9 Things to Do in Rome at Christmas (Updated for 2018)

If you’re in Rome at Christmas, you’re in luck! As always, there are absolutely tons of ways to get into the holiday spirit.

Here’s the best of what to do in Rome at Christmas. (And don’t miss my ultimate guide to visiting Rome at Christmas!).

1. See the Pope. Over the Christmas season, you’ve got lots of opportunities, from midnight mass (although getting tickets can be tricky) to “Urbi et Orbi” on Christmas Day (no tickets needed). Here’s more on how exactly to see the Pope throughout December and January.

In Rome at Christmas? Why not see the Pope?
Even if you aren’t in Rome at Christmas Day, you may get another chance to see the Pope!

2. Head to a Christmas market. They pop up all over Rome at Christmas. The most famous is, of course, that in Piazza Navona (both at top and below). Here’s a list of other Rome Christmas markets.

In Rome at Christmas, don't miss a Christmas market!
The famous Piazza Navona market, one of the most famous things to do in Rome at Christmas

3. Worship — in English. For years, the American Catholic church of Santa Susanna was the go-to for English Mass. But after being “evicted” by the cloistered nuns (well, okay then!), the community moved in August 2017 to St. Patrick’s Church, near the US Embassy. Once again this Christmas, they’re hosting a variety of Masses and other ceremonies in English. For non-Catholics, the Anglican Church of All Saints’ Church holds holiday services, including the Service of Nine Lessons with Carols, and the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church of Scotland has services throughout the Christmas season. Other churches with non-Catholic services in English during Christmas include the American Episcopal Church of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, the Methodist Church at Ponte Sant’Angelo, and the non-denominational Cavalry Chapel.

4. Go ice-skating. Skate underneath the iconic silhouette of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo (to be confirmed for 2018 — check here). Other skating rinks in Rome include those at the Auditorium, Re di Roma, Tor di Quinto, and Villa Gordiani.

5. Delve into the tradition of Italian nativity scenes. As well as Christmas cribs popping up in churches all over town, Rome boasts both a museum of more than 3,000 of them and, over Christmas, an exhibition of 200 presepi from artists across the globe (now in its 41st year). Here’s my New York Times piece on where to find presepi in Rome. (The article’s old, but the information’s still good).

Christmas lights in Rome

6. Check out the Christmas lights. Decorations are getting more ambitious every year, with gorgeous twinklings (and light projections, and jumbo screens) lighting up not only the heart of Rome’s centro storico, but even Termini, EUR, and the Fiumicino airport. Don’t believe me? Check out my photo post of the prettiest lights and decorations in Rome at Christmas!

7. Hear some holiday music. The internationally-renowned academy of Santa Cecilia hosts several Christmas choral concerts in December.

Pandoro at Christmas in Rome

9. Enjoy delicious Christmas sweets. Bakeries are brimming over with yummy holiday offerings like panettone, torrone and pandoro (above). If you’re in Rome at Christmas, make sure to taste the goods. It’s the one time of year that even Italians  over-indulge in the sweet stuff!

Also: the 5 most overrated things to do in Rome, how to start planning your trip to Rome, and 11 etiquette mistakes not to make eating in Italy.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, 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.

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Churches in Rome: 12 Favorites Beyond the Obvious (Updated for 2018)

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

Best churches in Rome: Santa Sabina
The Basilica of Santa Sabina: my favorite church in Rome when I want to feel transported to another era.

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).

One of my favorite churches in Rome, Santa Sabina
This might just look like a wooden door, if one with elaborate carvings. But what if I told you it was 1,500 years old?!

You don’t have to be an organized-religion lover to love this church. You just have to enjoy time travel.

Pro tip: After visiting the church, head next door to the Garden of Oranges for beautiful views of Rome — and then to the keyhole at the Order of the Knights of Malta for a very special photo op.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s different from the rest

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, one of my favorite churches in Rome
This church looks nothing like any of the others in this list — or around Rome. And that’s why I love it.

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.

frescoes by Filippino Lippi in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
The frescoes by Filippino Lippi in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva are vibrant and stunning.

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

Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo, one of my favorite churches in Rome
Look closely… if you dare.

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.

Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo, one of my favorite churches in Rome
As much as the paintings are gruesome, the church itself is pretty.

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)

Santi Quattro Coronati, one of my favorite churches in Rome
The entrance to a castle… or a church?

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. 

Frescoes in the Chapel of St Sylvester in one of my favorite Rome churches
It’s rare to see medieval frescoes in Rome — especially ones in this good of shape.

