CHURCHES IN ROME
Rome has more churches than you have the time or interest for. (Don’t worry, we haven’t been to all of them either.) The good news is that even though you can’t hope to see them all, almost any church in the historical centre has some kind of treasure in it that makes it worth a quick look inside, whether it’s the head of a saint, ancient ruins in the crypt, or a famous artist’s masterpiece. Rome’s churches come in all shapes, sizes, and time periods, from the 4th century to the 20th, and what’s more, they’re free, usually have seats, and are a great place to escape the heat in the summer.
While most of the major basilicas are open all day from the early morning to the early evening, some of the smaller churches have limited, strange hours that change constantly. And sometimes the custodian just doesn’t show up. With that in mind, mid-morning or late afternoon are good times to try for the less famous churches. And note that the larger basilicas have a dress code: those with bare knees or shoulders may not be admitted.
When is a Church a Basilica?
In ancient Rome the basilica was the central law court of any city, the place in the forum where trials and political meetings took place. The basilica was in the shape of a rectangle with a semi-circle added at one end, with the podium from which lawyers and politicians would speak. After the decriminalisation of Christianity by Constantine in 313 AD, Christians moved their once-clandestine meetings into the open. Before they had purpose-built churches, Christians across the Empire held their meetings in the city basilica. When they did build churches for worship, it was natural to build them in the same shape as the buildings they had already been using- thus the basilical form of the church was born. Over the centuries the straight-forward rectangle plus semi-circle (or nave plus apse as it became) needed to be expanded as church services got more complicated and the transept developed, giving the cross floor plan we’re used to. So to answer the question, a basilica is any church with the original simple rectangle plus semi-circle floor plan, or (as in St. Peter’s and other major churches) a church originally built in this form and since rebuilt in the ‘newer’ cross plan. Geddit?
Biggest church not only in rome but in entire world
St. Peter’s in the Vatican. Also wins prize for Most Expensive Church, Church with Most Artists’ Masterpieces, Church with Most Popes’ Tombs, Church with Most Indiana Jones-like Archaeological Site Underneath… The list of what this church has is long, so we’ll cut to the chase. Go there. It’s amazing. No excuse for skipping it: it’s open all the time, and hey, you never know, you might even see the pope. *Dress code strictly enforced. (To visit the excavations, contact the Ufficio Scavi at least one month in advance: tel 06 69885318; fax 06 69885518; email@example.com) Metro A: Ottaviano. Bus 40 Express, 62, 64, 23, 271.
Cathedral of rome & mother church of the world
This hefty title goes to St. John Lateran (San Giovanni). The 17th-century Borromini-designed basilica you see here today was built over the spot where Constantine built Rome’s very first legal church in 318 AD. Because it was first, San Giovanni (not St. Peter’s) is in fact the seat of the ‘cattedra’ (throne) of the Bishop of Rome, and so the cathedral church of the city. Bonus feature: the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul are housed above the baldacchino (canopy over the altar). Metro A: San Giovanni. Bus 85, 87, 117, 571.
Hands down, Santa Maria Maggiore. (First runner-up: Santa Maria in Trastevere). Everywhere you look in this magnificent church (one of the four patriarchal basilicas of Rome), there are dazzling tesserae, tiny tiles of coloured marble and gold, telling Biblical stories from the nave to the apse. This church is also home to the tomb of our favourite Baroque artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Metro A or B: Termini. Bus 70 to Piazza Esquilino or any bus to Termini.
Climb the 128 marble steps to the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (the altar of heaven), built on the site of the ancient Roman Temple of Juno Moneta, (and the place where the pagan Erithrean Sybil is said to have produced a vision of the Virgin and Child to Augustus). The cool interior features Renaissance frescoes and sculptures; and the chapel to the left of the altar is home to the disease-healing bambinello, a wooden model of the baby Jesus. Bus 40, 62, 64, 70, 87, 170, 492, 571 to Piazza Venezia.
Best churchy neighbourhood
The Celio, with its wonderful atmosphere of antiquity, is home to four of the most charming basilicas in Rome–San Clemente, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Santi Quattro Coronati, and Santi Giovanni e Paolo–some of the oldest as well. Metro B: Colosseo, or bus 60, 75, 85, 87, 117, 175, 271, 571, tram 3.
Best rebuilding after a fire
The blaze of 1823 almost completely devastated the original basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura (St. Paul’s Outside the Walls), which dated back to the 4th century. The reconstructed church, full of colour, preserves the original basilica design of a vast rectangle divided in five aisles. People with a granite fetish will appreciate the 80 monolithic columns lining the central nave. Metro B: San Paolo. Bus 23 or J4.
