10 Special Churches in Rome Not to Miss!

Do you want to see some really special churches in Rome, sweet little gems, hiding in plain sight? 

Rome has nearly a thousand churches. Most of them, even the small hidden ones, are worth a visit. I have not been to all of the churches in Rome, but in my years living here, I have discovered (and continue to discover) some absolute gems.

These special churches in Rome all have fascinating and beautiful things to explore: centuries of layered history; shimmering byzantine mosaics; or secrets that are just waiting to be seen and enjoyed. 

Special Churches in Rome - my top 10

It's hard to pick the absolute "best of" anything. I am leaving out a lot of really beautiful churches in Rome from this list. I'm also leaving out the big, famous basilicas like St Peter's or San Giovanni in Laterano.

This list of special churches in Rome is mostly about churches that are under-visited, little-known and typically an oasis of quiet and calm.

  1. Santa Prassede - the best example of Byzantine mosaics in Rome
  2. Santa Maria in Domnica - more Byzantine mosaics
  3. Santi Quattro Coronati - a monastery run by nuns, with Rome's most beautiful cloister
  4. Santi Cosma e Damiano - built onto an ancient Roman temple
  5. Santi Giovanni e Paolo - an ancient church with Roman ruins underneath
  6. Santo Stefano Rotondo - a spectacular round church with gruesome artwork
  7. Sant'Andrea al Quirinale - Bernini's favourite work of his own
  8. Saint Ignatius/Sant'Ignazio - the best optical illusions in Rome
  9. Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri - Michelangelo's last work before he died
  10. Sant'Agostino - a stunning Caravaggio masterpiece, and more

Also, I've mapped out a walking route so you can see them all in one morning (or afternoon.)

Special churches in Rome: byzantine mosaics

Basilica of Santa Prassede

The basilica of Santa Prassede is easily overlooked but it shouldn't be. If you want to escape the crowds at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore just nearby, come over to this little basilica instead.

As with so many churches in Rome, it doesn't look like much from the outside. When you enter this church, you will be coming into it from an entrance that was added after it was originally built, and it's on the side. So you can't get the full effect of its beauty until you go in a few paces.

The apse is made entirely of tiny glass mosaics, byzantine style. The floor has a cosmatesque design, making it look like a rich tapestry.

There is also a special treat: the San Zeno Chapel, made entirely of Byzantine mosaics. It's worth going into this church just to go into this chapel (and pay the 1€ to light it up.) And finally, there is (supposedly) the piece of pillar that Jesus was tied to when he was beaten before being crucified.

Santa Prassede - A Short History

San Prassede is named for Saint Praxedes, who, along with her sister, Pudentia, were daughters of Saint Pudens, supposedly Saint Peter's first Christian convert in Rome.

The story goes that the two sisters helped bury early Christian martyrs, which was against the Roman law at the time. They also were reported to have sponged up the blood of hundreds of martyrs. This sponge, along with the relics of the two sisters, is in the church's crypt (which is currently not available for visits.) The basilica of Santa Prassede was originally built in the 5th century. Later, in the 9th century, Pope Paschal I had it rebuilt to what is more or less its current form today.

Santa Prassede - Special Things

  1. The San Zeno Chapel, which is a stunning room of literally wall-to-wall mosaics
  2. The pillar Jesus was tied to and flogged before he was cruficied.
  3. There are frescoes from the 900's inside the bell-tower (Actually it's not easy to visit these. You will need to ask the custodian to let you in, and it's not always possible.) 
  4. There is a funerary monument of Bishop Giovanni Battista Santoni that was  sculpted by a teenaged Gian Lorenzo Bernini (there are disputes about when it was exactly built. Suffice to say this is one of Bernini's earliest works.)
  5. And one more thing: sometimes the original front door of the church is open (from inside), and you can see the little courtyard (unfortunately it is not accessible.)

Santa Prassede - a Curiosity

If you look closely at the mosaic at the top of the apse, you will see that one figure has a square halo (nimbus.) This figure is Pope Paschal I himself, who commissioned the mosaic. But he was alive at the time, and living holy figures are depicted with square haloes.

There is another figure with a square halo. She is the mother of Pope Paschal, Teodora, to whom the chapel of San Zeno was dedicated. If you go inside the San Zeno chapel, look above the doorway. You will see an image of Teodora, who, since she was living when the chapel was made, also has a square halo.

