The Tiber Island, looking east: Trastevere would be on the right, and Rome on the left.
We often crossed the Tiber from Trastevere to Rome at the eastern end of its island via the Ponte Fabricio, the oldest surviving Roman bridge across the river, which was constructed in the year 62, when Cicero was consul of Rome. A Latin inscription on the bridge still reads "Lucius Fabricius, Son of Gaius, Superintendent of the roads, took care and likewise approved that it be built." From this bridge I always noticed the umbrella pines crowning the top of the Palatine Hill, in the distance, and closer, a tall medieval bell tower.
There are two Roman temples just beyond the end of the bridge, and beyond them on the corner, an old church beneath that bell tower. Every time we walked past, there was a line of tourists waiting to take a picture of themselves with their hand inside the mouth of a giant, circular, stone face in the church's portico - the Bocca della Verita, or Mouth of Truth - which, according to legend, will snap shut on the hand of a liar. Because of our aversion to the hoards of selfie-stick-toting tourists, we were well into our second week before we entered the church, at a time when the portico was closed.
There are so many churches in Rome, and almost all are so Baroque, that we became used to bracing ourselves for a visual onslaught. So it was impossible not to sigh when we entered the utterly simple interior of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a Byzantine church built in the 8th century on top of an ancient temple of Hercules and decorated by Greek monks who were escaping the iconoclastic persecutions that were prevalent in the Eastern Church at that time. The church was badly damaged by the Norman invasion in 1084 and the medieval bell tower - the tallest in Rome - was added when restorations were made.
This is a portion of Santa Maria in Cosmedin's Cosmati pavement, a mosaic technique named after the Cosmati family who pioneered this style of work in Rome in the 12th century; it is similar to some kinds of Byzantine mosaic, but instead of using stones all the same size, Cosmati work uses varying sizes framed by white marble. This sort of inlay spread in Europe; the most northern example is the Cosmatesque pavement of the high altar at Westminster Abbey, unusual because the stones are set into a dark surrounding substrate. My quilter's eyes were dazzled by the variety of patterns here, and the colors of the stones, which art historians think were mostly sliced-up bits of broken, ruined Roman monuments scattered around the city, recycled into these floors during the middle ages.
Although the church is no longer used by a congregation, it felt holier than many of the others we visited. We returned several times to absorb its quiet atmosphere and sit for a while in the beauty of the plaster walls and astonishing floor.
There are few visitors: most of the tourists have followed their guidebook's list of Romans "must-see"s to the Bocca della Verite, and afterwards merely stick their heads in the church door, see nothing of interest, and then leave.
A recording of Orthodox chants plays at all times, contributing to the calm and quiet. The music carries faintly into the stone crypt below the main altar, hollowed out from volcanic blocks that formed the central podium of the much earlier Roman temple. In this crypt are a small marble altar and candle-lit niches that once held the relics of early Christians, removed from the catacombs by Pope Hadrian in the 8th century.
Inlaid wall decorations above the entrance to the crypt.
I was wandering around upstairs when I found myself in front of a chapel where a flower-crowned skull rested on the altar, and was rather shocked to see that it was labeled "St. Valentine."
Reliquary with St. Valentine's skull (Wikipedia)
There are conflicting hagiographies and several different martyrs by the name "Valentine," but the story I like best says that he was a Roman priest in the 3rd century; this Valentine secretly married couples, in defiance of Emperor Claudius, so that the husbands would be able to escape military service and going off to war. The priest was arrested. The Emperor met the prisoner and came to like him, but when Valentine tried to convert him to Christianity -- or, alternately, when Valentine refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods - Claudius changed his mind and had him beaten with clubs and then beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate, and buried in an unmarked grave, from which his followers later removed his body. Churches as widely separated as Dublin, Madrid, and Prague claim to house St. Valentine's burial site or relics, but I think I will just decide to believe that the skull of the patron saint of lovers, whose Feast Day is February 14, is this one.