Here in Rome, the church of San Nicola in Carcere has been getting a well-deserved cleaning and general face-lift. Now the scaffolding is off, and the beautiful Renaissance facade, completed in 1599 by Giacomo della Porta, is looking great!
But if you look at more than just the facade of this unusual church, you immediately realize that something is up. What’s with the side walls? What’s going on here?
The facade may date to only to the late 16th century, but the church structure itself is much older. There’s evidence that a church already existed on this site in the 1000’s, and it was reconstructed and reconsecrated in 1128.
And when the church was first built, the construction crew clearly didn’t start from scratch. On the contrary, these medieval Romans simply made use of already existing structures which they repurposed for Christianity. Three of them, to be exact: on this very site were already standing a trio of small pagan temples, dating from the days of the ancient Roman Republic (and do you know when that was? We can tell you!). Standing very close together were buildings dedicated to the god Janus, the goddess Juno, and the personified abstraction Spes, or Hope. Inside the church today, you can see a charming miniature reconstruction of how the site originally looked:
The church of San Nicola is built in the center, and incorporated into its walls are the row of columns from the right side of the temple of Janus (on the left), and the left row of columns from the temple of Spes (on the right). There were plenty of columns left over, of course; quite a few can be found inside the church, which is a marvelous example of medieval recycling. Why throw away a perfectly good column, or a wagon-load of usable bricks, when you can use them to glorify the One True God?
But there’s even more to this fascinating structure: underneath the church are excavations which enable you to visit the Roman ruins which today are below the ground level. We’re happy to take clients to visit this fabulous site, where newer history is constructed atop older history, and ancient building materials from a pagan temple were used in the Middle Ages in the creation of a Christian church.