptistery of the V century A.D.

Roman palazzi

More difficult to visit are examples of the most ancient epochs, which have been known thanks to the use of technology. We refer, for example, to the Domus Romane of Palazzo Valentini - patrician buildings of imperial age, belonging to powerful families of the time, with mosaics, decorated walls, etc.. - and to the Domus Aurea, the famous urban villa of Nerone, which since 1980 has been part of the list of the Patrimoni dell'umanità created by Unesco. It is an enormous construction, which is still only partially known today. Thanks to multimedia projects (in the first case) and to sophisticated individual viewers (in the second case) it is indeed possible to show the buildings in all their splendor, guaranteeing the public to see them around themselves, giving the thrill of being able to walk on those pavements, through those walls, with those lights.

Museo delle Terme di Caracalla

This museum was opened in December 2012 in the basement of the thermal complex, and on the occasion was also reopened the museum. 

The exhibition itinerary is articulated along two parallel galleries, which from the access stairs leads first to the two exhibition islands dedicated to the palestre, then to that of the frigidariumto continue in the second gallery that contains the islands of the natatio e delle biblioteche.

Basilica neopitagorica

It was found by chance in 1917 during the works to build the railroad to Porta Maggiore, and discovered the most ancient pagan basilica in the West, which still holds many mysteries due to the lack of accurate information. We are talking about the work of a mystic-esoteric settawhose function is still uncertain: tomb or funerary basilica, nymphaeum or, more probably, temple. neopitagoric. It is still almost inaccessible, and for some years some visitors have been able to visit these areas on some Sundays, with prior reservation.

It is an example of the wide potential of discovery of ancient Rome, which has certainly not reached its conclusion.

Maxima Sewer

It is not classified in the list of works of art, but it is certainly an important component of the Roman civilization, during centuries and centuries, the most ancient furnace still fully functional in the world. The system of water management, both in input and output, allowed Rome to reach a population numerically higher than ever before until 800, and the Cloaca Maxima is one of the foundations of such a system. The origins of the manufatto date back to the VI century BC; conceived by Tarquinio Prisco and realized by Tarquinio the Superb, it was designed as a drainage channel to collect the water coming from the torrent. Spinon allagavano l'Argiletumthe valley of the Roman Forum and the Velabro. Probably, however, its most important function was that of quickly bringing back to its own reservoir the waters of the Tevere that it periodically drained. Studies have revealed that certainly in imperial times the Cloaca was already carrying out its function as a sewer serving a vast territory comprising not only the Forensic area and the Velabro, but also at least the Suburra and the Esquilino. 

The Cloaca Maxima has always functioned, even if in rinascimental age it was probably only active the treatment under the Velabro. Towards the end of the 800's, in the realization of Roma Capitale, it was necessary to restore the old restorable fire conduits, reintroducing their operation. Since 2004 Roma Sotterranea has carried out a work campaign that has expanded the splendor of unpublished works. At present the Cloaca is visitable, in the part that begins just outside the Forum of Nerva, near the Tor de 'Conti (now via Cavour).

The authorStefano Grossi Gondi

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