Santa Prassede - Hours and How to Get There

Just off via Merulana near Santa Maria Maggiore. You can walk there from Termini train station and metro stop. Via di Santa Prassede, 9. 7 am – 12:30 pm, 4 – 6:30 pm.

Santa Maria in Domnica alla Navicella

Santa Maria in Domnica is another one of those special churches in Rome that does not look so interesting from the outside. But as soon as you walk in, you are taken aback by the very high decorated ceiling, the majestic, ancient columns on either side, and that sparkling 9th century mosaic over the apse.

This quiet, beautiful basilica is not far from the Colosseum. See how empty it is? It's mostly like that unless there is a baptism (as is about to happen in the above photo) or wedding. I took this photo in the morning, so the sun is beaming onto the glass tiles of the mosaic, but there is also a little machine near the entrance, where you can put in a coin and light up the apse for about 60 seconds.

Santa Maria in Domnica - a Short History

Like Santa Prassede, Santa Maria in Domnica was built around the 4th century (or so; it's not clear), then rebuilt again by Pope Pascal I in the early 800's. Pope Paschal I was on a bit of a mission to re-build churches that were in disrepair, and he is responsible for the rebuilding, and the spectacular mosaics, of Santa Pressede, Santa Maria in Domnica and the Basilica of San Clemente nearby. The 18 columns lining the central nave were recycled from an ancient Roman temple. (If you look closely you will see they don't all match each other.)

Exploring Roman ecclesiastical architecture and art treasures takes you through various styles, from ancient catacombs to Saint Peter's Basilica's grandeur.

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Santa Maria in Domnica - Special Things

  1. The basilica is also called Santa Maria alla Navicella, because of the boat sculpture in front of it. This boat is a replica of an ancient sculpture placed there by the sailors who lived in the area at the time. These sailors' main job, when they were not actually at sea, was to manage the Velarium, or the giant wing-like tarpaulins that covered the spectators at the Colosseum when it rained or was too hot. They made the boat as an offering to Isis, protectress of the sailors. The boat was mostly lost but eventually in the 1500's, Pope Leo X had a replica made. There was no aqueduct reaching this area, so it was never a fountain until 1931, when the aqueduct system was vastly expanded in Rome.
  2. If you look up at the ceiling right in the middle you will see a Medici crest. The Medici were a very wealthy dynasty from Florence, but they were also popes and cardinals, and this church was under their title at the time. Many members of the Medici family had a hand in renovating and embellishing this basilica, so that is why you see the Medici crest on the ceiling.
  3. In the apse, Pope Paschal I is once again part of the scenery, and as in the basilica of Santa Prassede, he is depicted with a square halo, or nimbus, because he was alive when the mosaic was designed. Note also the looks on the faces of Mary and also Jesus. They are actually relaxed and happy, which was very unusual for the time.

Santa Maria in Domnica - Hours and How to Get There

Via della Navicella, 10. From the Coliseum, it's about a 10-minute walk up the via Claudia. This turns into via della Navicella. Open 9 am-12 pm,  3:30 pm-6 pm.

Special Churches in Rome - Ancient Churches near the Colosseum

While I was writing about the above church, Santa Maria in Domnica, and thinking about other special churches in Rome, it occurred to me that quite a few of my favourites are these ancient churches, and many of them are near the Coliseum. So it would be relatively easy to visit many of these in one morning (I have actually done that more than once.)

Santi Quattro Coronati

Santi Quattro Coronati is a very under-visited monastery, which is sad for anyone who misses it. It's got a beautiful cosmatesque floor and a wonderfully-painted, over-sized apse.

But what makes it really special is the hidden cloister. All you have to do is knock on the little door on the left side of the church's interior, and you will enter this peaceful 13th century courtyard. The fountain in the middle is actually from ancient Roman times.

Santi Quattro Coronati - a Short History

The original church was built in the 4th (or possibly 5th) century, and is dedicated to 4 martyrs who were put to death by the emperor Domitian (there are various stories about these martyrs and who they were and why they became martyrs.) They became saints, hence the name of the church Santi Quattro (4 saints). The last word  in the church's name, Coronati, refers to the coronas, or laurel wreaths, the saints wore. The church's medieval bell tower (from sometime between 900-1200), was probably the first bell tower in Rome. The church was used for some time as a defensive structure (you can still see this today from its thick, fortified, tall walls.) It was burnt during the Sack of Rome in 1084, then rebuilt but much smaller. This is why the apse seems disproportionately large compared to the naves. In the 1500's, the basilica was given over to the Augustinian nuns, who still run it today.

