In San Lorenzo, One of Rome’s Best Churches

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, interior, Rome

Today, the neighborhood of San Lorenzo is known for its students, grungy atmosphere, graffiti… and as a place you might not exactly want to wander around alone late at night.

But it should be known for something else, too: the magnificent church that gave the quarter its name.

First off, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (or "St. Lawrence outside the Walls," because it is — justbarely — outside the city center) is ancient. Literally. Better yet, more of the ancient design has survived here than in Rome's (admittedly many) other ancient churches. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, first built an oratory here in the 4th century; the church itself came in the 5th century and was reconstructed by the Byzantines in the 6th.

And there are more than traces of the 5th- and 6th-century structures today. Walk up to the very front of the church and around the altar, and you're exploring the same aisles and chancel that the ancients built (below). Not only that, but the mosaic above you — restored in the Renaissance to the brilliant colors you see today — dates back to the Byzantines, too. Altar and Byzantine construction of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

Okay, so the church is ancient, and it's beautiful. Yeah, yeah. What else?

Well, it's built on the spot where St. Lawrence himself is buried. One of Rome's most important saints, Lawrence met his fate during Valerian's persection of Christians in 258 A.D., and — the story has it — was grilled to death. (The Vatican has a sense of humor about the whole thing: Today, he's the patron saint of cooks and chefs).

Lawrence was buried in Christian catacombs here, and when Constantine became emperor, he  built a shrine and funerary hall at Lawrence's tomb. That's all directly under the church's altar today. And if you peek through one of the grates under the altar, and bring a flashlight (or a flash camera!), you can see some of the ancient tunnels that, presumably, lead down into those catacombs. Down into the catacombs at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

If that doesn't do it for you, make sure you also check out the mysterious marble slab behind the altar: According to tradition, this is where Lawrence's body was laid after he was grilled… and it left a stain that would never go away.

Not a big fan of St. Lawrence? Hey, it's okay. The church also has the remains of the martyrs St. Stephen and St. Justin, also beneath the altar. And if none of these ancient folks do it for you, then try the gloriously-decorated Chapel of Pope Pius IX, where the longest-reigning pope in history — as well as the pope who convened the First Vatican Council and decreed the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary — is interred. The pope, who died in 1878, has been kept visible for the faithful today, with just a silver mask covering his face.

All this, of course, is leaving lots of things out. Like the gorgeous 13th-century episcopal throne and marble screen, inlaid with precious porphyry and granite. Or the 13th-century frescoes, still in good condition, on the exterior of the church as you enter. Or the lovely 12th-century cloister, complete with fragments of ancient inscriptions and sarcophagi… and with the remnant of an all-too-modern bomb, courtesy of the Allies, that hit the cloister in World War II.

I could go on. Instead, I'll just leave you with one last gem: a 2nd-century sarcophagus depicting a pagan marriage feast. (Today, incongruously, it holds the 13th-century remains of Cardinal Guglielmo Fieschi). Ancient Roman sarcophagus, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome

The church is open daily from 7:30am-12:30pm, 3:30pm-7pm, and on Sundays from 7.30am-12.30pm and 4pm-8pm. It's located at Piazzale del Verano, 3, in the heart of San Lorenzo — a 20-minute walk from the Termini train station, or a 10-minute walk from the Policlinico metro stop on line B. Click here for a map.

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A Medieval Church with More than Meets the Eye: Rome’s St. George in Velabro

Church of St. George in Velabro, Forum Boarium, Rome 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. Interior of St. George in Velabro, Forum Boarium, Rome

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.

San Giorgio in Velabro is located is located on Via del Velabro 19, a short walk from the Mouth of Truth and Circus Maximus. Click here for a map. For more information, click here.

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Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome’s Gothic Gem

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome Most visitors wander right past Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, intent on getting to the Pantheon, just a stone's throw away. While you can't necessarily blame them — from the outside, Santa Maria looks rather plain — they're missing out.