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 Basilica of San Clemente, a favorite church in Rome
The Basilica of San Clemente looks like a sunken old church from the outside — but inside it’s an extraordinary layer cake of eras.

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

Church of San Nicola in Carcere
Church of San Nicola in Carcere, one of my favorite churches in Rome

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.

Underground of San Nicola in Carcere
The underground of San Nicola in Carcere: It’ll take you all of three minutes to see, but you’ll probably be the only one down there.

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
San Lorenzo fuori le Mura is one of my favorite spots for peace and tranquility.

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.

One of my favorite churches in Rome, San Lorenzo
Those frescoes are looking pretty good for being outside. And 700 years old.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s as pretty inside as its courtyard is outside

The Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, a favorite church in Rome
The Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is beautiful outside — and even more beautiful inside.

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.

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of my favorite churches in Rome
How beautiful are these mosaics?

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 best churches in Rome
It’s the perfect pre-dinner hangout spot.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s survived the Mafia

The Church of St George in Velabro, a favorite church in Rome
The Church of St George in Velabro has survived 1,500 years… and a car bomb.

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.

San Giorgio in Velabro, a favorite church in Rome
Don’t just walk past this ancient arch — stop and take a close look for a hidden family drama…

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.

Basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome
It’s easy to walk right by…

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 Basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome
…but don’t.

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).

One of the best churches in Rome
A round church with 4th-century mosaics? Pretty special.

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.
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At—and Under—San Nicola in Carcere, Three Republican-Era Temples

San Nicola in Carcere a church in Rome

The Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere is way more than just another cool underground site in Rome.

That's because while the church's subterranean ruins are neat—and more on them in a moment—one of the most interesting things about San Nicola is that you don't have to go underground, or even inside, to see the church's ancient origins.

Just look closely at the exterior (pictured above*). See those columns on the left (pictured again below)? Those are from the Temple of Spes, or Hope, built all the way back in 250 B.C. The two middle columns, which blend into the current facade of the basilica? They're from the middle temple, built in honor of Juno in the 2nd century B.C. and rebuilt in 90 B.C. And the columns all the way on the right? They're the remnants of the Temple of Janus, the god of gates and beginnings, dating to a restoration by Tiberius in 17 A.D.

San Nicola in Carcere, with ancient ruins, in Rome

Unlike in other churches around Rome, these columns aren't ancient because they were brought here as part of the basilica construction. Instead, they were here first. And the church was simply built right into them.

To make that all clearer, here's an overlay of the basilica with the original temples.San Nicola in Carcere with ancient temples

The church itself probably dates back to the 6th century, but it was redone a number of times, most drastically in 1599. So even though the interior is lovely (below), the really cool part of the whole thing—at least for geeks like me—is the basement.  San Nicola in Carcere

For a measly 2 euros (or, if you want a brief guided tour in English or Italian, 3 euros), you can descend beneath the altar, into the crypt… and then into rooms beyond. I visited for the second time today, and there was nothing like being alone with these ruins.

What's down there? The bases of the temples, of course! Remember that the ground level has risen in Rome—particularly here, next to the flood-loving Tiber River—so what was ground level in the first centuries A.D. is now below-ground. (That's the basis, of course, for all of the "underground ruins" here in Rome. Except for the catacombs, which were obviously dug to be underground to begin with). So it's here, not above, that you can see the actual podiums of the various temples.

Granted, that translates into big tufa blocks and brick walls, and not much else. So for artistic merit alone, sites like Palazzo Valentini and the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas still win. But here's what the San Nicola in Carcere ruins have going for them: They're old. Really old. Older than any of that stuff (in fact, they're some 500 years older than the villas at Valentini). That's because they're Republican-era temples, not Imperial—and that's pretty special to see.

San Nicola in Carcere ruins underground

My favorite part is the last room, where you can see the base of the Temple of Janus on the left and that of the Temple of Juno on the right. In between, there's an ancient Roman path that would have run between the two, complete with a series of small cells, once built into the temple's axis, that likely were ancient currency exchange offices. In ancient times, after all, this was a bustling market area: During the Republic, the three temples formed the centerpiece of the Forum Horitorium, where fruits and vegetables were sold.

Ancient temples in San Nicola in Carcere
Ah, I do love a church with ruins. Don't you?

San Nicola in Carcere is located at Via del Teatro Marcello 46, near the Jewish Ghetto, Trastevere, and Piazza Venezia. Here's a map of the location of San Nicola in Carcere. Both the church and the ruins are open daily from 10am-5pm. Visiting the underground alone costs 2 euros; they give you a basic information sheet (there's one in English, too) and there are various English and Italian informational signs underneath, so while it's much easier to have it explained to you, you could scrape by on your own if you wanted. If you want the brief tour, in (not necessarily great) English or Italian, it's 3 euros. What a bahhh-gain!

