In San Lorenzo, One of Rome’s Best Churches

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, interior, Rome

Today, the neighborhood of San Lorenzo is known for its students, grungy atmosphere, graffiti… and as a place you might not exactly want to wander around alone late at night.

But it should be known for something else, too: the magnificent church that gave the quarter its name.

First off, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (or "St. Lawrence outside the Walls," because it is — justbarely — outside the city center) is ancient. Literally. Better yet, more of the ancient design has survived here than in Rome's (admittedly many) other ancient churches. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, first built an oratory here in the 4th century; the church itself came in the 5th century and was reconstructed by the Byzantines in the 6th.

And there are more than traces of the 5th- and 6th-century structures today. Walk up to the very front of the church and around the altar, and you're exploring the same aisles and chancel that the ancients built (below). Not only that, but the mosaic above you — restored in the Renaissance to the brilliant colors you see today — dates back to the Byzantines, too. Altar and Byzantine construction of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

Okay, so the church is ancient, and it's beautiful. Yeah, yeah. What else?

Well, it's built on the spot where St. Lawrence himself is buried. One of Rome's most important saints, Lawrence met his fate during Valerian's persection of Christians in 258 A.D., and — the story has it — was grilled to death. (The Vatican has a sense of humor about the whole thing: Today, he's the patron saint of cooks and chefs).

Lawrence was buried in Christian catacombs here, and when Constantine became emperor, he  built a shrine and funerary hall at Lawrence's tomb. That's all directly under the church's altar today. And if you peek through one of the grates under the altar, and bring a flashlight (or a flash camera!), you can see some of the ancient tunnels that, presumably, lead down into those catacombs. Down into the catacombs at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

If that doesn't do it for you, make sure you also check out the mysterious marble slab behind the altar: According to tradition, this is where Lawrence's body was laid after he was grilled… and it left a stain that would never go away.

Not a big fan of St. Lawrence? Hey, it's okay. The church also has the remains of the martyrs St. Stephen and St. Justin, also beneath the altar. And if none of these ancient folks do it for you, then try the gloriously-decorated Chapel of Pope Pius IX, where the longest-reigning pope in history — as well as the pope who convened the First Vatican Council and decreed the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary — is interred. The pope, who died in 1878, has been kept visible for the faithful today, with just a silver mask covering his face.

All this, of course, is leaving lots of things out. Like the gorgeous 13th-century episcopal throne and marble screen, inlaid with precious porphyry and granite. Or the 13th-century frescoes, still in good condition, on the exterior of the church as you enter. Or the lovely 12th-century cloister, complete with fragments of ancient inscriptions and sarcophagi… and with the remnant of an all-too-modern bomb, courtesy of the Allies, that hit the cloister in World War II.

I could go on. Instead, I'll just leave you with one last gem: a 2nd-century sarcophagus depicting a pagan marriage feast. (Today, incongruously, it holds the 13th-century remains of Cardinal Guglielmo Fieschi). Ancient Roman sarcophagus, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

The church is open daily from 7:30am-12:30pm, 3:30pm-7pm, and on Sundays from 7.30am-12.30pm and 4pm-8pm. It's located at Piazzale del Verano, 3, in the heart of San Lorenzo — a 20-minute walk from the Termini train station, or a 10-minute walk from the Policlinico metro stop on line B. Click here for a map.

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Orvieto: An Umbrian Escape from Rome

Orvieto was my first real day trip from Rome. I’ve been partial to it ever since.

But that’s not the only reason why I love Orvieto.

Orvieto is one of Umbria’s many excellent offerings, with the added advantage of being just an hour’s drive or train ride from Rome. It boasts an Etruscan museum, underground tunnels, gorgeous views, great food, and a gorgeous duomo with game-changing frescoes (yes, I just said “game-changing” to refer to Renaissance art). Oh, and those little winding streets, hidden churches and medieval-hilltop-town character that, if you’ve traveled in Umbria before, are ho-hum to you by now.

(Just kidding. This stuff never gets ho-hum. I don’t think).