Because Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is one of Rome's most beautiful churches. It's a fresh experience after the dozens of Baroque and Renaissance buildings that populate the rest of Rome. And it boasts a number of treasures, from the body of St. Catherine of Siena to a (supposed) Michelangelo statue.

Built from 1280 to 1370, the church is the only Gothic church in Rome, at least in style. That's not the only different thing about it. There's also the name, which literally means "St. Mary on top of Minerva"; it got that title because it was built on top of an ancient Roman temple to Minerva. And it's here — well, in the Dominican monastery next door — that Galileo was tried for saying the earth revolved around the sun.

Inside, the interior opens up in all its pointed-arches, blue-sky-with-gold-stars Gothic glory. (It's particularly vibrant thanks to 19th century restorations). Walk all the way to the apse, and you'll see, on the left, "Christ Bearing the Cross," a marble statue started by Michelangelo in 1521. It was finished by a student of his — who was later fired from the job for his inadequacy — and it's no clear exactly how much of a hand the master really had in it. Still, pretty neat. Look out, too, for the tomb of Fra Angelico, the beatified early Renaissance painter, on the left.St. Catherine of Siena, Santa Maria Sopra MinervaMeanwhile, the altar holds something really precious: the body of St. Catherine of Siena (above). The patroness of Europe, the saint is credited with having convinced the popes to return to Rome from Avignon in 1377, and her reams of political and religious writing — and their influence — have made her one of only three female Doctors of the Church. Her body is here, not far from the nearby house where she died at the age of 33. (Her head is in Siena). 

But that's not all for Santa Maria Sopra Minerva's treasures. Don't miss the Carafa Chapel to the right of the apse, which was frescoed by Filippino Lippi from 1488-1492. Look out for the dark-garbed man who seems out of place in frescoes, like the central one of the Assumption: He's St. Thomas of Aquinas.The Assumption, Filippino Lippi, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Remember: Next time you're going to the Pantheon, stop here. You won't be disappointed.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is open from 7am-7pm on weekdays, and from 8am-7pm on weekends. It does close, though, from 1pm-3:30pm on weekends and holidays. It's located on Piazza della Minerva, right near the Pantheon. For a map, click here

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The Hagia Sofia: Roman Ruin, and Symbol of a City

Interior of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

There’s a reason why the Hagia Sofia is so
evocative of all of Istanbul: It’s a microcosm of the city's entire history, from Roman origins to Ottoman Islam to today’s (relatively) secular
nationalism. 

DSC_0235The site initially held an ancient temple, some remnants of
which remain in the current structure — like the dolphin design on the column to the right. The first Christian cathedral was built
on the site in 360 A.D.; it was rebuilt twice, both times after being destroyed by riots. (To see what the older Hagia Sofia(s) would have looked like, check out Byzantium 1200's digital reconstructions).

The current
building, which dates back to 537, was the largest church in the Roman empire. It also remained the biggest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium, beat out only by
the Seville Cathedral in 1520.

In 1453, with Constantinople’s seizure by the
Ottomans, the Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque. And in 1935, at the height of Turkey’s
secularization under Ataturk, it became a museum.

See what I mean about it being a microcosm of Istanbul — and Turkey — in general?

You could write a book on the Hagia Sofia. (Many have). But among the many treasures not to miss are
its gorgeous Byzantine mosaics, which date back as far as the 9th century. Also
make sure you check out the seraphim (above) who was only recently uncovered: Although
his three compatriots are still plastered over, his face was revealed this year after
being hidden for centuries by the Ottomans.

Coronation disk of the Hagia Sofia, IstanbulFor a clear tie to the city of Rome, meanwhile, look no further than the gray granite disk set into the floor, on the right of the middle of the church (left). Placed here by Justinian in the 530s, this is where the Byzantine emperors knelt to be crowned as early as 641. If you've visited St. Peter's Basilica, you know that the Roman basilica boasts a similar disk in red porphyry; that's the rota porphyretica, set into the old St. Peter's Basilica and the spot where the pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. The similarity in the two stones is no mistake. Charlemagne was setting himself up in direct opposition to the "other" successors to the Roman empire, the Byzantines, and by crowning him, Pope Leo III was showing that the papacy had wriggled from Byzantine control and was choosing the Holy Roman Empire as its protector instead. It's also no mistake that the St. Peter's Basilica disk is red porphyry, a precious stone that "one-upped" its sister stone in the Hagia Sofia. (Take that, Byzantines!)

