A fan of restorations that reveal art as it was meant to be seen? Me too. So I’m liking the “big reveal” that took place this fall at the Palazzo Quirinale, unveiling decorations by Cortona and his students for the first time in 200 years. For more, check out my latest In Transit post here. (Photo: Palazzo Quirinale press office).
Turns out, it’s not all about Florence: A show at the Fondazione Roma proves just how much of a role Rome played in the Renaissance. Learn more by checking out my post on the “Renaissance in Rome” show over at the New York Times’ In Transit blog.
Churches in Rome aren’t just holy sites. They’re treasure troves of painting and sculpture, mosaic and relics, even ancient ruins. Oh, and they’re free.
Which means you must visit at least some of them during your time in Rome.
The problem, of course, is that there are also hundreds of Rome churches…. literally. Which can make it a little tough to figure out which churches in Rome to visit.
Here is my list of 12 Rome churches that, whether because of their ancient ruins or 12th-century mosaics, happen to fascinate me the most. I’ve chosen ones that are beyond the obvious — so no, you won’t find the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica here.
If you make it, just make sure to double-check the opening times. There’s nothing more disappointing than arriving at a Rome church midday, only to find it (or a key part of it) closed — and many of these smaller churches tend to shut from about noon to about four. Also, keep some change with you, as some of them have frescoes and mosaics that you can light up if you pop a coin in the machine.
The church in Rome I love because… it takes you back in time
There aren’t many churches in Rome that still look like they originally did — especially if they were first built in the 4th or 5th centuries. Most were significantly rebuilt later, especially in the Baroque period. (If you think every Rome church looks over-the-top, that’s why. In that period they really went for… baroque. <sorrynotsorry>).
But not the Basilica of Santa Sabina, on Aventine hill. This 5th-century church has been left largely untouched — meaning you can experience an ancient church largely as it would have looked like at the very start of organized Christianity. It still has its original, elaborately-carved wooden door and mosaic dedication, a cell belonging to St. Dominic later turned into a chapel by Bernini, and even underground 4th- to 2nd-century B.C. ruins (accessible by tour only).
You don’t have to be an organized-religion lover to love this church. You just have to enjoy time travel.
The church in Rome I love because… it’s different from the rest
This stunning church is one of Rome’s very few Gothic churches, meaning it has a completely different style (one much more at home in, say, Paris) than the rest. I also absolutely adore its night-sky ceiling — that blue is such a vivid splash of color.
But that isn’t all that Santa Maria Sopra Minerva has to offer. It’s also got a sculpture by Michelangelo (…okay, more likely by his students), the body of St. Catherine of Siena (her head is in Siena…), and my favorite: lovely 15th-century frescoes by Filippino Lippi. They’re as beautiful as any Botticelli, and much more overlooked.
If that weren’t enough, I guarantee you’ll be passing right near this church anyway — it’s next to the Pantheon.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the bizarre sculpture of an elephant holding up an obelisk outside. The elephant is by famed Baroque sculptor Bernini — and the Egyptian obelisk dates back 2,500 years.
The church in Rome I love because… it has the most gruesome artwork you’ve ever seen
For strong stomachs only, the Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo, on the Celian hill, is decorated with 34 16th-century graphic frescoes depicting martyrs in all stages of torture. Even for the martyrdom-loving Catholic Church, it’s a pretty unusual sight.
For those less gruesomely inclined, there’s another great reason to go: one of of few round churches in Italy, it was modeled after the Holy Sepulchre. Dating back to the 5th century, it still has a 6th-century mosaic too.
Pro tip: It’s easy to take an off-the-beaten-path stroll that hits up Santo Stefano Rotondo, San Clemente and Santi Quattro Coronati (see below).
The church in Rome I love because… it’s more like a castle (complete with medieval frescoes)
Looming over the neighborhood of the Celio, in the shadow of the Colosseum, the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati looks like nothing so much as a medieval castle. There’s reason for that: After it was sacked by the Normans (along with the rest of Rome) in the 11th century, it was rebuilt with fortifications.
Still a cloistered convent today, it has a lovely Romanesque courtyard. But the real seller is the Chapel of St. Sylvester, which has a gorgeous 13th-century cycle of frescoes that are in a remarkably vivid and well-preserved state.
The church in Rome I love because… it’s a layer cake of historical eras
Just up the street from the Colosseum, the Basilica of San Clemente is a 12th-century basilica… built on top of a 4th-century basilica… built on top of first-century Roman buildings, including a Mithraic temple. Admire the gorgeous mosaic on the top floor, then descend below. It’s one of the coolest underground sites in Rome.