Church with best special effects
The residents of the neighbourhood where Sant’Ignazio (pictured) was built didn’t want a dome blocking their light, so Andrea Pozzo painted a fake dome on the ceiling, using the latest trompe l’oeil techniques. The effect is best observed from a yellow marble disc in the floor of the main nave. Piazza di Sant’Ignazio (near Pantheon). Bus to Largo Argentina or Via del Corso.
Best little baroque churches
Rome has plenty of big Baroque churches, like St. Peter’s and San Giovanni, but some of the most amazing and delightful work of men like Bernini and Borromini is found in smaller, lesser known churches around the city. What makes a Baroque church a great Baroque church is a successful combination of curves, illusionistic spaces, theatricality, and movement; the Baroque is florid without being too flamboyant. There are so many worthy candidates in this category we couldn’t choose just one. It just so happens that three of the four we’ve chosen are conveniently all on the same street.
Sant’Andrea del Quirinale. Not surprisingly, this “pearl of the Baroque” has the touch of the 17th-century genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The master made use of multi-coloured marbles, stucco, and gilding to give the elliptical interior a typically Baroque richness. The theatrical element is provided by the stucco of St. Andrew “rising to heaven” at the base of the dome. Via del Quirinale. Bus 64, 40, 70, 170 to Via Nazionale/Via XXIV Maggio.
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. If ever architecture could be described as tormented, this is it. Curves and countercurves. Convexity and concavity. A sense of expanding space, pushing and pulling, in a very confined interior, and you feel the tension. The intricately-coffered oval dome makes your head spin. “San Carlino” (little San Carlo) is Borromini at his best, and the diminutive is deserved- the church would fit into the space occupied by one of the massive piers supporting the dome of St. Peter’s. Metro A: Barberini or any bus to Via Nazionale.
Santa Maria della Vittoria. The interior follows all the rules of the Baroque – sumptuousness, gold, colour-but the real treasure here is on the left before the altar, in the Cornaro Chapel. Bernini’s “multi-media” Ecstasy of St. Teresa mixes sculpture, relief and architecture. “Theatre boxes” of excited onlookers (members of the Cornaro family), peep at the near-sexual rapture of the saint illuminated by a hidden window. A former French president, on seeing the piece said “If that’s spiritual ecstasy I know all about it”. Largo Santa Susanna (the eastern end of Via del Quirinale). Metro A: Repubblica.
Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. Corso Rinascimento. Located off a busy boulevard that parallels Piazza Navona, this church and its courtyard (the Biblioteca Alessandriana) are a dramatic combination of Baroque and Renaissance architecture. The genius of Borromini is especially apparent in Sant’Ivo’s spiral dome, twisting its way up from the triangular base of the church in the most exultant, fanciful way. Interior of the church usually only open Sun 9am-12pm.
Best counter-reformation church
What’s a Counter-Reformation church, we hear you cry? It’s a church that has an austere façade (in order to defend against the objections of that pesky Martin Luther) and an unobstructed interior (in order to gather the masses together and transmit Church doctrine better). The 16th-century Gesù has both. But just because the inside is unobstructed doesn’t mean it’s undecorated. In fact, the rich interior was added a century later in the Baroque period, when the popes weren’t so concerned about defending themselves against the Protestants anymore. Piazza del Gesù (Via del Plebiscito). Any bus to Piazza Venezia.
Coolest church in rome
San Clemente wins this coveted title more on the merit of what’s underneath it than what’s at street level. The basilica itself dates back to the 12th century, but it’s built on an earlier, 4th century church. Under that is an ancient Roman level with a Mithraeum (a cult chamber for an Eastern religion involving sacrificial bulls, a hero in a chef’s hat, and testicle-seizing scorpions). San Clemente is perhaps the best example in the entire city of Rome’s chequered architectural past. Admission to the archaeological areas underneath the church is ¤5, and worth every centesimo. Via San Giovanni in Laterano. Metro B: Colosseo or Metro A: San Giovanni. Bus 85, 87, 117, tram 3.
Bestt round church (besides the pantheon)
Santo Stefano Rotondo. The first thing that makes this church cool is its location-in the middle of the greenery and rustic, ancient feel of the Celian Hill. Then there’s the fact that it’s round, with big wooden rafters making a shallow cone of a roof, like an old-fashioned railroad roundhouse, except that Santo Stefano is much older than any railroad roundhouse. Add to that the ancient level-an imperial Roman barracks-beneath the church floor, and finally, the frescoes all around the interior: the martyrdoms of dozens of saints are told in explicit graphic detail, from the stoning of St. Stephen to the steaming of St. Cecilia. If you understand Italian and have a couple hours to spare, the amiable custodian is more than happy to tell you everything there is to know about this church. Via Santo Stefano Rotondo. Metro A: San Giovanni or bus 81.
Best church for peace & solitude
The quiet, cool interior of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill makes it a great place to escape the tourist crowds that permeate the rest of Rome. The shady park nearby, the Giardino degli Aranci, also provides a wonderful view over the city to the Vatican. Via di Santa Sabina. Metro B: Circo Massimo, or bus 95.
