Underground Fun: European Edition

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

A team of archaeologists, architects and computer scientists have put together the first fully comprehensive three-dimensional images of Rome's catacombs, using laser scanners. Which is both cool, and reminds me of a couple of underground adventures in Rome that I wanted to tell you about.

The Golden Palace of Nero

As you may or may not know, the Emperor Nero pissed a lot of people off. However, to use the words of noted archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Nero also "gave the best parties, ever." The Domus Aurea is sort of a testament to both aspects of the Emperor's public persona. Built purely as a pleasure palace (Nero actually lived elsewhere), the entire complex is thought to have encompassed anywhere between 100 and 300 acres. Gilded within an inch of its life, the Domus Aurea also featured tons of marble, intricate mosaics, frescoes, and an artificial lake. Basically, the Domus Aurea was where the magic happened–the hippest party pad this side of "Cribs".

Then, after some particularly bad press that ended in a coup, Nero killed himself in A.D. 68.

Photo of interior from the Domus Aurea via Sarah Goldsmith under Creative Commons.

Over the next 1400 years or so, the Domus Aurea went from being a symbol of that guy everybody hated; to a sort of proto-Home Depot/scrap yard for less-reviled construction projects to pick over; to a completely forgotten ruin buried under layers of other buildings. Despite sitting on a hillside overlooking the Colosseum, nobody knew it was there until the 15th century, when artists discovered a weird "cave" filled with beautiful works of art. The Domus Aurea ended up becoming the inspiration for many of the Renaissance-era churches of Rome. In fact, there's period graffiti in the Domus Aurea signed by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael (and, also, incidentally, the Marquis de Sade).

Still in the process of being excavated, the Domus Aurea is open to tourists, but on a limited basis. Baker and I went through it in 2007. Besides being an amazing experience (you wear hard hats and the in-English tour is led by an archeologist), it's also a great insider-y feeling thing to do as a tourist. You can't just walk into the Domus Aurea whenever you please. Hell, you probably wouldn't know it was there if you weren't informed. Instead, to get a tour, you have to call ahead to order advance tickets for a specific time slot. I think there's only something like 5 per day.

If you're in Rome and you want the tour, you can call 06.39967700, which is the current ticket request number according to The Beehive, my favorite hostel in Rome.

The Basilica of San Clemente

On the surface, San Clemente looks a lot like many of the other ornately decorated churches of Rome. Dating to the 12th century, the interior is gorgeous, but, if you're an average tourist who's spent two or three days church-hopping in Rome, somewhat unremarkable.

Photo of 12th century basilica interior courtesy Juan Desant via Creative Commons.

What makes San Clemente special is what lies beneath. Take the stairs down from the 12th century church, and you'll find yourself in a previous incarnation of the Basilica that dates to the 4th century. The light is bad down there, but below you can see a crappy, but passable, picture I took from that level of the church.

But you know what's even cooler than an old church with an older church underneath it? An even older building underneath that. You can actually go further down, and further back in time, to the ruins of 1st century AD Roman buildings, which were likely the location of a temple to Mithras, a sun god whose mystery cult some scholars think may have heavily influenced early Christian ritual and belief. It's pretty badass. Unfortunately, the lighting really sucks down there. I've got no photos from that level and I wasn't able to come up with creative commons shots from other sources, either. Although the church's official Web site has some neat renderings and a few pics that you can see. I didn't get a guided tour of the Basilica, so I know less about its history. But it's definitely worth a peek if you're in Rome and love old, underground things.