The downside? The cost. A couple of years ago, they upped the entrance to a hefty €10. That shouldn’t keep you from going in — even in a city as rich with history as Rome, this church really is unique. It does, though, mean I’d strongly recommend that you either take a guided tour or pick up a guide in the gift shop before you go down. It can be confusing to figure out what’s what otherwise.
The church in Rome I love because… you can walk on ancient Roman street — underground
What makes the Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere unusual is that it was built incorporating three ancient, Republican-era temples — and you can still see their columns in the exterior.
Plus, for just a couple of euros, you can descend into the underground to see the temples’ podiums and even ancient money-changers’ stalls. (Compare that to San Clemente’s new, steep €10 price…).
Pro tip: You’re around the corner from the Jewish Ghetto here, a lovely place for a stroll — and a strong choice for food. Give the tourist traps on Via Portico d’Ottavia a skip and head to Al Pompiere instead.
The church in Rome I love because… it’s completely off the tourist path
To be fair, most of my favorite churches in Rome are. But because it’s just out of the center — in an area frequented by students, not tourists — this is one that feels even more like a local secret.
San Lorenzo fuori le Mura is a 5th-century church with vibrant Byzantine mosaics. And the remains of St. Lawrence, St. Stephen and St. Justin. And 13th-century frescoes on the exterior (below). And the slab on which Lawrence was ostensibly grilled to death in the 3rd century.
If that weren’t chilling enough, there’s always the cemetery next door to take a stroll in, too.
The church in Rome I love because… it’s as pretty inside as its courtyard is outside
Built in the 9th century, on the spot where St. Cecilia was martyred in the 3rd century, the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere has a laundry list of extraordinary objects. That includes a beautiful 9th-century mosaic, 13th-century frescoes by Pietro Cavallini, and excavations of two ancient Roman houses below that you can visit. It also has a famous sculpture by Maderno of Cecilia’s body as it was found — incorrupt — when exhumed in 1599. Not to mention one of the prettiest courtyards I’ve ever seen (above).
If you only make a couple of stops in Trastevere, this should be one of them. Truly.
The church in Rome I love because… those mosaics though
It’s true that several churches in Rome have extraordinary Byzantine mosaics (see: Basilica of San Clemente, Basilica of Santa Prassede, Basilica of Santa Costanza…). But. It’s hard to beat the number, or quality, of glittering mosaics here at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The outside is decorated with 12th-century mosaics; the inside, 13th-century mosaics by the famed artist Cavallini.
If that weren’t enough, this 4th-century church could be the first church in Rome in which Mass was openly celebrated. And it overlooks one of the loveliest, liveliest piazzas in not just Trastevere, but all of Rome, with the streets surrounding filled with restaurants and bars — meaning it’s the perfect place to duck in for a look-see before aperitivo or dinner.
The church in Rome I love because… it’s survived the Mafia
Don’t let its seeming simplicity fool you: San Giorgio in Velabro is a gem. Built in the 5th-century, today it’s a thoroughly Romanesque church, albeit one that boasts the bones of St. George and lovely frescoes from 1300. And, having survived a Mafia car bomb in 1993, it gets major points for endurance.
Pro tip: Take a close look at the ancient arch seemingly built into the left side of the church’s exterior. In particular, look for the spots where it seems like people were carved in, then scratched out. That’s because they were. After he became emperor, Caracalla had all memory of his brother — who he had killed — erased from monuments like this one.
The church in Rome I love because… it’s like a little jewel box
Often overshadowed by its larger, more famous neighbor, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Basilica of Santa Prassede on the Esquiline (at the edge of Monti) is absolutely worth adding to your list. (Think of it as the Sainte-Chapelle to Notre Dame: Yes, you have to visit both, but who doesn’t love the Sainte-Chapelle even more?)
It’s pretty nondescript from the outside, but don’t let that fool you.
A 9th-century church that still retains its original frescoes and mosaics, this Rome church is a gem that, literally, sparkles. (This is one where you definitely want to bring some change to light up the mosaics).
Built on the spot where tradition holds Prassede hosted St. Peter in her house, it also has the tombs of the saints Prassede and Pudenziana. But, really, it’s all that glittering gold that gets me every time.
The church in Rome I love because… it’s an homage to an ancient ‘princess’
While it’s a little off the beaten path — albeit near the catacombs of Sant’Agnese, for anyone making a catacombs stop — it’s well worth the visit.
Rome’s only other round church, the Basilica of Santa Costanza was originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Constantine’s daughter in the 4th century. Today, it’s one of Rome’s oldest churches. It’s also the only other round church in Rome, along with Santo Stefano in Rotondo (see above).