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The Mausoleum of Santa Costanza: Ancient Mosaics and a Round Church

Church of Santa Costanza, Rome

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.

Mosaics in Santa Costanza, a church in Rome

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.

Sarcophagus of Costanza, once in the mausoleum in Rome

Santa Costanza is located at the intersection of Via Nomentana and Via di Sant'Agnese; here's a map of the location of the Church of Santa Costanza. The mausoleum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am-12pm and 4pm-6pm, Sunday from 4pm-6pm, and Monday from 9am-12pm. Since it's right next to the Basilica of Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura and the Sant'Agnese catacombs, coordinate your visit with a stop there, too.

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The Five Best Ways to Beat the Heat in Rome

Pool at the Colosseum, a way to beat the heat in Rome

In case you haven’t heard, it is really, very, ridiculously warm in Rome right now; this week, temperatures are hitting 95°F. And even if you’re coming in the “fall,” don’t kid yourself: The heat traditionally continues into September.

Visiting the Eternal City during the hottest months? Here, five top tips for beating the heat in Rome. 

Head underground. It’s always much cooler in the subterranean world—sometimes so much cooler, you’ll wish you brought another layer. The best part? Since 60 percent of the ancient city of Rome remains buried underground, some of the best sites in the city are down there! Consider the catacombs, ancient underground cemeteries where thousands of Christians were buried; booking a (super-cheap) visit to the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas; or the underground of the Basilica of San Clemente (bonus: the church itself is naturally cool, too), among many other sites.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome Start going to church. Rome’s churches aren’t just religious sites: They’re treasure troves of art, history, and architecture. Thanks to their thick stone walls and shaded spaces, they’re also naturally air-conditioned (yay!). Find cooler temperatures and get away from the crowd by heading to the ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina (complete with 5th-century door); the Gothic gem of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, right near the Pantheon (above); or the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati, with its 13th-century frescoes. And that’s just for starters.

Sightsee at night. The hottest hours in Rome tend to be from about noon to 5pm — prime time for sightseeing. So instead of trudging around in the heat, check for any “extraordinary openings” of sites at night:

Park of Monte Mario, RomeHead to the hills. The famed “seven hils of Rome” are just a start. Rome has even more hills than that, and many boast leafy parks and lovely views of the city, making them the perfect escape spots for summer. Some of my favorites: the Janiculum hill, famed for its views; the Villa Borghese, Rome’s answer to Central Park; the Villa Celimontana, next to the Colosseum; and the nature reserve of Monte Mario (above).

Take a dip. The heat really getting to you? Take a break and go to the pool. Although outdoor pools are few and far between in Rome’s center, one of the most convenient is the swimming pool in the Celimontana, just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. It’s not cheap, costing €16 on weekdays (€10 for kids under 10) and more on weekends. 

My advice? Since Rome gets hottest in the early afternoon, do your sightseeing (maybe even of the forum, Palatine and Colosseum) in the morning, break for lunch, and then reward your family by heading to the pool at 2pm, when prices drop to €10 per adult and €6 per child. The pool stays open till 7:30pm, so you still have plenty of time to relax… and cool down. Here’s more info on the OS Pool at the Colosseum.

[Update, 7/3/2012: It’s now €20 on weekdays,€25 on weekends, without mention of a child’s discount. It’s also €15 for a half-day on weekdays and €20 for a half-day on weekends].

Want more tips about what to do in the Eternal City? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

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The Renaissance’s Bloody (and Papal) Borgia Clan… Makes for Super-Fun Reading

Borgia apartments built by Pope Alexander VI, vatican

Cunning, cruel, fickle, and anything but religious, the Borgia family hasn’t exactly gone down in history as one of Rome’s more-honorable noble clans. Making matters more scandalous, though, is that the Borgias contributed two popes — and the second proved to be one of the most scandalous leaders in the Church’s history.

When you go to Rome today, you’ll hardly see any signs of the family that kept Rome in its grasp for some 15 years. The Borgia crest has been wiped off of the walls in Castel Sant’Angelo, where Pope Alexander VI hid in mourning after his son was found murdered — perhaps by his other son. The once-sumptuous Borgia apartments, despite retaining some of their frescoes by Pinturrichio and their beautiful Spanish floor tiles, are all but ignored by the Vatican. (Some of the rooms now host the Vatican museum’s collection of modern art; others are supposed to be opened to the public soon, but they haven’t been opened yet, including the room in the picture above).