On a broader, architectural note, of course, it's no surprise that the Hagia Sofia looks — almost — reminiscent of that seemingly divinely-inspired building in Rome: the Pantheon. Both structures innovated in setting a circular dome on a square, rather than circular, shape. And both awed contemporaries by building domes on such a large scale: The Hagia Sofia's original dome, which collapsed in 559, was thought to be slightly bigger in diameter but shallower than the current one, built in 563. Even so, the Hagia Sofia's dome today is 102 feet in diameter — just 40 feet smaller than the Pantheon's. (Check out the difference between the two in the images, below).

Don't miss the garden of the church, either. There, in an unassuming tumble that reminded me of abandoned bits of column in Rome's Forum, lie several marble blocks from the second church, dating back to 415. The most striking among them depicts twelve lambs, each symbolizing one of the twelve apostles. Many more remnants of the ancient church remain in the area — but they're still buried underneath the ground, excavations ending in the 1930s after it was realized that continued work could harm the current structure.

Even without that, though, there are enough treasures in the Hagia Sofia to keep a history or archaeology geek satisfied — and maybe a little bit awed.

Dome of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
Dome of the Pantheon, Rome

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Santo Stefano Rotondo, for Strong Stomachs Only

Santo Stefano in Rotondo, Rome
If you get nightmares — or nausea — easily, don't visit the Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo.

Think you can handle it? Then welcome to some of the most graphic frescoes of 16th-century Rome.

First, though, there's more to this church than its frescoes. Built on top of the remains of a 2nd-century Mithraic temple (currently being excavated), the church was built in the fifth century A.D. to hold the body of Saint Stephen, which just had been brought to Rome from the Holy Land. The church's architecture is particularly unusual. As Rome's first circular church, it was modeled after Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Back then, with another entire ambulatory besides the two there today, it would have been much larger).

Santo Stefano in Rotondo also holds some odd treasures: a 6th-century mosaic of St. Primus and St. Felicianus; the tomb of Irish king Donough O'Brien, who died in Rome in 1064; a chair of Pope Gregory the Great from 580.

But if you go to the church, you could miss all of this for its frescoes.

Spiraling around the circular walls, the paintings depict 34 different martyrs — each being killed in gruesome ways. (Molten lead poured down the throat? Check. Breasts cut off? Check. Boiled alive? Check!) Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII near the end of the 16th century, the paintings are naturalistic in their graphic displays, making anyone who looks closely enough wince. The peaceful expressions on most of the martyrs' faces go somewhat toward mitigating the"ouch ouch OUCH" effect… although in all honesty, I find that eerie calm a bit more disturbing than convincing.  Scenes of martyrdom at Santo Stefano in Rotondo.

Charles Dickens may have put it best, writing of his visit of the "hideous paintings" that cover the walls. He wrote,

…such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects.

So, what do you think: Can you handle it?

If you can, remember that Santo Stefano Rotondo is closed Mondays and Sunday afternoons; otherwise, it's open from 9:30am-12:30. It's also open 3pm-6pm in the summers, and 2pm-5pm in the winter. The address is Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo 7, about a 10-minute walk from the Colosseum or from San Giovanni in Laterano, and right nearby the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati. For more information about the church, click here. For a map, click here.

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The Medieval Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati

Chapel of St. Sylvester of the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome
The Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati boasts a 12th-century church (with 4th-century origins), a lovely cloister, and beautifully-preserved 13th-century frescoes (above). And it’s only a short walk from the Colosseum or San Giovanni in Laterano. But I’ve yet to see more than a handful of visitors there.

I’m not complaining: The basilica does, after all, include a convent, and it’s nice to see it all undisturbed by hordes of visitors. But. The church is a gem — and a must-see for anyone interested in Rome’s off-the-beaten-path sites.