Better yet, it still has its original mosaics from the period, meaning it’s a fascinating stop for anyone interested in how Rome turned from paganism to Christianity.
Liked this post? You’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Updated, Expanded and New for 2017/2018, which includes many more tips and tricks like these in more than 200 information-packed — but never overwhelming! — pages. It’s available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here.I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.
One of Rome's most ancient churches, the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza is more than a building. It's a treasure trove of some of the earliest Christian art in Rome.
According to tradition, the mausoleum was built in the 4th century for Costanza, one of the daughters of Emperor Constantine (you know, the guy who legalized Christianity). In reality, it was probably built for her younger sister Helena, and Costanza's body was transferred here to lie with her. (Details, details).
Most importantly, though, the mausoleum was decorated opulently—as would befit the daughter of an emperor. (Helena also was married to the emperor Julian the Apostate, so she was doubly important). That explains the mosaics that decorate the church's ceiling and walls, which, as 4th-century mosaics, are some of the most important early Christian art in the world.
Interestingly, the ancient mosaics also illustrate the shift from pagan to Christian art, and how heavily the early Christians were still leaning on pagan traditions. The scenes of grape harvesting and the details of peacocks, amphorae, and vines all had their roots (no pun intended) in pagan art. (Since a major part of Constantine's policy was adapting pagan traditions to the new, Christian ideas, this, of course, is a fitting symbol of the empire's politics at the time).
The other cool thing about the mausoleum is its shape. It's round, with twelve columns and twelve arches holding up a twelve-windowed dome (yeah, twelve is kind of symbolic). In fact, Santo Stefano in Rotondo only wins the title of being an "older" round church in Rome because of a technicality: It was built in the 5th century as a round church, not as a mausoleum, while Santa Costanza became a church officially only in the 13th century. Either way, the whole round-church aspect is pretty neat.
And if you're wondering where the sarcophagi of Costanza and her sister are today, well, you have to get to the Vatican.The one you see here is a copy of the red porphyry original in the Vatican museums, probably for Helena (pictured below), while Costanza's tomb is probably in St. Peter's Basilica.
Whether it’s the bad economy or the press of work, you might not be able to get to Rome or Pompeii right this second. But, if you’re lucky enough to be in California—or if you’re heading there anytime soon—then you can get the ancient Roman experience… in Malibu.
The Getty Villa, located on the border of Pacific Palisades and Malibu, is unlike any museum you’ve ever been to. First off, it’s not a museum. It’s an ancient Roman villa. Recreated.
Brainchild of oil tycoon (and art enthusiast) J. Paul Getty, the Getty Villa was designed to look like Herculaneum’s once-sumptuous, and world-famous, Villa of the Papyri. While Getty died before getting to see his dream completed, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be happy with how it all turned out. Re-opened in 2006 after a 10-year restoration, the Getty Villa boasts 64 acres of gardens, fountains, colonnades, buildings, even an ancient theater that sits up to 450 people. Every detail was done with the utmost attempt at historical accuracy, from the classical bronze statues in the gardens to the colored columns and frescoed walls.
As for its collection? Well, it’s pretty fantastic. The museum boasts 44,000 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artifacts, including everything from paintings (rare to find even in Italy) to mummies, pottery to perfectly-preserved jewelry. Some of the finds rival anything I’ve seen in Europe, including at the Naples Archaeological Museum and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Bracelet of gold, glass, emeralds, and sapphires, ancient Roman, 300-400 A.D.
Mummy portrait of a woman, Romano-Egyptian, 100-110 A.D.
Painted coffin, Romano-Egyptian, 300-400 A.D.
Statue of a youth as a lamp-bearer found in Pompeii, ancient Roman, 20-10 B.C.
Pure gold wreath, ancient Greek, 300-100 B.C.
Vessel of Medea killing her child, ancient Greek, 330 B.C.
And then there’s that pottery that, um, makes classical art look anything but boring. Here’s a fragment of a wine cup from about 500 B.C.:
Yes, that’s a man vomiting because he’s too drunk. And no, that’s not the earthiest piece of pottery in the collection (…no pun intended). But the others were simply too, ah, X-rated to post.
Many of the objects, meanwhile, are in rooms designed as ancient Roman rooms would have been, setting the art off even more.
Let me put it this way: Sure, I’m an ancient Roman art-and-history geek, but for me, this villa was cooler than Disneyland. In fact, it’s kind of like a Disneyland for those of us who really like anything that still looks good when it’s a couple of millennia old.
And therein lies a potential criticism. In some ways, the whole concept of a recreated Roman villa is a bit Disneyfied. And if the actual art and objects inside were as fake as Epcot Center’s Doge’s Palace, then that would be one thing. But they hold up to the hype—and then some.
