This virtual art tour of Rome’s Churches is inspired by a conversation with my friend Elyssa Bernard in Episode 39 of my podcast.
I intended to write a post that was sort of a checklist of things to see in Rome that are either free or very cheap, and that come just after the well-known “Top Ten Lists” on tourists’ itineraries. But then as I started creating the list of "the next ten," I noticed that nearly every item was a church.
For the art #history lover, Rome’s #museums are like churches … and it could be argued that the #churches in #Rome are its best museums.
Rome is absolutely packed with spectacular churches that individually would be major tourist attractions in any other city in the world. There are dozens of these jewels and it’s easy for them to get somewhat “lost” among the more than 900 churches in the city proper.
Here are a few that have struck my fancy, and I made a cool Google Earth map for reference (click to open).
A Quick Art Tour of Rome’s Churches
Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi Piazza di S. Luigi dei Francesi
I’ll start with this church because it’s my favorite for the art inside. From the outside, you may wonder why you see so many people coming and going into this rather ordinary façade. The reason is Caravaggio, arguably the most (in)famous painter to ever live and work in Rome. His reputation as a hooligan and troublemaker is only outdone by his talent as an artist. He didn’t produce that many paintings during his short life, but the very best of what he did produce is here (for free) in this church.
When you enter, go the apse on the left and walk all the way to the front. This is where you’ll find the Contarelli Chapel and the three famous canvases by the baroque master: The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Within these three paintings we witness the full realization of the chiaroscuro style—the use of dramatic light and shadows—which Caravaggio made famous. Don't miss it!
Santa Maria del Popolo Piazza del Popolo, 12
To continue your study of Caravaggio, go to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo where you can view two very different artists side by side; Caravaggio and Annibele Carracci.
You can plainly see Michelangelo’s influence on Carracci's work, using soft pastel colors, and lots of fat cherubs clinging to Mother Mary. Also notice the order and symmetry. Now look to the left at Caravaggio’s “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter.” It’s difficult to believe that they were painted in the same year.
This style of depicting real life scenes (life in extreme contrasts, as it truly was and not how we wished it to be) put Cavarggio at odds with many art critics and church officials of his time who preferred biblical scenes of majestic splendor and pastoral perfection—a style which had achieved its height during the Renaissance. Indeed, during the Baroque era of Italian painting in Rome, the two opposing camps were represented by Caravaggio on one side and his rival Annibale Carracci on the other.
More about CARAVAGGIO...
The artist established his reputation (for better AND worse) in The Eternal City. The bulk of his masterpieces are on display in the churches and museums, many of which you can see for free.
The Capuchin Crypt Via Vittorio Veneto, 27
A fairly well-known site, and easily accessible on the Via Veneto near the Barberini Metro. I always take family/friends here when visiting Rome. It’s cool to see if you’ve never seen anything like it, but perhaps just as important is that it’s a quick and easy stop if you happen to be in the area. From Wikipedia: “When the monks arrived at the church in 1631, they brought 300 cartloads of deceased friars.
“The soil in the crypt was brought from Jerusalem, by order of Pope Urban VIII. As monks died during the lifetime of the crypt, the longest-buried monk was exhumed to make room for the newly-deceased who was buried without a coffin, and the newly-reclaimed bones were added to the decorative motifs. Bodies typically spent 30 years decomposing in the soil, before being exhumed.”
In summary, the "art" at this crypt is a collection of sculptures made from old, crusty bones. Nice.
Several years back, this site was turned into a museum, which now charges €8.50 (€5 for under 18 or over 65) instead of the old donation of €1-2.
Santi Quattro Coronati Via dei Santi Quattro, 20
This a good place to stop if you’re walking from the coliseum towards San Giovanni in Laterano. The highlight here is the cloister from the 12th century. The buildings around the basilica underwent major restructuring in the 13th century. In particular, the cardinal’s residence was enlarged by Cardinal Stefano Conti, a nephew of Pope Innocent III. He built a massive fortified structure on the north side of the basilica, on the ground floor of which is the chapel of Saint Sylvester that was consecrated in 1247 and contains interesting frescoes depicting the story of Pope Sylvester and the Emperor Constantine, who was supposedly cured of leprosy by his baptism. The frescoes are still in great shape and gorgeous.
