A tour of Medieval Rome with Roam Around Rome. Photos & text by Glenn Belverio


Above: Sisters are doing it for themselves at the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati

Dear Shaded Viewers,

Last month I was in the gorgeous city of Rome covering Alta Roma for Diane, and I also made some time for a tour of some Medieval Catholic churches in the center of the city. I was treated to this tour by Roam Around Rome, a new boutique tour company comprised of Paolo Mechini and Antonio. Paolo and Antonio specialize in curated tours for discerning visitors to Rome.

So, forget about those tour guides with the ratty flag on a stick who have 50 people shuffling behind them. Roam Around Rome caters to discerning individuals and couples, and the occassional small group who are traveling together. They tend to attract a more well-heeled variety of traveler.

How it works is you tell Paolo and Antonio what sort of things you are interested in (I chose Medievel religious art and churches). They specialize in knowledge of sites that are off the tourist beat, so you may find yourself in a place completely empty of visitors. One of their recent clients requested an “iconic cinematic tour of Rome” and Paulo and Antonio took them to the famous sites where many Fellini films were shot. Another client only wanted to visit places that were off the beaten path.

Roam Around Rome advises that the tours be done on foot–because Rome is such a glorious city for walking–but they can also arrange transportation. You can also tour sites outside of the city, like the Villa Lante. Before I walk you through my photos, here is the website where you can find more information about Roam Around Rome and how to contact them:


Also: Don’t let the fact that it’s August discourage you from visiting Rome. The city doesn’t shut down in August as much as it used to. The downer is that many Romans can’t afford to go on holiday so only 1 in 3 of them will leave in August. The upside of that is many restaurants and museums will be open. Yes, it’s hot in August but you will get used to it–and the beach is not far away. Plus: Fall is just around the corner. A marvelous time to visit Rome.


And here they are! Paolo and Antonio. Paolo, originally from Turin, has been in Rome for 15 years. He’s a construction engineer, a romantic and an enthusiast. Antonio is an architect, born in Rome, and studied Art and Archeology. I took this photo at our first stop, the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati, or the Four Holy Crowned Martyrs.


The Basilica of the Four Holy Crowned Martyrs was founded in 4 A.D. and is devoted to four anonymous saints and martyrs. As the story goes, according to the Passion of St. Sebastian, the four saints were soldiers who refused to sacrifice to Aesculpius, and therefore were killed by order of Emperor Diocletian (284-305).



The Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is a very peaceful place, a wonderful respite from the hectic streets of modern Rome. Step back into the past and avoid the tourists here…


The marble floor, “paviemento cosmatesco” of the basilica is “Cosmati style”, dating back to the 12th or 13th century. It’s typical of early Christian churches.


The red
marble is called porphyry and in Roman times it was for emperors only.



The beautiful, and hidden, Romanesque cloister. This is where we talked to a feisty old Augustinian nun who launched into a passionate and hilarious rant about some restoration work that has been going on at the Basilica for quite a long time. She has been waiting and waiting for the Art Superintendent to open a “new” frescoed room from the 12th century. “I was born from a family of engineers and builders,” she told us in Italian as she gesticulated wildly. “And I know how long it takes to restore a building! Never this long! This is the Basilica of the Four Holy Crowned Martyrs and I am the fifth martyr after enduring all this construction!”



One of highlights of the Basilica of the Four Holy Crowned Martyrs is the Chapel of St. Sylvester which features frescoes from 1247 A.D. and a Benedettine cloister from the 13th century. This chapel showcases the amazing narrative power of Medieval frescoes, even if many of the artists’ names have been forgotten.

I took this photo of a fresco of the Emperor Constantinus because my father’s name is Constantino.


The frescoes tell the story about how Constantinus comes down with a bad case of leprosy and is healed by Saint Sylvester. Sylvester made him feel mighty real!



