This weekend I returned to one of my favourite places in Rome– the Caelian hill– to wander through the pretty gardens of Villa Celimontana and explore the church of Saints John and Paul. I enjoy showing visitors this area of the city, which was the site of wealthy residences in Republican era Rome.
Among the most interesting and easily missed gems around here are the Roman Houses underneath Ss. Giovanni & Paolo. They are reached by walking down the pathway next to the church and entering a side door. At just six euros for a full price ticket, this is a great opportunity to see some beautiful and well-preserved frescoes from ancient times and explore the remains of Roman dwellings.
There are about twenty rooms, some decorated with paintings dating from the third to the 12th century. This is traditionally believed to be the site inhabited by John and Paul, two officers at the court of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, who both died Christian martyrs and were buried at their home.
Now you can see remains of several types of Roman buildings from different periods, including an apartment block for artisans and a domus (family residence) which was converted into an early Christian church. In the third century AD several of the properties were combined by one single owner and turned into a pagan house.
Some of the most charming frescoes are found in the Room of the “Genii” which were believed to be divinities or spirits who protected families and their homes. Here they are depicted as winged youths wearing capes. They are surrounded by floral patterns and different types of birds. Above them, cherubs gather fruit among leaves and flowers.
These frescoes are dated to around the third century AD, when part of the complex was being converted into a noble residence. They have been linked to another fresco scene in the nearby nymphaeum courtyard. This painting portrays a female goddess at its centre, who is holding out a chalice for a male divinity to fill up. There are several interpretations of this picture- some say it is the return of Proserpine to Hades, or the underworld, while others say it shows the wine god Bacchus pouring Venus a drink.
Wandering through the site, you will also come to the colourful “Room of the Worshipper”, named after a female figure pictured with her arms open, in the right hand side of the picture below. Other panels display mythological creatures, theatrical masks, animals and floral patterns. Some old interpretations assumed this was part of the original home of Saints John and Paul, and the site of early Christian meetings. Others have identified the worshipping figure as Pietas (religious duty) and the masks as symbols of the seasons. The frescoes are dated to the late third/early fourth century.
Another interesting spot to see is the Fenestella Confessionis, or relic cupboard, that may have also been a confession area or private oratory. Frescoes in this little compartment depict scenes of martyrdom. Originally they were interpreted as scenes from the life of Saints John and Paul, but the martyrs have been identified as Saints Crispo, Crispiniano and Benedetta, who were put to death due to their devotion to the cult of John and Paul. Next to this you can see a box which is presumed to be where the relics of the martyrs were held.
It is also worth having a look around the small museum annexed to the Roman houses, which provides more information about the church of Saints John and Paul. Here you can admire some of the original Islamic pottery used to decorate its belfry tower.
After I had toured the Roman Houses site, I headed back up to see the church, originally built in the fourth century AD. It looks wonderful from outside, along with its tall 12th century tower.
Inside it is richly decorated with ornate crystal chandeliers and golden angel candle holders. As a popular choice for weddings it is also usually decked out with flowers.
Later I strolled back through the recently restored Villa Celimontana. This is a lovely park– the perfect place for reading a book or contemplating life! According to tradition this is where the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius, met the water nymph Egeria, who advised him on laws and religious rituals. The Mattei family bought the grounds and built a villa here in 1580. Many of the fountains were designed by famed sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
My favourite part is the view in the direction of the baths of Caracalla. Here you can also see the majestic “Fountain of the River”, as pictured below. I think this is one of the most romantic spots in Rome. Sadly my moment was slightly ruined by the sound of comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo addressing supporters in nearby Circo Massimo in his standard aggressive style! I’ll have to come back another time to read some poetry when it’s quiet, fingers crossed. I hope you also get to watch the sun set here! xx
For more information on the Roman Houses click here