The first church here was founded in the 4th century. Its name, “four crowned saints,” comes from its original dedication to the four soldiers who were martyred by Emperor Diocletian after they refused to sacrifice to a pagan god. But in 1084, the Normans burned the church to the ground during their sack of Rome.

Pope Paschal II built the “new” version of Santi Quattro Coronati in the early 1100s, but at only half the size of the original. (Imagine!) Still, the structure remains impressive, particularly for the lesson that the pope seems to have taken from the Norman sack: If you’re going to build, might as well build fortified. Even today, Santi Quattro Coronati has the appearance, looming from atop the Celian hill and surrounded by thick walls, of a military fort.DSC_0138

There are two parts of the basilica that you shouldn’t miss — but would if you didn’t know what to look for. One is the Romanesque cloister (right). Once in the main basilica, ring a bell on the left wall. One of the Augustinian nuns will come to let you into the peaceful, lovely space. (Donations are requested, though not required, for the upkeep of the convent and the basilica. These churches aren’t so wealthy anymore, and much of their art is suffering. If you can, give a euro or two).

Once you’ve exited both the cloister and the basilica and are in the main courtyard, you’ll see a door to your left. That leads to the Chapel of St. Sylvester. Glorious but intimate, the chapel highlights the incredible narrative power of medieval frescoes, even those done by artists whose names have been forgotten. Don’t miss it.

To enter the chapel, ring the little bell on the left after you’ve walked in. A nun will appear behind the grate and ask how many you are. The fee is 1 Euro per person. Once you’ve paid, she’ll buzz you into the chapel. There, you’ll find an entire 13th-century cycle of frescoes commemorating the life of St. Sylvester (below); they’re charming (they hadn’t quite figured out perspective yet!), but breathtaking, too. Not to mention that they’re incredibly rare for their state of preservation, giving you a chance to see 700-year-old frescoes largely as they’re meant to be seen — vivid with color and detail.

It’s not all that often that you get to see medieval frescoes in Renaissance art-laden Rome. Especially not alone, as you’re likely to be. Enjoy it.DSC_0171

The Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is located at Via dei Santi Quattro 20; click here for a map. The basilica is open daily from 6:15am-8pm, but 6:45am-12:30pm and 3pm-7:30pm on Sundays and holidays. The Chapel of St. Sylvester is open from 9:30am-12pm and 4:30pm-6pm daily and from 9am-10:40am and 4pm-5:45pm on Sundays and holidays. In the Basilica, as in all churches in Rome, remember to bring some kind of covering for your shoulders and wear knee-length skirts or trousers; even if it’s not enforced, it’s a sign of respect for the church.

 

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Basilica of Santa Prassede: 9th-century Mosaics, 1st-century Relics, and Nearly No Visitors

Picture 631

Lots of travelers visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Few know that, just around the corner, Rome boasts an equally precious, way older — and, in my opinion, more moving — church. Just don't be swayed by its unassuming exterior.

The Basilica of Santa Prassede stands on the site of St. Prassede's own house where, according to tradition, she put up martyrs including St. Peter. A church was first built here in the 5th century, although an oratory might have existed as early as 150 AD. The ruins of those earlier buildings haven't yet been excavated. Some day…

But in the meantime, you can explore the current church — which was built in the 9th century. And it has frescoes and mosaics from the same period,
Picture 623 something that (no matter how much really, really old stuff I see) still blows me away. Check out the glittering mosaics in the Chapel of St. Zeno, right. You can also descend into the crypt, which the famous Cosmati brothers decorated in the 13th century, to see the sarcophagi of Prassede and her equally-saintly sister, Pudenziana. The tombs have relics of the sisters, including a sponge they used to soak up the blood of 3,000 different martyrs.

But the most famous relic in the whole church is the Column of Flagellation. It's pretty safe to say this probably isn't the real deal… but then, that's not really the point with relics, is it?

The Basilica of Santa Prassede is open every day from 7:30am-12pm and 4pm-4:30pm. Don't forget coins to light up the mosaics. 

Click here for a map.

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