Ceramic tiles in floor of Borgia apartments, Vatican

Even the tomb of Pope Alexander VI — along with that of his uncle, Calixtus II — is relatively understated and unknown, in the rarely-open Spanish Church of Santiago y Monserrat.

Let’s face it: Pope Alexander VI’s rule, from 1492 to 1503, was pretty bad. People thought it was bad even at the time. And when you’re talking about an era when it was pretty commonplace for cardinals and the pope to be masters at nepotism, simony, and, er, illicit liaisons (Pope Julius II fathered three, or perhaps five, children while cardinal), that’s really saying something.

The good news? If the Borgias were bad, then learning about them — and, by proxy, about Renaissance Rome and Italy — is pretty, well, fun.

One way to do this: reading The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519, by Christopher Hibbert. It’s too bad the title is so dry, because the content is anything but. I recently devoured it like a beach read. (The only thing that makes a story about a ridiculously dysfunctional family even more fun… is when it’s true!).

Don’t believe me that the Borgias have some juicy stories? Some of the book’s best tidbits:

Portrait of Lucrezia from Borgia apartments, Vatican-When Lucrezia, Pope Alexander VI’s daughter, was just 13 years old, she was married to 24-year-old widower Giovanni Sforza. Reason: Giovanni’s cousin happened to be the ruler of Milan. Three years later, when the alliance between the Borgias and the Sforzas of Milan became less useful, the Pope decided to dissolve the marriage. How? By having Lucrezia sign a declaration saying it had never been consummated — and forcing her soon-to-be-ex-husband to declare, publicly, that he was impotent. The furious Giovanni, in turn, hinted that the Pope and Cesare wanted Lucrezia for themselves. (Above, a fresco from the closed Borgia apartments that shows Lucrezia, in blue with a scarlet cloak, on the left).

When the divorce was signed, Lucrezia was six months pregnant. But not by Giovanni: During the fracas, she’d been staying at a convent… where she’d received frequent visits from a Spanish valet who worked for her father. When Cesare, Lucrezia’s possessive older brother, discovered the affair, he went berserk, chasing the young man with his sword. The boy ran to Pope Alexander VI, who wrapped his robes around him — only for Cesare to slash at his father’s robes, staining them with blood.

A month before Lucrezia’s child, a son, was born, the young father’s body was fished out of the Tiber. As the prolific recorder Johannes Burchard, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, wrote, he “fell, not of his own free will, into the Tiber.”

The baby, a boy, was stillborn. At the same time, though, another baby was born to the Borgia clan. This one was the son not of Lucrezia, but of Pope Alexander VI himself. This, of course, led to whispers of incest, with gossips saying that the two sons were one and the same. (Below, the Borgia family crest — one of the rare ones that remains in the Vatican).

The Borgia family crest, in the Vatican-When the French invaded in 1494, Rome experienced its first major outbreak of… syphilis. (Fun!). Entertainingly, it became known as the “morbo gallico” or “mal francese” by the Italians. As for the French? They called it “le mal de Napoli”. Regardless of its origins, syphilis felled not only thousands of Romans, but no fewer than 17 members of Alexander VI’s family, including Cesare (who had been made a cardinal by his father). In fact, Cesare was such a frequent sufferer of syphilis, his personal physician wound up writing a treatise on the disease — and dedicating it to Cesare. 

-In 1497, Juan, another of Pope Alexander VI’s sons, disappeared. The circumstances couldn’t be more mysterious. What we know: That night, Juan dined with his brother Cesare before saying he wanted to “pursue pleasure” for the night. He left with only a footman and a masked man — identity unknown — who had been visiting him at the Vatican nearly every day for the past month.

At the Piazza degli Ebrei, Juan told the footman that he and the masked man would go on alone. Later that night, the footman was found in a puddle of blood, badly wounded, and brought into a nearby house — whose owner was so frightened, he didn’t report what happened until the next day, when the footman was dead.

When Juan still hadn’t returned, the Pope, anxious, started to investigate. A timber merchant, who unloaded his wood from boats on the river, told him he’d seen five men throw a corpse into the river on that night. When the Tiber was dredged, Juan’s body — stabbed multiple times, and with a purse with coins within — was found. The kicker? When the merchant was asked why he hadn’t reported what he’d seen earlier, his response was simple. Since he’d seen at least 100 bodies thrown into the river, he said, he hadn’t thought twice about it.

Castel Sant'Angelo and the Tiber, Rome

Told you it was juicy.

