St. George in Velabro is one of the most-overlooked churches in Rome…in one of the city's most-overlooked central areas, the Forum Boarium. That's a shame, because it's one of Rome's loveliest small-church gems. And, located between the Aventine and Palatine hills, it's hardly far from Rome's major sights.
The church isn't elaborate. If you're used to seeing Rome's Baroque masterpieces or Mannerist frescoes, it can seem somewhat plain. But that's all part of its charm.
And, more importantly, its age. St. George in Velabro dates back to the 5th century, and most of the brick facade is 7th century. The apse and much of the rest of the interior were built in the 9th century; the campanile, the 12th century (though rebuilt in 1837); the present portico along with the interior frescoes, the 13th century. As a result, St. George in Velabro is a thoroughly Romanesque church — and beautiful in its seeming simplicity.
But don't let the style, or small size, fool you: The basilica is rich in history and treasures. For worshipers coming here for 1,300 years, the most important are the relics that give the church its name… the bones of St. George. (Yes, the same saint who slaid a dragon and is the patron of not just England, but Genoa, Venice, Barcelona, Portugal, Lithuania, Georgia, the Crusaders, and the Boy Scouts. Really. That means this is one saint who has a lot of bones in a lot of churches worldwide, something of an issue for skeptics). St. George's (supposed) cranium is kept in a red-lined case under the 12th-century altar, one of the most beautiful altars of its day.
That's not it for this church. Don't miss the frescoes in the ceiling of the apse, done in 1300 by Pietro Cavallini, Rome's best-known artist of the time. (If his style looks familiar, then a) you have a good eye and b) you've probably been to the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, where his fresco of the Last Judgment is considered to be his masterpiece).
Note, too, all of the ancient Roman remnants tucked into this church. The 16 columns inside, for example, date from the first to seventh centuries and were taken from ancient structures on the Palatine. (Medieval recycling!) Don't miss, either, the ancient arch seemingly built into the left side of the church's exterior. The arch dates to 264 A.D., and the church was actually built into it. Called the arco degli argentari, the arch was a gate on the road between the main forum and the forum boarium, where moneychangers (argentari) worked.
Finally, there's one last thing to this church that doesn't meet the eye: its toughness. I don't mean in terms of its mere age. On July 27, 1993, a Mafia-set car bomb exploded just outside the church's portico. (Two other simultaneous bombings took place at Rome's San Giovanni in Laterano and Milan's duomo; six people were killed). The 13th-century porch of St. George in Velabro was shattered. A hole blew through the wall. More than 1,000 fragments left from the bombing were pieced carefully together in the ensuing repairs. But take a closer look. The damaged capitals of the columns on the porch, along with other details, haven't been fixed, a testament to the crime.