The church is free to visit, they ask for a small donation for the Chapel of St. Sylvester, and there is a fee of €2 for the cloister.
Speaking of San Giovanni in Laterano, it’s also worth checking out the Scala Santa (Holy Stairs) across the street if you’re in the area to visit the basilica. It’s free, but if you want to actually climb the stairs, you must do so on your knees.
Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, 14
According to history (well, one version of it) these were the steps that led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, which Jesus stood on during his Passion on his way to trial. They were, supposedly, brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th century. There are a few places on the steps where, if you look closely, you can see drops of blood from “you-know-who." Free admission
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, 12
This is another place that many people have heard about, but few actually visit. It’s one of the seven pilgrim churches in Rome (who can name all seven without using Google?) The façade is baroque, but quite boring—even ugly—if you ask me. It doesn’t matter, people come here to see the relics and believe me there are plenty of them.
Among the most important are the panel which was hung on Christ’s Cross; two thorns from the crown; one of the nails used in the crucifixion; and three small wooden pieces from the True Cross itself. But wait, there’s more! The bone of an index finger, said to be THE finger of Saint (Doubting) Thomas that he placed in the wounds of the Risen Christ. And if that weren’t enough, they’ve thrown in some fragments from the grotto of Bethlehem where Christ was born.
Needless to say, even the most pious among scholars question the authenticity of some of these relics, but there you have it. Not to sway your opinion, but there are currently 38 nails claimed to be “original” and enough fragments of wood to reconstruct about 8 “true” crosses. Well, you can judge for yourself. And admission is FREE.
And why is it called Santa Croce (The Holy Cross) “IN” Jerusalem? Well, they tell me that the aforementioned St. Helena had a great quantity of actual dirt/soil transported from Jerusalem back to Rome to cover the floor of this church. So if you were/are standing inside this church in Rome, technically you were/are standing IN the Holy Land. Interessante, no?
Download the FREE Checklist
Download the complete checklist from this post, including the names of the churches, their addresses, phone numbers, and weblinks, as well as the map, all in one convenient, printable PDF. A MUST when contemplating a trip to Rome! (No sign-up required)
Basillica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Piazza della Minerva, 42
No art tour of Rome’s churches would be complete without this stop near the Pantheon. From the outside, the thing that grabs your attention immediately is the relatively famous statue of an elephant and an obelisk by Bernini (designed by Bernini, executed by his pupil). The plain, simple Renaissance façade of the church itself is a bit boring and doesn’t really invite you to explore the interior. But once inside you’ll discover the only Gothic-style church in Rome with a beautiful vaulted ceiling painted the color of the midnight sky. Also, there’s Michelangelo’s statue of Christ the Redeemer near the altar. Oh, and Saint Catherine of Siena is buried here (except her head, which is still in Siena).
Santa Maria della Vittoria Via XX Settembre, 17
Originally built as a chapel dedicated to Saint Paul for the Discalced Carmelites, the church was renamed after the Catholic victory at the battle of White Mountain in 1620, which reversed the Reformation in Bohemia. The new name Santa Maria della Vittoria, or Holy Mary of the Victory, exalts the Virgin for helping to lead Catholic armies in battle.
As for the art, here you’ll find Bernini’s most controversial statue, Saint Teresa in Ecstasy. It’s a very realistic and tantalizing depiction. Is she experiencing religious bliss or is it something more worldly? Or perhaps she’s just really good at faking it—decide for yourself. Free admission.
San Clemente Via Labicana, 95
This church is famous because we get to literally experience the metaphor of Rome’s layers of history. You enter into the 13th Century Basilica at street level, then descend a steep staircase into a 4th Century Basilica. Then you go down further still into a 1st Century Roman house, and a mithraeum, a sanctuary of the cult of Mithras. 2,000 years of history in about an hour—you can’t beat that! (It will cost you €5, however).
Santo Stefano Rotondo Via di San Nicola da Tolentino, 13
This church is interesting for its unique architecture, which as the name suggests, is in the round. It was consecrated around 470 and dedicated to the martyr Saint Stephen, whose body had been discovered a few decades before in the Holy Land, and brought back to Rome. The church was the first in Rome to have a circular plan, inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
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