St. Paul – not a saint we’ve given much thought to over the years. Even though he’s linked with St. Peter, was a Roman citizen, and is credited with bringing Christianity to Rome, Paul seems to take second place to St. Peter, often viewed as sole founder of the Catholic church. But these days we find ourselves living near, if not precisely on, St. Paul’s path to martyrdom.
San Paolo fuori le mura (St Paul’s outside the walls) is a couple blocks from our apartment. This large and imposing basilica, whose belltower we see from almost any direction, was rebuilt in the mid-1800s after it was burned in a spectacular night fire in 1823 (one story told is that it burned because there was no room for the then current Pope’s picture on its walls; the Pope died that night without knowing the basilica had been destroyed- Pope Benedict's lit-up portrait photo right, high up on the right clerestory). Though we (and Henry James and Franz Liszt, btw) rather like the basilica (and the coffee bar in front of it - top photo), it generally receives poor reviews, except for its graciously designed interior courtyard with many Moorish columns – a courtyard that survived the fire.
The basilica, like most in Rome, is on the site of earlier churches, including one built in the 5th century to mark the place where Paul was buried. The chains in which he was held – and led out of Rome, eventually to his beheading at Tre Fontane - are prominently displayed above the crypt that holds his remains (photo left). Last year the Pope authorized a probe of the remains in the church and they were dated to 1st to 2nd century AD. The church also sits at the foot of via delle Sette Chiese (road of the 7 churches), which runs near our house too. San Paolo fuori le mura is one of the 7 churches pilgrims must visit in a Holy Year, and the via delle Sette Chiese is a pilgrim’s way (tho’ you’d be hard pressed to see that in this street now).
If one keeps walking along via Ostiense and then via Laurentina, you come to the Abbey Tre Fontane (Three Fountains). Here there are three churches, in essence: the Abbey itself (7th century, restored in 1221 - front in photo right) and now inhabited by Trappist monks selling liquers, chocolates, and other stuff, a small church (Santa Maria Scala Coeli [“Jail Stairs”] - back right in photo right) where Paul was held in jail (you can go down into the crypt and peer into the jail space itself ) and another church further on (San Paolo alle Tre Fontane) which is supposedly the site where he was martyred – and where 3 springs spouted where his head bounced 3 times. These latter 2 churches were rebuilt in the 16th century by Giacomo della Porta. San Paolo alle Tre Fontane includes some views of reddish stones (stained by Paul’s blood?) and the stub of a column on which he was beheaded. Nothing if not gruesome these martyrdoms. In between San Paolo fuori le mura and this last church in the Tre Fontane grounds are many things “paoline” or of Paul – including institutes, schools, libraries, and the residences of monks dedicated to St. Paul.
The street that runs perpendicular to ours is via di Villa Lucina. Lucina was the pious matron who claimed Paul’s remains and buried them in her vineyards, which no doubt once covered the ground on which our building sits.
So that’s why we say we’re on St. Paul’s path, and we’ve taken the opportunity to get to know better his story, and the many monuments to it.