Which is why I felt just fine about feeling so excited to walk through the “ancient” Roman gardens.
Oh, and did I mention… that the Getty Villa is free? Even with the $15 that’s charged for parking, if you’re in the area, that’s, um, slightly cheaper than a flight to Rome. So, Californians: Promise me you’ll go. Soon. (Just don’t forget to book your entrance in advance, which is mandatory).
Martedi in Arte — that fantastic tradition where, on the last Tuesday of each month, major state museums in Italy are open and free from 7pm-11pm — is a hit. Such a hit, it's going on all year long.
Here in Rome, participating sites include the Palazzo Massimo (a savings of €10!), a treasure trove of ancient art and sculpture; the often-overlooked, but useful, Crypta Balbi; the Pantheon (always free, but only open so late for occasions like this one); the Palazzo Barberini, filled with gems by Raphael, Caravaggio and more; Castel Sant'Angelo, the papal castle; and the Galleria Borghese, that world-renowned collection of pieces by everyone from Bernini, Raphael, and others.
So mark your calendar: The next Martedi in Arte is May 31. But if you miss it, don't worry. You've got more shots… on June 28, July 26, August 30, September 27, October 25, November 29, and December 27. Phew!
A little more unusually, it also includes museums not often part of these free events, like the Scuderie del Quirinale (currently with a Lorenzo Lotto exhibit); the MAXXI, with its great Michelangelo Pistoletto exhibit; and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, with its show on European 19th- and 20th-century art including pieces by Corot, Monet, Renoir, Ernst, Klee, and Picasso.
All will be open, and free, from 8pm-2am, with last entrance at 1am.
Another bonus? The Palazzo dell Esposizione hosts two piano concerts by Michelangelo Carbonara, one at 9pm and one at 10:30pm, celebrating the same time period that's also shown with the exhibit.
If you want to avoid the usual Sistine Chapel crowds, here's one way to do it: Go to the Vatican at night.
For the third year in a row, the Vatican museums are having their "extraordinary opening" from 7pm-11pm. Last year, more than 30,000 people took advantage. And whether your day is completely booked or you'd simply like to see the Sistine Chapel and Laocoön in a bit of a more serene atmosphere, now's your chance.
The museums will be open on Friday nights from now until July 15, and then again from Sep. 2 until Oct. 28. Last admission is at 9:30pm.
The areas open in the museums are the Egyptian museum, Pio-Clementine, Galleries of Tapestries, Candelabra, and Maps, Raphael Rooms, Borgia Apartment, Collection of Modern Religious Art, and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. (There's no guarantee, and it's in fact unlikely, that other areas, like the Pinacoteca, will be open).
Tickets must be booked in advance, so the full-price ticket is €19 (includes the €4 reservation fee), or €12 reduced (students, bring your I.D.s!). Click here to book.
You heard me: Michelangelo has an art exhibit on at the MAXXI. But no, not that Michelangelo. Michelangelo Pistoletto.
Haven't heard of him? In brief, he was one of the major forces behind Italy's Arte Povera movement.* Pistoletto pushed the envelope of conceptual art, making a Venus out of rags and paintings out of mirrors. And then he kept going. Today, he's considered one of the most important Italian artists still living.
After seeing the exhibit (on at the MAXXI, Rome's famed contemporary art museum, until August 15), I have something else to add: Pistoletto is just damn fun. You don't have to "get" 20th-century art to understand what he's going for. Or to like him. That's because his pieces are whimsical. Interactive. Thought-provoking, even for someone who's never thought about contemporary art before.
For Pistoletto aficionados, the show does an excellent job of walking you through his career and his approach to art. With more than 100 pieces, it's also thorough. And it has some of his most famous works, like Globe, the huge ball of newsprint that Pistoletto first rolled through the streets in the 1960s, and still, occasionally, goes for a roll. (Image, below, courtesy of Pistoletto's own website. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed in the MAXXI).
Not already a Pistoletto (or contemporary art) aficionado? You'll still be caught up by the "Mirror Paintings" section, which boasts dozens of mirrors painted with life-sized images. Yes, this schtick was one of the things that put Pistoletto on the map. But it's also plain old playful. You can see yourself as part of a Vietnam demonstration, as looking over a balcony with three women, behind prison bars, or, most eerily, with your head in a noose.