Santi Quattro Coronati - Special Things

  1. The hidden cloister (above)
  2. The Chapel of St Sylvester (below) contains almost intact frescoes from the 1200's. Ring the bell by the door where it says "Monache Agostiniane." A nun will appear behind a grating and ask that you give a small donation (1€ at this writing.) Then she'll press a button to open the door of the chapel for you.

Santi Quattro Coronati - a Curiosity

When you go ask the nun to let you into the chapel of St. Sylvester, you may notice a kind of wooden-staved drum in the wall. It looks like a short barrel. In the Middle Ages, when these were much in use, they were called "Foundling Wheels", or ruote degli exposti. Today it's called a baby hatch, or culla per la vita. 

The wheel was meant as a way to give a women another option when she had a baby she didn't want. the woman could place her baby in the wheel, and turn it, then ring a bell to alert the nuns. The nuns would either care for it, bringing it up in the convent, or try to find a home for it. Italians whose last name is "Esposito" have someone back in their family tree who was placed in such a wheel.

The wheel is no longer in use in this church (or anywhere), but there is now at least one modern version of this type of receptacle in Rome, in the Policlinico Casilino. It was put there as a pro-life, pro-immigrant measure, to promote women not abandoning their babies or worse, instead giving them a way to leave their unwanted babies at the hospital. It has been in place since December 2006, and in February of 2007, the hospital received its first child.

Santi Quattro Coronati - Hours and How to Get There

via dei Santi Quattro, 20 (Celio neighborhood, near the Coliseum.) From the Coliseum, walk about 10 minutes straight up via Santi Quattro. The church is open early morning, but the cloister is open: Monday - Saturday 10.00 - 11.45; 16.00 - 17.45. Sunday, only afternoon.

Santi Cosma e Damiano

You're walking along the via dei Fori Imperiali, heading to the Colosseum, and if you blink, you will miss this wonderful ancient church. Santi Cosmo e Damiano is so easily overlooked and therefore so delightful when you do go in.

First you have the pretty little courtyard with the fish fountain the the middle. Then, when you enter the church, you will have to decide whether to look at the 6th century apse with its simplistic yet beautiful mosaics, or, whether to look to the right to see the ancient temple of Romulus below you.

Santi Cosma e Damiano - a Short History

The basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano was built in 527, commissioned by Pope Felix IV. The church was made of a combination of two buildings: a rectangular hall whose functions are not quite clear, and also a round temple, called the Temple of Romulus, which the emperor Maxentius dedicated to his son Romulus, who died as a boy.

This temple is thought to have been built on an earlier temple from 2-3 BC, called the Temple of Jupiter Stator. In any case, the temple is the second best-preserved round pagan temple in Rome after the Pantheon.

It was the first church to be built inside the Roman Forum. This was actually a big deal at the time. Although Christianity had taken hold, most Romans were still practicing pagan religions, and the building of this church inside the forum shows how much sway the church was beginning to have.

Santi Cosma e Damiano is named for twin brothers and saints from Greece, who were doctors, and of course martyrs. 

The entrance to the church, from the via Fori Imperiali, was never its original entrance. You were meant to enter from the Forum. But the current entrance was added much later, and today, you cannot go inside from the forum, although you can see the exterior of the original temple of Romulus, with its huge original bronze doors. The key to open those doors still actually works today.

Santi Cosma e Damiano - Special Things

  1. The 6th century Roman-Byzantine mosaic in the apse. This mosaic depicts the Second Coming of Christ, and is spectacularly intact.
  2. The pagan temple of Jupiter Stator (3rd-century BC), visible through the glass of the basilica. The temple was later called Tempio di Romolo, or Temple to Romulus, dedicated by Maxentius to his son Romulus who died as a boy.
  3. The nativity scene (on display year-round) in one of the rooms off the cloister. Naples is famous for their Presepe, or nativity scenes. One of the best examples of a work by some of these master craftsmen is inside the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. Don't miss this, even if it's not Christmas!

Santi Cosma e Damiano - Hours and How to Get There

Via dei Fori Imperiali 1. As you walk down the via dei Fori Imperiali, towards the Colosseum, the church's doorway will be visible on your right, about ⅔ of the way down the street. At the moment, it's just before all the major construction. Open 9am - 1pm, 3pm - 6:50pm.

Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Santi Giovanni e Paolo is another one of my favourite special churches in Rome, maybe because I get to see it a lot. What I love about this church is the setting: To get to it, you have to come down (or up) a little-visited street, and once you enter this street, you already get a sense of being lost in time. Come up the via Claudia from the Coliseum. On the right, you will come to an ancient Roman wall and archway. That street will take you to this church. (This street is right before the basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica, and the street that takes you to Santo Stefano Rotondo, so as I said, you can easily visit at least these churches all together.)

As you walk, you will pass a vine-covered wall on your left, and private villas to your right. All of a sudden, you come upon this wide open plaza. There is a really tall, perfectly intact Romanesque bell tower, and to the left, also sitting pretty on the plaza, the church.

You can visit the ruins of the temple of Claudius under the bell tower. Then you can visit this church with its rich cosmatesque floor and uniquely painted apse.

And, if you really want the most special treat of all, you can spend another 30-60 minutes visiting the Roman Houses at Celio, underneath the church. It is really a wonderful experience, allowing you to see incredibly intact buildings from Roman times, with bright frescoes, a wine cellar, a religious altar, and much more. And at the end, you can see one of the best-designed archeological museums in Rome, even if it is small. But even just visiting the church itself is worthwhile.

Santi Giovanni e Paolo - a Short History

Santi Giovanni e Paolo - Special Things

  1. The Romanesque bell tower, and the Roman ruins it's built on.
  2. The apse of the church, as seen from the outside - it's the only one like it in Rome.
  3. The Roman Houses at Celio, underneath the church. Worth the 6€price of admission and half hour of your time.
  4. Last but not least, and one of the reasons I love this church is it's the only church with a bit of kitsch in Rome: the whole place is adorned with chandeliers, which were a gift from the church's titular, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, in the 50's. The chandeliers had previously hung in the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Santi Giovanni e Paolo - Hours and How to Get There

Piazza dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, 13. It's quite easy to walk here from the Coliseum. Walk straight up the via Claudia. About half way up the street, on the right side, you will see a street with an arch (a gateway.) This is via di san Paolo della Croce. Take this street and you will easily spot this beautiful church taking up half the plaza on the right. Open daily from 8.30am - 12pm (Sundays until 12.45pm), 3.30pm - 6pm. 

Santo Stefano Rotondo

The first time I visited Santo Stefano Rotondo, I had no idea what to expect. I'd heard it was the largest circular church in Rome, and that it was really special. But nobody told me in advance about the artwork I'd find on the walls.

The first thing that struck me was the special shape, and how I could see the church and its enormous internal columns all around me. The ceiling is especially tall and a lot of light streams in, giving the whole interior an ethereal look. I note this every time I go, no matter what time of day.

But as I walked around the church to get a closer look, I was taken aback by the paintings. On every wall of this church are depictions of hideous executions, of the kind we cannot even fathom. And the most bizarre thing to note is the look of happiness and peace on the face of the martyr accepting his or her fate. Visiting this church is not for the faint-hearted, but if I can do it, anybody can. And the beauty of the church is not to be missed. Scenes of some of these paintings will follow, be warned.

Santo Stefano Rotondo - a Short History

Santo Stefano Rotondo (full name in Italian: Basilica di Santo Stefano al Monte Celio) was built at the end of the 5th century by Pope Simplicius. The church was dedicated to Saint Stephen. Originally the church had three concentric sections but in the 12th century the outer-most section was removed.

At one point the building fell into complete disrepair but in the 15th century it was revived and restored. In fact, the church suffers from humidity and when you visit it, you can see that the frescoes are in constant need of restoration. 

During the years of the Grand Tour, it was thought this church was built on a pagan Roman temple, but actually, the original building was always a church. 

In 1583 Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the frescoes you see on the rounded walls today. They portray the martyrdom of the Apostles and other early saints.

Santo Stefano Rotondo is now the National church in Rome of Hungary.

