A Forgotten Church

The mausoleum and church on the Via Praenestina, Rome (May 2013).
The mausoleum and church on the Via Praenestina, Rome (May 2013).

I’m currently staying in Pigneto, Rome.

As a neighborhood, it’s pretty hidden from tourists’ eyes. You have to head south to the walls of the city first and then go well beyond them to set foot here. Not exactly on everyone’s “Walkable Rome,” but it’s not some misfit suburb, either.

On a Saturday night in nice weather, there are people in Autobot T-shirts and mohawks having hamburgers and beer in gravel courtyards planted with trees. In the morning, the ones who are up, rise around 11 for cappuccino at last night’s bar. There’s graffiti everywhere.

I love it here. It’s miles from the vibe of the city center, and it reminds me how different the people of Rome are from one another.

This trip, however, research is calling.

Up the road on the ancient via Praenestina, the road to the hill town of Praeneste, are the remains of an expansive villa, the lofty ruins of a fourth-century mausoleum—and an early Christian church.

Everything was excavated sporadically starting in the late 19th and early 20th century, and all of it is poorly understood today. Who lived here? Who died here? We have no idea. A new project might help start clarifying things like dates, functions, and maybe even ownership.

I’m interested in the site because of what was found in the mausoleum’s dome. Travelers in the 16th century drew pictures of it. I’m collecting their drawings now.

What they saw is a representation of Jupiter, king of the Olympian gods, painted in the vault. Such a painting is hardly surprising in Rome, where Jupiter had long been perched proudly on the Capitoline hill. Indeed, since the time of Augustus, Jupiter had also been associated with the ruling imperial family. Honoring Jupiter had become a way to honor the emperor.

Seen next to an early Christian church—less than 3 meters from it—the mere sight of Jupiter is enough to make scholars of a more traditional sort start to quaver. “Maybe it really isn’t a Christian church, after all,” the whisper goes.

The assumption, of course, is that any sign of a cultural connection to Rome’s traditions would disqualify the people and the architecture from being “Christian,” as if every Christian looked on Rome as the “whore of Babylon.” Oh boy.

(Tell that to contemporary architect Richard Meier, by the way. Hop on a motoring and in 10 minutes from the via Prenestina, you can be here: the church of Tor Tre Teste, dedicated in 2003. Something to think about.)

The fact of the matter is, the person who was buried at his or her mausoleum with Jupiter in the vault either paid for the church on his doorstep and/or worshipped there, too.

What was the name of this church, built at the same time as the Lateran, St. Peter’s basilica, the basilica of St. Paul, and many others in fourth century Rome? We don’t know that, either. The church was later abandoned, and the memory of the Christians who worshipped there was eventually lost.

I’ve written on the “memory” of certain individual Christians before. (Lots of people have). But how do people “forget” the life of a church? Do they do so by an accident of time, or do they do so because of cultural forces pressing in around them? It’s a question I’ve explored elsewhere—among the churches at Ostia—and it’s one that we need to be exploring in Late Antique Rome. It may help us recover the lost histories of the Christians who built this church and worshipped here.

Maybe all “the early Christians” weren’t as alike as we think they were.

Archaeology, Memory, Rome