People in the “Rome Know” assure me you can visit a different church everyday for a year, and still not see them all. And I believe it, as there are an inordinately large number of churches in this ancient city. Not only does each have its own unique qualities, beauty and history, they are free. Yes, all cathedrals in Rome are free; making them must see stops on every Italian holiday. If you are can, visit the city in December. The weather may not be the best, but you will get a couple bonuses from the cathedrals. First, anytime you visit a city during a holiday period, there is always a chance the site you want to see won’t be open. That doesn’t happen with cathedrals. And many of them have beautiful nativity scenes set-up. Not only a special holiday treat but the opportunity to see some truly amazing workmanship and creativity. Remember though, these are not tourist sites; they are someone’s place of worship. Dress modestly, keep your voice down, honor their wishes when it comes totaking photographs and be respectful if services are going on. With these minor guidelines in mind, let’s take a “Cathedral Crawl.”
There are of course, the biggies that are probably already on your itinerary: San Pietro (St. Peter’s Basilica,) Santa Maria sopra Minerva ( Rome’s only Gothic church,) Santa Maria in Cosmedin (contains the Bocca della Verita or Mouth of Truth) and perhaps Trinita dei Monti, located at the top of the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna. But as you’re exploring all of Rome’s delights, you should pop into these nearby beauties.
Number one on the list may already be on yours: Santa Maria Maggiore (Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore.) At some point during your trip, you will be near Termini, Rome’s main train station. Take a detour southwest to this amazing cathedral, burial place of Bernini. Mosaic lovers will especially appreciate the fifth century works of art depicting scenes from the Old Testament. We can credit Pope Liberio with the existence of Santa Maria Maggiore.
The idea came to him in a dream in which the Virgin Mary asked him to build a church on the location where, in the morning, he would find snow. This dream occurring in August, made it all that more miraculous, as the day after his vision, it snowed on the place where the basilica is today. Two intricately designed chapels complete this cathedral, built around 400 AD. Other nearby basilicas include San Pietro in Vincoli and Santa Prassede.
Another place that should be on your list is the charming neighborhood of Trastevere. The narrow winding streets are captivating, pulling visitors back to all their romantic Rome fantasies, be it the allure of the Italian people, the smell of home cooking, or simply the laundry blowing in the breeze between buildings. Santa Maria is the area’s better known church, (beautiful mosaics can be found here as well) but well worth a visit is the neighborhood’s other cathedral, Santa Cecilia. The soft pink marble adds a touch of class to the cool interior. Near the altar is a marble statue of Cecilia’s body. When Paolo Cardinal Sfodrati opened her tomb in 1599, he found her body intact and asked Stefano Maderno to make a sculpture of her. Notice her neck. Cecilia was the little martyr that wouldn’t die.
First her tormentors tried to suffocate her in the steam room of her bath. That failed, so they decided to decapitate her. Unfortunately, the would-be murderers weren’t that skilled, and after three blows with the ax, were still unable to behead her. Cecilia managed to stay alive three more days. Gory details aside, Santa Cecilia is a beautiful church! The vague historical details suggest that the first church was built on this site in either the 3 rd or the 5 th century, and subsequent excavations have found ruins from the original baptistery as well as what is believed to have been St. Cecilia’s house. The present church is the result of an 18 th century rebuilding. Besides Santa Maria in Trastevere, nearby cathedrals include Santa Maria in Cappella and San Bartolomeo all’Isola.
If you are in the area of Circo Massimo (the most important chariot racing venue in ancient Rome) or even by Santa Maria in Cosmedin, take a walk up Aventine Hill to Santa Sabina. (Walk north along the Circus Maximus and turn left up the hill – Via Valle Murcia to Via di Santa Sabina.) The church itself is simple, but it is adjacent to the Orange Garden, which offers a magnificent view of the city. Shady fruit trees and benches make this a restful spot for a well deserved break after walking up the hill. As for Santa Sabina, the most beautiful parts of the church are its doors and windows. The external doors are decorated with scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. These date back to the 5 th century, while the windows, from the 9 th century, give a beautiful luminescence to the modest interior. These are just a few of the hidden treasures built in the city’s 2500 years of history.
This distinctive aspect of Rome gives visitors a chance to experience ancient, medieval and Renaissance times in all of the city’s well-preserved glory. The art and history of these time periods combine beautifully in the city’s cathedrals, amazing places that showcase frescos, mosaics, statues and other renowned pieces of art. Don’t miss out!