In years past, after visiting the Forum, it was convenient to use the exit near the Arch of Septimus Severus and visit the Mamertine Prison. This prison was located on the northeastern slope of the Capitoline Hill, facing the Curia (Senate House). The prison was believed to have been constructed around 640-616 BC. Because of it’s close location to the center of the Forum, primarily high profile prisoners were kept here. Often these prisoners were paraded through the centro area and then strangled in public.
Now, the church of Giuseppe dei Falegnami sits on top of the location of the prison. The bottom layer contains the “church” of S. Pietro in Carcere. The prison, also known as Carcer Tullianum, consists of two cells, one on top of the other. The lower cell is a cramped dank space. It was only accessible through a hole in the floor of the upper cell. This lower chamber was barely accessible, dark, and depressing. Many prisoners were simply tossed through the hole into this lower jail and sometimes forgotten or ignored. Starving to death in this cell was not uncommon.
This lower dank cell was the cell where Peter and Paul were believed to have been imprisoned by the Emperor Nero prior to their martyrdom. Peter’s jailers helped him escape from this prison, but after encountering Christ on the Appian Way, St. Peter turned back and willingly accepted his death by crucifixion in Nero’s circus.
In this lower chamber you can see a small altar, backed by a relief of Saint Peter baptizing his fellow prisoners. You’ll also see on the front of the altar the upside-down cross of St. Peter. In the floor, just to the left front of the altar is a round opening from which Saint Peter is believed to have baptized his fellow prisoners and guards.
I’ve probably been in the lower chambers 18-20 times. Prior to the renovations admission was simply a donation – often no more than 50 cents. In 2010, this site was closed for renovation. A sign posted said it would be open in approximately three months. Yet the renovations and improvements continued for almost a year. The site was re-opened to the public in 2011. As we traveled through Rome showing our son the sites of the city, we hoped we would be able to see the lower chamber…
I’d not been back to the prison since it re-opened so my first challenge was just finding the entrance! In the past, you entered from the right side of the building, went down the stairs, made your donation and walked in. That “entrance” is sealed off and you now enter from the left side, up the stairs headed toward Capitoline Hill. The other big change… the “donation” is OVER. Now it costs you €10 to see the prison cell. For almost the same price as the Colosseo, Forum, and Palatine Hill combined… you get this? I wasn’t surprised that there was a fee because it had been closed for a long period of time… so someone has to pay for those renovations. But €10 seems a little steep for a small room that used to be virtually free.
So what do you get for your money? As per their flyer pictured above, now there are six “stops” to visit… First up is the Chiesa S. Pietro where you “listen to the voices of the pilgrims.” Next stop is the Tullianum, the lower level of the prison where Peter was imprisoned. Stop 3 is a virtual Tullianum… from darkness to light? Stop 4 is a display about St. Peter, the fisherman. Stop 5 is the walls of the foundation from the 1st century… and then the last stop is the Chapel of the Crucifix.
In the past, for a 50 cent or Euro donation, you could see two of these six “stops.” Now for €10 you get an additional four “stops” which are primarily audio and video displays. It’s a little disappointing that this “site” now costs more than the Capitoline Museum or the Galleria Borghese. And because it used to be a donation site, the price really seems steep. I’m sure they’ll continue to attract visitors but I don’t think I’ll be one of them…
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