Santo Stefano Rotondo - Special Things

  1. One of the things that make this one of the most special churches in Rome is the unique architecture. It's really breathtaking to walk into this church and look around you, in every direction. I never get tired of it.
  2. Certainly the second thing that makes Santo Stefano Rotondo one of the most special churches in Rome is its really horrifying artwork. I am very squeamish, and I used to think the artwork in the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (also on this page), was really disturbing. But nothing comes close to the images on the walls of Santo Stefano Rotondo. As awful as the scenes are, they are somehow compelling. In part, you can appreciate their beauty if you can not think about what is depicted. But in part, you do think about the scenes and think...did they use to DO that to people? Really? It's so grotesque, it's almost impossible to believe. (Charles Dickens visited this church and wrote about it. If you'd like to read his description, go here.)
  3. This church has one hidden secret, but it's sadly unavailable for visits (I have never seen it.) Underneath the church, a mithrean temple has been found. It is sporadically being excavated and so is not open for visits. But for me what makes it one of the most special churches in Rome is it's unusual shape, and it's uncanny emptiness and silence. For such a beautiful church, it's always a treat to be able to come and enjoy it almost all to myself.

Santo Stefano Rotondo - Hours and How to Get There

Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo, 7. From the Coliseum, walk up via Claudia. On the left, you will see the remains of an ancient Roman wall. Take that street to the left. The church will be almost immediately on the right hand side. Winter hrs: Tues-Sat 9.30-12.30, 2-5pm. Sundays 9.30-12.30. Summer hrs: Tues-Sat 9.30-12.30, 2-5pm. Sundays 9.30-12.30. Closed Mondays. Also closed most of August.

Special Churches in Rome - A Quiet Spot to Contemplate Bernini

Sant'Andrea al Quirinale

Imagine you are the artistic genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and towards the end of your amazing life and very rich career as a sculptor, architect, painter and more, your favourite piece of work, the one you think was your most perfect, is this church. And you still have time in your twilight years to sit inside it, contemplating what you did. Isn't that a lovely thought? 

It's something I think of every time I go inside. I love to think that Bernini sat inside his masterpiece, looking around him at the wonder he created, and loving it as much as I do.

Sant'Andrea al Quirinale has to be one of the most easily over-looked, special churches in Rome, even though it's hiding in plain site. It's just across from the Qurinale palace on a very busy street, XX Settembre. But I often see people walking right by it without realising the magnificent work of art that it is.

If you look at the facade, you will already see why it's special, even from the outside. It's rounded front, and curved steps combine to make a unified movement that pleases the eye. Once inside, the elliptical dome, soaring columns, and symmetrical chapels and nooks all envelop you to make you feel like you are inside a hand-cut Fabergé egg. 

Sant'Andrea al Quirinale - a Short History

Sant'Andrea was the third Jesuit church built in Rome (after the Gesù, and Saint Ignatius.) Initially Borromini (Bernini's rival) was to build this church, but by the time there was funding to build it, the pope at the time, Innocent X, said no to the project. He didn't want any large buildings next to the papal palace (the Quirinale.)

After Innocent X died, the next pope, Alexander VII, who was a big fan of Bernini and who did not like Borromini, put Bernini back on the project. But Alexander VII stipulated that the church must be built back from the street, and that a wall must hide it from street view. Bernini focused on building the interior and left the facade to last. Eventually Pope Alexander VII died, and by then, his decree was forgotten. The facade that you see today went up, with the Pamphilj's coat of arms at the top (Pope Innocent X was a Pamphilj, and it was his nephew Cardinale Camillo Pamphilj who eventually financed the church.)

The church of Sant'Andrea is one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Rome today.

Sant'Andrea al Quirinale - Special Things

  1. It's not something to see, but it's interesting to know that Bernini did not accept payment for designing this church. He was a devout man himself, and asked only that he be given bread baked by the novitiates during its building.
  2. Note the red and white marble columns. For centuries, it was common to loot ancient Roman ruins to get marble to build other things (such as Saint Peters Basilica, to name one), but Bernini wanted his columns to be uniform and he knew how he wanted them to look. So he got the marble from a quarry in nearby Rieti.
  3. Look at how the dome is elliptical not only in height but in width as well. Normally, you'd expect for a church to open up from its entrance towards the back. Instead, this church opens up wide above you but also to the left and right. If you lose yourself in the swerving curves of the marble, light and pillars all around you, you can almost feel as if you have stepped through the looking glass.
  4. I shouldn't lump this into a section about Bernini's masterpiece, as I doubt Francesco Borromini would be happy about it, but you should absolutely also visit Borromini's church, San Carlo just down the street. First of all, the two were rivals, so that already makes it interesting to compare the two buildings. Second of all, Borromini made his church elliptical as well, but in the way you'd expect, with the length of the church starting in front and moving long-wise towards the back. This is opposed to Bernini's church, whose oval shape is left-right. There is more to compare, but just go see them both.