Personally, though, I loved his "Minus Objects." Each piece looked relatively simple… but, like the best art of any generation, asked you to look, or think, twice. That large cube standing over there, tied together with string? It's actually six large mirrors tied together. Facing inward. Hence the title: A Cubic Meter of Infinity. Or that odd-looking structure, almost like a railing, but not quite? It is, of course, Structure for Talking Standing Up. The title made me laugh out loud. Because that's exactly what it looks perfect for… and nothing else.
Don't believe me? Here it is. (In the actual exhibit, the man is not included. Nor, unfortunately, are you able to try it out yourself).
It's true, as the New York Times recently pointed out when reviewing the show's first stop in Philadelphia, that, "It does not inspire confidence that Carlos Basualdo, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art and the show’s organizer, mostly ignores the last 35 years of the artist’s work."
But I have some beef with what the Times calls a nagging question in the exhibit: "Does Mr. Pistoletto’s art, its influence aside, hold up to the test of immediate experience." If a piece of art can make you wonder, inspire you to pull funny faces, can even make you laugh out loud — well, I think that's the whole point.
After all, too much of art, especially contemporary art, seems anything but accessible. Not this.
And for that experience alone, please: Before August 15, head to the MAXXI.
The MAXXI is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday from 11am-7pm, and on Thursday and Saturday from 11am-10pm. It costs 11 euros; if you're between the ages of 15 and 26 and you go as a couple (as in two people, no romance necessary), you get 2 tickets for the price of one. The MAXXI is located on Via Guido Reni 4a. For a map, click here.
*And if you haven't heard of that: Arte Povera is, essentially, when 1960s artists started playing with the idea of what materials were needed for art and, therefore, what art really was. It produced whimsical pieces like Giovanni Anselmo's 1968 Structure that Eats, which had vegetables between two stone blocks — the idea being that when the veggies rottied, a block would fall.
If you haven’t been to Palazzo Farnese for its once-in-a-blue-moon opening to the public yet, then go — by April 27.
Here’s why: The palazzo is an architectural gem, designed in the 16th century by Antonio da Sangallo, Giacomo della Porta, and that guy everyone’s heard of, Michelangelo. It’s a treasure trove of art, including Annibale Carracci’s world-famous frescoes of romping gods and goddesses (pictured above — since no photos were allowed in the exhibition, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art).
And Palazzo Farnese is a key piece of juicy Renaissance history: It was built by Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III) after he got his start in the Church thanks to his sister, Giulia. Why was she so influential? Well, she was sleeping with Pope Alexander VI. That helps.
Did I mention the travesty fact that this lovely papal palazzo is closed to the public? Since 1874, it’s been the home of the French Embassy. That means you can’t just wander in off the street. Unfortunately.
Now, you can… or almost.
Since December, Palazzo Farnese has hosted an exhibit titled, quite simply, “Mostra Palazzo Farnese.” Because that’s exactly what it is: a rare display of the palazzo’s gems, not least of all its rooms and galleries themselves. The gorgeous courtyard alone boasts ancient sarcophagi and sculptures, many on loan from the Naples Archaeological Museum; for those who can’t get to Naples, the exhibit also has copies of the fabulous Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull, both just too big to be moved. (Darn them for being so impressive!)
My favorite? The Venus Kallipygos, a 1st-century B.C. marble (based on a 3rd-century B.C. Greek bronze), as much because I get a kick out of its name — literally, “Venus of the beautiful buttocks” — as because it is, well, beautiful. From top to, er, bottom.
That’s not to mention the glittering tapestries, Renaissance paintings and portraits of the Farnese family that make up the rest of the exhibition.
As far as rooms go, though, there’s nothing quite like the salon frescoed by Annibale Carracci, the famous High Renaissance painter from Bologna. Now, his frescoes are little-recognized compared to, say, those by Raphael or Michelangelo in the Vatican, but that’s a shame: Art historians always have considered them an incredible blend of both styles, and they’re usually seen as the best frescoes of the High Renaissance. What Raphael lacked in power, muscularity and dynamism, Carracci’s got. And what Michelangelo didn’t quite grasp in terms of harmony, beauty, and elegance, well, Carracci’s covered that part, too.
Don’t believe me? Just check out this image (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art):
Here’s a close-up of that great fresco you see at the far end, the Cyclops Polyphemus:
Pretty great stuff. But if you don’t get your bottom there before April 27, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a chance to see any of this again.
The cost of the exhibit, which includes a (unsurprisingly dry, but informative) audioguide, is €12, plus reductions. Don’t wait in line for your ticket — book your spot in advance. (Especially since the lines will probably get longer as the exhibit nears its end date!). Call 0632810 to book, or — easier still for those already in Rome — stop by the Feltrinelli bookstore at Largo Argentina. There, they have a “box office” where you can buy your tickets for one of the available time slots.