Later, we visited the Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo (St Stephen in the Round) where a wedding was in progress. (In fact, almost everywhere we went there was a wedding going on! July brides melting in the Roman sun…) This Basilica was consecrated by Pope Simplicius between 468 and 483 A.D. This is the oldest circular-plan church after the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.


And now we get to the interesting part–interesting, that is, if you’re a fan of splatter horror films! There are 34 frescoes from the 16th century in Basilica di Santo Rotondo that depict scenes of Christian martyrdom. Well, it all starts out innocently enough with this low-key fresco of Christians waiting to be devoured by lions. The lions looks very hungry (and “evil”) but the ripping of flesh is tastefully left to your imagination…..


But then things get more vivid. The parade of Catholic torture porn starts now.


There was, of course, classic decapitation…


..being boiled alive…


..a group of martyrs boiled in an iron tub….soup’s on!


Oh yeah, it gets worse. Check out the pile of bodies in the background.


Pressed to death..like a panini…


Look at all those severed hands! Note the peaceful contenance on the hand-less, blood-gushing martyr.


Another classic: having one’s tongue cut out so they can’t pass on the words of Christ. That codpiece the torturer is wearing? It reminds me of some of the homemade stage outfits worn by the male dancers at Stella’s, a long-gone hustler bar that was located in NYC’s Times Square.


Just when I felt like I was going to faint after taking in all that ultra-violence, I had a moment of solace with this lovely starry-night fresco. Aaaah!


I really liked the juxtaposition created by the modern design elements in the medieval Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo.


Next stop was the Basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica founded in the 5th century A.D. with 9th century mosaics commissioned by Pope Paschal I.


Here’s the close-up. God is in the details, dolls.


A Rolls Royce was waiting to drive us to Heaven.


No dear, this is not Liberace’s bathroom. Actually, I can’t remember which church this is, but dig all those crazy chandeliers.


Hey, hey, we’re the monk-ees! People think we’re monkeying around! But we’re too busy praying, to put anybody down…


J’Adored this…it’s a large mythological
painting portraying a marine scene in the nymphaeum of the Roman house below the Celio Hill, which is regarded as a masterpiece
of late antique painting. The subject matter has been widely debated but
would appear to represent either Venus or Proserpina, accompanied by a
train of feasting erotes, fishing from wooden boats. Divine!


Classic Roman vista.


I love buildings painted in burnt sienna.


Before we made our last basilica stop of the day, we stopped for a toothsome lunch of pasta, incredible fritto misto (I live for fried zucchini blossoms with anchovy paste), calamari and baked eggplant.


Our last visit was the show-stopping Basilica di San Clemente, founded in the 4th century, which is comprised of 3 levels from different eras. The story of Saint Clemente involves him being thrown into the sea with an anchor tied around his neck (there are anchor motifs everywhere in the church). When he sank to the bottom of the sea, the angels built an underwater mansion for him to live in. His body was (allegedly) later recovered by fellow Christians.


The Apse mosaic, circa 1200 A.D. showing a common form of Byzantine arabesque motif of scrolled acanthus tendrils.



The ceiling.


Last but not least, the mithraeum, dating back to the 3rd century A.D., deep below the Basilica. A temple to the pagan Persian god Mithras, who is depicted in the bas relief of this altar, in his classic bull-slaughtering position. Popular before the Christians drove it out around the 5th century, the cult of Mithras was an all-male cult comprised of working-class and military men.


You can see a hole in the ceiling above the altar to Mithras. After a bull was slaughtered and sacrificed, the animal’s blood would pour down like a waterfall from the ceiling. As an initiation rite, the strapping, naked young military men would bathe and frolic and wrestle around in the deluge of blood. Now that sounds like a great party!



Thanks for taking this journey with me. And don’t forget to book your tour with Roam Around Rome during your next trip to the Eternal City.


Baci, baci,

Glenn Belverio


Glenn Belverio

Glenn Belverio is a writer and New Yorker. He has been reporting for ASVOF since 2005 and currently works at The Museum of Modern Art as the Content Manager for MoMA Design Store.