Rome’s Other Churches
07 August, 2016
They call it “The Eternal City”. The fact is that Rome still dwells in a historical limbo typified by a coexistence between Etruscan, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and even Fascist vestiges. In this cradle of our civilisation and hub of the Catholic religion, monuments like the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Forum and the Pantheon are visited by millions of tourists each year. But, other jewels known to far fewer visitors also lie concealed in this great city. We roamed its most emblematic quarters and discovered the twelve most spectacular yet little known churches.
Here, tourists and locals jostle about one of the city’s liveliest, most characterful quarters. Here, too, stand some of Rome’s most fascinating medieval churches, in particular, Santa Maria in Trastevere.
1. San Francesco a Ripa – Bernini’s Other Ecstasy
Piazza di San Francesco d’Assisi 88
Possibly Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s best known work is the Ecstasy of St Theresa. However, what many are unaware of is that a church in the very heart of Trastevere conceals another ecstasy by this artist. The church in question is San Francesco a Ripa, home to his Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, a masterpiece in marble which you are sure to enthuse over. The church is also famous for having been built on the former site of a hospice where St Francis of Assisi lodged during his visit to Rome in 1219. Indeed, his crucifix and stone pillow can still be seen in the cell where he stayed.
The Piazza Navona, one of the great works of the Italian Baroque, is built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, hence its oval shape. The area features myriad vestiges of Borromini, Bramante and Bernini in the guise of fountains, churches and palaces. With a lively atmosphere during the day and by night, this is one of the best spots to take the city’s pulse.
2. Santa Maria della Pace – Bramante’s Proportions
Vicolo del Arco della Pace 5
This superb church was designed by Baccio Pontelli in the second half of the 15th century and includes a cloister by Bramante from the year 1504. Here, the great Italian architect applied the rules of classical proportions to generate an effect of spaciousness in an otherwise small area.
Campo de’ Fiori
The streets in this quarter have preserved their medieval atmosphere and sited here is one of Europe’s most famous open-air markets. It was a centre of the Renaissance, featuring buildings such as the Palazzo Farnese and Palazza Spada. Wandering through its streets, we came across the colourful Jewish ghetto, the Roman Theatre of Marcellus and the surprising Portico of Octavia.
3. San Girolamo della Carità – A Baroque Festival
Via de Monserrato 62A
This church is located near the church of Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli, on the spot where St Filippo Neri lived. It houses the stunning Spada Chapel, which is well worth the visit. Designed by Borromini, it is an ode to the Italian Baroque, with statues, marble- and jasper-veined panels and all kinds of gilt decoration simulating curtains and flowered damasks.
Esquilino is the largest of Rome’s seven hills and a quarter which still retains much of its original character. Roman vestiges are in evidence in many spots, noteworthy being the ruins of the Baths of Trajan and the Domus Aurea. However, if it stands our for anything it is for its numerous churches, some of them built in private homes.
4. Santa Bibiana
Via Giovanni Giolitti 154
The simple facade of Santa Bibiana was Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s first architectural commission. The building houses the remains of St Bibiana, who was scourged to death with leaded thongs in Roman times. The small pillar inside the church is believed to be where the martyr was tortured. The interior also features a marble statue of the saint sculpted by Bernini himself. Interestingly enough, it was the first clothed figure sculpted by the Neapolitan artist.
5. Santa Prassede
Via di Santa Prassede 9A
The Basilica of Saint Praxedes, a celebrated gem of Byzantine art, houses one of Rome’s most interesting mosaic ensembles. The church was commissioned by Pope Paschal I in the 9th century, on the site of a former oratory from the 2nd century. While it has undergone alterations, its original medieval structure is still visible. The central nave contains a well where tradition has it St Praxedes buried the remains of 2,000 martyrs. Pride of place, however, goes to the beautiful mosaics, depicting saints, animals, palm trees and poppies. The church also contains part of a column, brought here from Jerusalem, to which Christ is said to have been tied and scourged.
The Lateran Palace, the papal residence during the Middle Ages, stands next to one of the most spectacular churches in Rome, St John in Lateran.
6. Scala Santa and Sancta Sanctorum
Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano 14
Many sightseers overlook this spot when visiting St John in Lateran. The building, designed by Domenico Fontana, houses the two remaining vestiges of the Lateran Palace, namely the Scala Santa and Sancta Sanctorum. The former is a set of 28 steps where, according to tradition, Christ walked up to Pilate’s residence before being tried. They were brought from Jerusalem by the mother of Emperor Constantine, St Helena, and ordered to be placed in this spot by Pope Sixtus V when the Lateran Palace was destroyed. The steps are considered holy and an object of pilgrimage, so that visitors are only allowed to ascend them on their knees. At the top of the stairs is the Sancta Sanctorum containing a painting which was allegedly executed by St Luke with the assistance of an angel.
7. Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
While now very different in appearance, the original church was founded by St Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, in the year 320 AD. It houses relics from Christ’s Crucifixion. The crypt contains a statue of St Helena which had originally been unearthed in the Ostia archaeological site. The tomb of Cardinal Quiñones, confessor to Charles I of Spain, was sculpted by Sansovino.
8. Santo Stefano Rotondo
Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo 7
St Stephen in the Round is one of the oldest churches in Rome. Founded in 468 AD, its striking circular ground plan is difficult to forget. The four side chapels house part of the original medieval frescoes, while the standout feature is a 7th-century mosaic depicting Jesus with SS Felician and Primus.
The spectacular ruins of the Baths of Caracalla have long been the main attraction in this part of the city which is ideal for strolling in. What in Roman times was a residential area now boasts many green zones and affords views of the Roman wall and the Porta San Sebastiano, one of Rome’s best preserved gates.
9. Santa Maria in Domnica
Piazza della Navicella 2
Dating from the 7th century, the church is thought to have been built on the site of a former fire station. It is well worth getting to this eminently untouristic church to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Don’t miss the stunning mosaic in the apse, commissioned by Pope Paschal I in the 9th century.
10. San Giorgio in Velabro
Via Velabro 19
Primitive in appearance, this church was inexplicably targeted by a terrorist attack in July 1993 which destroyed the portico and tympanum. They were restored and no signs of the attack remain. Noteworthy in the apse is a fresco by Pietro Cavallini. A prominent feature in one corner of the facade is the Arco degli Argentari, dedicated to Emperor Septimius Severus in 204 AD.
11. Santa Sabina
Piazza Pietro d’Illiria 1
Like San Giorgio in Velabro, this is one of Rome’s churches that best preserves the Christian basilica layout. It features a pulpit, choir and 16th-century throne, while the windows illuminate a nave graced with exquisite Corinthian columns. The doors in the side portico, with carvings depicting Biblical scenes, date from the 5th century.
Environs of Rome
The catacombs, Via Appia Antica and Borghese Gallery are located beyond the city centre.
12. Santa Costanza
Via Nomentana 349
Inspired by circular-plan churches such as the Palatine Chapel at Aachen, or Santo Stefano Rotondo, Santa Costanza is one of the early Christian jewels. Originally built as a mausoleum for the daughters of Constantine the Great, the 12 columns supporting the vault are a veritable feat of engineering. A replica of the Costanza sarcophagus housed in the Vatican Museum is set in a niche.
Text by Aleix Palau for Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS
07 August, 2016