Oldest church (still standing)
Though this basilica has been remodelled multiple times over the centuries, the basic floorplan and wall structure of Santa Maria in Trastevere dates back to the 340s AD. The granite columns that line its nave were pillaged in the 9th century from the by-then defunct Baths of Caracalla. The apse features gorgeous and important mosaics by Pietro Cavallini. Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. Bus 23, 271, 280, to Ponte Sisto. Tram 8 or Bus H to Piazza Sonnino.
Newest church (worth Visiting)
Most of Rome’s 20th-century churches are located out of the centre. Moreover, they’re nothing you couldn’t find in a suburb of Cleveland. There is one exception, however. Santi Pietro e Paolo in the Mussolini-era quarter known as EUR. Don’t go out of your way just to see this church, but if you’re in EUR, which is definitely worth a trip, the cold and blocky, scaly-domed SS Pietro e Paolo is a prime example of the Fascist take on religious architecture. Bus 170 to Piazzale dell’Agricoltura or Metro B: EUR-Magliana.
Some on display, some not. Rome would have more relics if it had not been for the black-market trading in the Middle Ages of bones and instruments of saints’ martyrdoms.
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. If relics were gold, Santa Croce would be the mother lode. Here you can marvel at the items St. Helen brought in her knapsack from a 4th-century trip to the Holy Land. The inventory includes a piece of the true cross (hence the name of the church), some thorns from Christ’s crown, and some soil from Calvary. Wild-card relic: one finger of St. Thomas. Metro A: San Giovanni and a five-minute walk.
San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains). Most tourists are drawn here by the presence of Michelangelo’s Moses, but for the faithful, the most important thing in this basilica is the glass box holding the chains that bound Peter in his cells in Judea and Rome. According to legend the chains miraculously welded themselves together in the Middle Ages. Metro B: Cavour.
Sant’Agnese in Agone (Piazza Navona). Apart from being designed by the Baroque master Borromini and being located on one of Rome’s most important and touristed squares, this basilica also offers the attraction of the Sacra Testa (Holy Head) of St. Agnes in a side chapel. It’s a pretty small skull, but then again, she was only 12 years old when she was decapitated. Bus 40 Express, 64, 62, 492 to Largo Argentina or Chiesa Nuova. Go across town to the basilica of Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura on the Via Nomentana to find the rest of her body. There are catacombs there as well. Bus 36 or 60 to Via Nomentana.
San Lorenzo in Lucina. Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina. This church near the Spanish Steps has works by such Baroque masters as Bernini and Guido Reni, but what will really convince you to visit is the ancient grill preserved here, supposedly the very gridiron on which St. Lawrence was barbecued to death in the 3rd century! Metro A: Spagna.
SS Vincenzo e Anastasio. Piazza di Trevi/Vicolo dei Modelli. Most visitors ignore this little Baroque church as they gawk instead at the humongous Trevi fountain which dominates the square. But little do these people know that inside this church are the spleens, pancreases, and livers of all the popes from Sixtus V (1590) to Leo XIII (1903). Don’t ask us why, ‘cause we don’t know. Metro A: Spagna.
Museo delle Anime dei Defunti. This may be the weirdest museum in Rome, devoted to the souls of the dead trapped in purgatory who keep leaving messages for the living. Inside the church of Sacro Cuore del Suffragio, Lungotevere Prati, 12. Free. Open 7:30am-11am (10am in the summer), 5pm-7:30pm. Bus 492 to Piazza Cavour.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Here lies the body of St. Catherine. After her death, it was separated from her head, which remained in Siena, the town where she was born. Piazza della Minerva, near the Pantheon (look for the elephant obelisk outside the church). Open 7am-7pm. Bus 40 Express or 64 to Largo Argentina, or 116 to the Pantheon.
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. You know, some martyrs had it worse than others: first they tried to suffocate little Cecilia in the hot steam room of her own baths, then when that didn’t work they tried to chop off her head, but after three strokes of the axe they could not completely sever her head from her body. She managed to stay alive for three more days, all the while singing hymns to the glory of God-one reason why she is now the patron saint of music. Go up to the altar and check out the marble statue of Cecilia’s body as it was found in 1599, complete with scars from the failed decapitation attempt. Bus 23, 271, or 280 to Ponte Cestio, then a short walk west through the small streets of Trastevere.
Crypt of the Cappuchin Monks in Santa Maria dell’ Immacolata Concezione. Via Veneto. A must-see. Painstakingly and artistically arranged, the thousands of bones here aren’t technically relics, in that they aren’t the remains of saints, but if you’ve only got time for one body-part church in your itinerary, make it this one. Who would have thought you could make a chandelier out of tibias? Metro A: Barberini. Open every day 9am-12pm 3pm-6pm (06 487 1185 for more information)