Now, of course, there’s a way to learn about the Borgias… beyond books. Showtime just had its first season of “The Borgias,” starring Jeremy Irons, and while the facts aren’t all 100% (or even 75%), it’s a great glimpse into the weirdness of the time — especially the opulence of the Vatican compared to the gritty crime in the streets. And how the Borgias toed the line between the two. If you don’t get Showtime, consider Netflixing it (or you can purchase the first season on DVD below). Just be careful… the show is addictive.

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On Rome’s Aventine, the Ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina

Ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome

As well as the perfect place for a stroll, the Aventine hill is chock-full of some of Rome's best, ancient gems — including the Basilica of Santa Sabina.

After all, Santa Sabina doesn't just have ancient origins. It's also, in many ways, still ancient.

What do I mean? Well, the Basilica of Santa Sabina was founded in the 5th century. (It was built on the house of Sabina, a Roman who later was named a saint). Incredibly rarely for any "ancient" church, though, it also retains its ancient character… and architectural details.

The church's exterior looks like it did in the 5th century. That elaborate wooden door, covered in panels depicting Biblical scenes, was carved in 430-432. The 24 marble columns in the nave were "reappropriated" from the neighboring Temple of Juno.

And, while the vast majority of the gorgeous, sumptuous mosaic that once would have covered the interior has disappeared, the original 5th-century dedication of the church remains, in Latin, above the doorway.

Original inscription in the ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome

Even the "newer" parts of the church are, um, old. The chancel's marble furniture was added by Eugenius II in the 820s; the windows also date to the 9th century. The campanile was built in the 10th century. That's not to say that the church hasn't been through changes. Pope Sixtus V remodeled the interior along Renaissance lines in the late 16th century; that was all reversed, though, from 1914-1919, a process that involved taking marble fragments from the pavement and piecing them back together into their original form — the 9th-century marble furniture. That kind of painstaking attention to detail is why, walking into Santa Sabina in the 21st century, you can feel transported back more than 1,500 years.

And if you're lucky enough to be in Rome at the time a tour by Roma Sotterranea or Roma Sotto Sopra is running, you can be transported back even further. Because, beneath Santa Sabina, lie (but of course!) ancient ruins. In 19th and 20th-century excavations, not only were huge chunks of the Servian wall, built in the 4th century B.C., found — but, built into the walls, private homes from the 2nd century B.C. and even a small, 3rd-century-B.C. shrine. This is why I'm a fan of these underground sites: There's nothing like descending beneath the modern world, standing in a room with nearly-pristine stone walls, or next to the tufa stones laid by Romans 2,350 years ago, to make you feel like a time traveler.

Whether you're on a tour or not, also see if you can get a peek at the Dominican convent of Santa Sabina, too. The convent still has the cell where St. Dominic stayed. It's since been turned into a chapel… by none other than Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Cell of St. Dominic, now a chapel by Bernini, in the convent of the Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome

Santa Sabina is located at the Piazza Pietro d'Illiria, on Aventine hill; here's the location of the Basilica of Santa Sabina. It's open from 7:30am-12:30pm and 3:30-5:30pm.

You might also like:

The Mausoleum of Santa Costanza: Ancient Mosaics and a Round Church

Galleria Borghese, One for True Art-Lovers

Why, Why, Why Does Rome Have So Much Graffiti?

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On Fridays Through Fall, See the Vatican Under the Stars

Raphael rooms of Vatican museums

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.

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Celebrate Easter… with the Pope!

Via Crucis at the Colosseum with the Pope, Good Friday 2010

Lots of Romans head out of the city this weekend, going home for Easter. One Rome resident who'll be around Easter weekend, though, is the Pope — and if you want to catch a glimpse of him, you have plenty of opportunities! 

Today, the big Good Friday event is the Way of the Cross ("Via Crucis"). Be at the Colosseum at 9:15pm to see the Pope (and thousands of people); be aware that nearby streets will be blocked to traffic and that the Colosseo metro stop will be closed after 6:30pm. After all, just look at these crowds…

Tomorrow, the Pope will preside over the Easter Vigil at St. Peter's Basilica, starting at 9pm.

On Easter Sunday, the Pope will celebrate Mass in St. Peter's Square at 10:15am, followed by the "Urbi et Orbi" blessing from the central loggia of St. Peter's at noon.

And, just for fun, here are a couple more photos from last year's Via Crucis at the Colosseum.

Buona Pasqua a tutti!

Pope Benedict at the Colosseum, Good Friday in Rome 2010 Colosseum for Via Crucis in Rome, Easter 2010

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