Subject: Tours in Rome and Florence
Hi Susan,

You really should take the Scavi tour under St. Peter's. We did this in 2001

Our tour guide was a very knowledgeable Italian woman. When St. Peter was buried, the area was a pagan cemetery on a marshy hill. Constantine levelled the area and built his basilica, and its 16th century replacement was built on top of that. The excavations took place in secrecy from 1939 to 1952 - secrecy in part because digging under something as heavy as St. Peter's wasn't exactly safe, and also because if nothing was found it would be a tad embarrassing to say the least.

The cemetery comprised a number of mausoleums -- a double row of these has been excavated. When the site was levelled, these were not destroyed but simply cut off at the height where Constantine built his basilica, and infilled to act as part of the foundation. The entrance is hot and damp -- the humidity is artificially kept high as a conservation measure. We were told we were lucky our tour was the first one of the day.

The first mausoleum we saw is called the Egyptian mausoleum because it has a painting of Hours on the wall. We were led through a fascinating series of mausoleums, both pagan and Christian. The one purely Christian one has the earliest mosaics yet found of a Christian subject. St. Peters tomb itself is encased in walls built by Constantine, and a series of altars from various churches were built on top of it, culminating in the present high altar of St. Peter's. All you can actually see is 1 of the 2 small pillars that were excavated of the 4 that held up a small marble slab. Still very impressive.

You have to book in advance, but it is very cheap. See http://goeurope.about.com/cs/rome/qt/vatican_scavi.htm

We also had a tour of some of underground Rome from Daniella Hunt.

I would definitely recommend at least one private tour with her, it's well worth the money. Her website is:

http://www.rome-tours.com/guide.shtml

Here's my report on her tour: San Clemente is amazing -- a must for any visitor to Rome. It's unique character is obvious from the moment you walk through the entrance gate in the walls surrounding it. You enter into a lovely secluded courtyard, an atrium (Daniella called it a paradisio I believe) with a fountain in the middle, a resting place for pilgrims. These have been removed from most old churches. Daniella sped us through the inside of the ground level church and deep into the depths beneath it. Down below the larger, still mainly intact 4th century church which is under the current church lie some ancient Roman buildings. The area itself was destroyed in 64 AD by fire, and there are still some remains of those old houses. This level is a labyrinth of passageways and chambers, some with tufa walls and others with brick, many with herringbone tiled floors.

There is some controversy as to exactly what some of these represent -- a residence, a granary, or a temporary mint, with one section 5th or 6th century catacombs. Another section is clearly a temple to Mithras, a Mithraeum. Although we are now deep underground, this particular Mithraeum is unusual as when it was built it was at ground level, and was constructed so that those entering it were given the impression that they were in fact going underground. From some areas you can hear the rush of water, possibly from Rome's ancient sewer the Cloaca Maxima.

The next level up is the 4th century basilica, destroyed by the Normans and filled in at the end of the 11th century and discovered again by an amateur nineteenth-century archaeologist, the Irish Dominican Father Mullooly. Daniella made the many frescoes come alive as she described them to us. They include a story of a jealous husband, whose expletive 'Fili dele pute' is the earliest known writing in the Italian vernacular.

Above this is the present day 12th century church, which still has the 6th century 'schola cantorum', the enclosure for the choir, rescued from the old church.

Off now to Nero's Golden Palace, the Domus Aurea. Entrance to and passage through this is strictly controlled. You go in as part of a larger group and are let through it by someone who points out that she is not your guide. There are audio cassettes to listen to, but we had something much better, Daniella.

After so much of Rome was destroyed in the 64 fire, Nero decided to build himself a palace, covering the larger part of 3 of Rome's seven hills, with an artificial lake (where the Colosseum now stands), gardens and woods with wild beasts running free (rus in urbe), and one of the largest residences ever built. He killed himself shortly after it was completed, and Titus and then Trajan built baths over it, removing its treasures and filling in the rooms to act as a foundation. The discovery of its amazing frescoes were one of the major sparks of the Renaissance, with some of its most famous painters lowering themselves through holes in the ceiling to study it.

Rooms from one wing of the palace have been excavated, and we were led through them. Many of them are pierced by walls for Trajan's baths, and of course the gardens are now filled in. We were still able to see some amazing frescoes and mosaics(although the one that may show a birdseye panorama of Rome is still not on show). What was also impressive was the sheer size and height of the rooms. This again is something every visitor to Rome should see. The visit is very limited timewise. Daniella knew exactly what we should see and made sure we missed nothing. I would strongly advise taking your own guide to get the best out of the visit.

Doug Weller Birmingham, England