Sant'Andrea al Quirinale - Hours and How to Get There

Via del Quirinale, 29, just near the intersection of Quattro Fontane and XX Settembre, and right across from the Quirinale palace. Open 8:30am - 12pm, 2:30pm - 6pm. Closed Monday.

Special Churches in Rome - optical illusion(s)

Saint Ignatius/Sant'Ignazio

I used to tell our hotel guests, you have to go to Saint Ignatius to see the optical illusion. But I wouldn't tell them what the illusion was. It was so neat, I thought they should see it for themselves. Every time, people would come back and tell me they couldn't find it. It's that well done.

When you walk into Saint Ignatius (Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio), the first thing that grabs you is the amazing ceiling. It just seems to sweep you up into it. In fact, many people told me they thought that was the optical illusion I was talking about. The ceiling is painted with a lot of really well-done techniques, that make flat walls look like soaring columns of marble, and that make all the figures in the ceiling really look as if they are ascending.

And as you are standing there gazing at this ceiling, you will also notice a high dome, with light pouring through, closer to the apse. If you go stand directly under the dome, you will see it is completely flat. The dome is not there: the perfect trompe-l'œil (optical illusion.)

And, the reason this is on my list of special churches in Rome, is that like the other churches, it's nearly always quiet, and fairly empty, despite being in the center, and despite its optical illusion being fairly well-known.

Saint Ignatius - a Short History

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, was canonized in 1622. This church was built, under the orders of Pope Gregory XV (and financed by his nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi.)

The fresco paintings on the ceiling of the central nave were painted in 1685 by Fr. Andrea Pozzo. He used formidable artistic skills to create the illusion that the sky is 3-dimensional above you.

Initially, the church was supposed to include a dome. However, once the church was near completion, the Jesuits found they were out of money to build it. To make the church look complete at least from the inside, Andrea Pozzo suggested he create a temporary dome on the 17-meter space where it was supposed to go. It's stayed that way ever since.

Saint Ignatius - Special Things

  1. The optical illusion of the dome is absolutely wonderful, but there are more...
  2. As you stand under the dome that isn't there, turn back to face the main entrance. You will see one of the figures in the ceiling reaching out with his arm. In fact, his finger gets to the edge of the window and should be then cut off, but it continues off the painting, and sticks out over the window.
  3. Now turn back around and face the altar over the apse. On the left, there is an angel sitting close to the edge. His robe comes out of the painting and drapes down over the cornice.
  4. The beautifully painted ceiling is worth spending time studying.

Saint Ignatius - Hours and How to Get There

Piazza Sant'Ignazio (the piazza itself is simply beautiful. Most of the buildings on this rounded plaza are from the 1400's and 1500's.) While facing the Pantheon, walk down the left side until you see via del Seminario on your left. Take this street about 3 minutes' walk, and you will come to piazza Sant'Ignazio. Open daily 7.30am - 12.20pm, 3 - 7:20pm.

Special Churches in Rome - Masters' Little-Known Works

Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

I keep thinking that each of these special churches in Rome is my favourite, but Santa Maria degli Angeli was probably the first to have this distinction for me. When I was first coming to Rome a lot to visit my then fiancé, I stayed near Termini station. And, on my walks towards the center, I'd pass Piazza della Repubblica. It did not take long for me to decide to pop into this church. Since that moment, when it completely wowed me, it has remained one of my all-time favourite churches in Rome.

Like so many churches in Rome, it was built onto something else - in this case, the ruins of the ancient Diocletian baths. Also, over the centuries, the entrance to the basilica was moved to what was one side, so now, when you enter it from Piazza della Repubblica, you don't get the full effect of the church until you are all the way in. And since basilicas are long, when you get fully in, the church stretches out to the left and right of you. But most of all, it has incredibly high ceilings, that let in so much light. So, for me, this church always has a serene, almost heavenly glow about it.

The church is called Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. This means, Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs. And the artwork reflects this (although it is not nearly as gruesome as the artwork in Santo Stefano Rotondo.)

Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri - a Short History

The Diocletian baths were built between 298 and 306 AD, and were much larger than the Caracalla baths (Today, you can still see relatively intact ruins of the Caracalla baths, while the Diocletian baths have all but disappeared.) Over the centuries, the baths fell into decay and became over-run with vegetation and animals. In 1541, a young Sicilian priest named Fra Antonio Lo Duca, who was dedicated to the 7 archangels, had a vision of 7 slaves who had died building the church. He finally convinced Pope Pius IV to have a church to be built on the ruins of these baths, in 1561. The church would be dedicated to angels and martyrs. Michelangelo was assigned the task of turning the ruins into a church, and it was the last thing he did before he died at the age of 89, in 1564.

Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri - Special Things

  1. The most impressive thing about this basilica is the enormously high vaulted ceiling, designed by Michelangelo. It's especially breathtaking because you don't see it immediately, but rather after you have entered the church and gone through the first domed room. Then the whole church opens up wide and high before you.
  2. The sacristy in the back, with a little photographic museum showing the development of the church over the centuries.
  3. And just beyond the sacristy, you are standing in the ancient ruins of the Diocletian baths.
  4. Don't miss the meridian line, meant to tell the time when it was originally built. If you look high up in the ceiling corner, you will see the papal coat of arms, with a tiny oculus (hole). The sun shines through this hole and should land on the meridian line when it is noon. However, it was designed when there was an old time system used in Italy (the Italian hour), and since this time-telling method is no longer used, the meridian line does not actually work. But it's beautiful to see, as are the zodiac signs on the floor all along the line.

Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri - Hours and How to Get There

Piazza della Repubblica. Metro line A (red line.) The plaza (and the church) are easily reachable from Termini station, walking about 5-10 minutes. Open daily from 7am - 6.30pm; Sundays and holidays until 7:30pm.


If you are looking for Carvaggio paintings in Rome, you may have visited the slightly more visible and better-known churches of Santa Maria del Popolo, and San Luigi dei Francesi. But it seems to me that every time I go into Sant'Agostino (which I do every time I pass it and it's open), there is almost nobody there. 

This breathtaking painting by Caravaggio (Madonna di Loreto, also called Madonna dei Pellegrini) makes the church of Sant'Agostino one of my favourite special churches in Rome, in part because it seems to just be "another painting". But pay the 1 Euro to light it up, and take a closer look.

It's Caravaggio doing what he does best: his uncanny use of chiaroscuro (using light and dark contrasts to make the painting's theme really stand out); and, using real people as models, showing all their human flaws: literally, warts and all. (Note also the bare feet, both of the Virgin Mary, and the dirty feet of the beggars, which caused a scandal at the time.)

Sant'Agostino - a Short History

The building of Sant'Agostino began in 1296, but was not finished until 1420. Sant'Agostino is one of the first Roman churches to be built in the Renaissance. The interior was designed and embellished several times over from the 1400's through the 1700's, and contains some works by some of the most famed artists of the time, including Caravaggio, Raphael, Guercino, and Sansovino. 

Sant'Agostino - Special Things

  1. Of course the most special thing in this church is the Caravaggio painting of Madonna of the Pilgrims (1604), in the first chapel on the left-hand side of the church.
  2. Note also the third pillar to the left of the nave: there is a fresco by Raphael depicting the "Prophet Isaiah " (1512.)
  3. The church is located in the Campo Marzio neighbourhood, the lowest point sea-level in Rome. It used to flood in this area, because they developed a decent drainage system. So this church, and many others in the area, is reachable by climbing a flight of stairs, meant to keep the church safe from the floods.
  4. The Renaissance façade, built in 1483, is partially made from travertine taken from the Colosseum. It was designed to look like the Florentine church Santa Maria Novella.

Sant'Agostino - a Curiosity

In the late Renaissance, the church was noted for the high number of courtesans and prostitutes in its congregation. In fact, the painting by Caravaggio is in a way a tribute to these ladies, as the model he used for the Madonna was a Roman prostitute. 

Sant'Agostino - Hours and How to Get There

Piazza di Sant'Agostino, 80. Between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Exit Piazza Navona at the end where the Il Sogno toy store is located. Turn right and walk through an archway. That is via di Sant'Agostino. The church will be almost immediately on your left. Open daily 7.30am - 12pm, 4 - 7:30pm.

Special Churches in Rome - A walking route to see them all

I have mapped out the best way to see these churches in one morning (or afternoon.) You could go from one direction or the other. Considering the hours of most of these churches, i.e. that some close at noon, I'd get as early a start as possible. The walk itself takes about 2 hours, without stops. But considering that the point is to see the interesting things inside these special churches in Rome, you should allow yourself an entire 4-hour block of time if you can. 

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