Part of Orvieto’s unique character comes from its history. Etruscans lived here as early as the 8th century B.C., and you can still see — even touch — the remnants they left behind. Like the tunnels and chambers that they dug into the soft tufa underneath the current city. This underground, which includes some 1,200 caves, passages and chambers, is a labyrinth that reaches several stories deep. Underground caverns at Orvieto

You can explore Orvieto’s underground either by taking a tour of a section of it (tours leave from the piazza of the Duomo, and take you through chambers with wells and olive mills built by the Etruscans), or simply by stumbling onto a section. Like at lunch. Below, the Grotte del Funaro, a restaurant that’s built into underground caverns where locals made rope in the Middle Ages. Le Grotte del Funaro, Orvieto

Don’t miss, either, Orvieto’s two archaeological museums. The National Archaeological Museum, right next to the duomo, boasts delicate bronze hand mirrors, sculpture with the paint traces remaining, and even a full suit of armor. All, you know, about 2,300 years old. The most exciting part, though, is the museum’s two chambers with frescoes taken from 5th century B.C. necropoli discovered nearby. If the rooms aren’t open, ask the guard to let you in. The other archaeological museum, meanwhile, is across from the duomo and has more finds from Orvieto’s prehistoric, Etruscan, and Roman eras.

Then there’s the duomo itself. It’s… well, it’s a masterpiece. Begun in 1290, it’s the epitome of the Italian Gothic style, its exterior elaborate with mosaics, stonework and detailed carvings.
Duomo of Orvieto, exterior

Inside, though, the duomo is something else entirely. For worshipers, it’s most famous for an event said to take place not far from here in 1263: A priest traveling to Rome stopped at Bolsena to pray, and blood started to seep from the consecrated host. The bloodstained linen is still enshrined at the duomo of Orvieto, where it had been brought that year. It’s in the last chapel on the left, with 14th-century frescoes.

But don’t miss, either, the last chapel on the right-hand side, which is where Luca Signorelli painted his Last Judgment in 1499. That’s thirty-six years before Michelangelo would start his own version, and you can see the inspiration Michelangelo took from the older artist: The vibrant, muscular, tortured-looking figures of Signorelli’s frescoes aren’t that far off from what you see in the Sistine Chapel today. Below, his image of the damned, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.The Damned, Luca Signorelli, Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto duomoEtruscan tunnels, medieval duomo, Renaissance frescoes — but there’s more to do in Orvieto, too, whether exploring its myriad other churches or simply wandering through its streets. Don’t miss it.

Orvieto is easy to get to; you can either drive (it’s a straight shot on the highway) or take the train, which takes from 45 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes, depending on the price. Check train times at www.trenitalia.com. Be aware that the train station is at the bottom of the hill, so you will have to take the funicular up to the city.

 

 

 

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Off to Istanbul, the Other Rome

You can visit Rome, tour the forum, Pantheon and Colosseum, even visit the Baths of Caracalla, Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, and the ancient aqueducts — and you still won't get a full sense of the Roman empire.

The only way to do that is to visit Istanbul, founded as Constantinople — the new capital of the ancient Roman empire — in 330 A.D.

When people say the Roman empire "fell" in the 5th century, they're wrong. The eastern half soldiered on. It was later dubbed the "Byzantine empire" by historians who wanted to make a nice, clean break for the timeline… but those living in Constantinople at the time would have considered themselves Romans.

Constantinople continued as the empire's capital for nearly another millennium. And many traces of the city's Roman past still remain. Both the Hagia Sofia and basilica cistern, two must-see sites, were built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, who wanted to bring the Roman empire back to its former greatness and reconquer the western half. Then there's the hippodrome built under Emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century, and Constantine's inaugural column of 330, and the classical sarcophagi, mosaics and other artifacts of the Archaeological Museum.

In a sense, Istanbul is Rome, its successor and its heir. I'll be traveling through Turkey for the next week, and as I go, I'll be posting about what to do, see and eat. Please enjoy this brief break from the eternal city. I'm sure I will!

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