~ Legendary Rome ~
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Pope Clement And Sisinnius


St.Clement, not far from the Colosseum, is one of Rome's most interesting churches, known for its well preserved medieval mosaics and for a chapel decorated with important 15th century fresco paintings. But most of all, for what it conceals underground.
At the street level stands the Upper Basilica, dedicated to Clement, the fourth pope (AD 88-97); it was built in 1108 over the remains of the Lower Basilica, i.e. the original church dating back approximately to year 350.

St.Clement's narthex...
When in 1084 the Norman captain Robert Guiscard sacked Rome, many city buildings were damaged very seriously, and among them was St.Clement's. After the raid, the church was left in such bad condition that instead of being restored, it was interred and filled with earth, and a second church was built on top of its remains.
The Lower Basilica was only discovered in 1861. It was then found that the early building too rested in turn over older Roman structures, which may now be visited as a part of the underground excavations. They include a 3rd century mithraeum, a place of worship dedicated to god Mithra; this cult, whose origin was Persian, had spread in Rome, where it had a number of followers.

...leading to the church's courtyard

But further deep in the ground are also a few remains of an alley dating back to the 2nd century BC. Therefore, St.Clement's church and its underground represent an actual cross-section of approximately 1,300 years of Roman history, i.e. from the Republican age to the Middle Ages.
Inside the church are beautiful works of art, such as the 13th century mosaic that decorates the apse, and St.Catherine's chapel, covered with fresco paintings by Masolino da Panicale (c.1430).
But the curious and amusing feature which this page is dedicated to is in the Lower Basilica: one of the earliest written samples of archaic Italian, despite in the Middle Ages the official language was still Latin. The old basilica is now completely bare of decorations and paintings, except some pillars, which still feature frescoes probably dating to the late 11th century, poorly preserved due to the dampness of the place. One of them tells the legend of Sisinnius.

(↑ above) detail of the mosaics
in the Upper Basilica and
the mithraeum, located below
the Lower Basilica (right →)

He was a Roman prefect whose wife Theodora, according to the story, had secretly become a follower of the Christian religion.
The early Christians were persecuted, and their cult was proscribed; in fact, ancient Rome's official religion, i.e. paganism, which most part of the imperial establishment belonged to, feared that the Christian principles would represent a threat for Rome's classic culture and traditions.
← a faithful reproduction of the fresco that enhances the colours now lost

Meanwhile, Theodora met with pope Clement, and stealthily attended the Christian rites, which were originally held in private houses, owned by wealthy citizens who also had converted to Christianity.
The first part of the fresco features the moment when the prefect, having discovered his wife's activity, storms in during a celebration and gives orders to arrest Clement and take him away, in front of a number of bishops and celebrants, including his own wife.

Sisinnius leaves the place
in front of Theodora, guided by hand
But then a miracle takes place, and all of a sudden Sisinnius is stricken blind and deaf. So he has to quit his intentions, and leaves the place attended by an assistant.
The lower panel of the fresco shows the best part of the story.
Later on, Clement feeling pity for Sisinnius' conditions, goes to his palace to heal him. But the prefect, in a rage calls his servants, and tells them to throw the holy man out of his house. By means of a further prodigy, Clement remains free, while the three servants, who do their best to obey their master, actually find themselves tugging a heavy column in place of the pope, and they are obviously unable to move it!

As in a modern movie, in which the hero speaks a proper language while the villains use some kind of slang, Clement expresses his comment in Latin, which translates: "because of the hardness of your hearts, you have deserved to pull stones".

the original fresco in the Lower Basilica

  ↑ "get behind it with the pole, Carboncello"
"pull, sons o' bitches!" ↑

But Sisinnius and his three men (whose names are Albertel, Cosmari and Carboncello, as we learn from the text) use the language of the ordinary people, commonly spoken in those days but never used for writing.

While the servant on the far left shouts: "get behind it with the pole, Carboncello", the prefect, furious for their scarce results, from the opposite end yells: FILI DE LE PUTE TRAITE, which actually sounds as "pull, sons o' bitches!".
This record, quite unusual to be found in a church, testifies that in those days Rome's dialect was already coming into being. The name of Carboncello is spelt Carvoncelle, with a "v" in place of the "b", a typical trait of the early stage of the romanesco dialect (see also page 7 in the Language and Poetry section), while the final "-e" is still the Latin vocative inflection.