An insider look at Rome’s most unique churches
One of my favorite aspects of being a Local Host is showing guests things they may not find in common guidebooks. With over 900 churches in Rome, that matter they may not find in a guide is likely then to be found in a church; each one containing a chapel of a wealthy patron, an artistic masterpiece, a dire relic, or unknown underground ruin.
Here are a list of 7 of my favorite churches. The number 7 is not only a modern lucky number but a number very important to the Romans, as the city has 7 hills and there were 7 kings of Ancient Rome. In Christianity the number seven is symbolic of completeness and perfection.
1. Basilica of San Clemente
This church is so much more than a church; and it is perhaps the best example of the layers of history that make up Rome. The current church, built in 1100, is a treasure trove of artistic masterpieces containing golden medieval mosaics, Cosmati floors and Renaissance frescoes attributed to Masaccio. Furthermore, during 19th Century excavations an earlier church was found below and thought to be one of the first churches built in Rome after the legalization of Christianity. Another surprise was revealed during the excavations that the 4th century church was built on top of a 1st century temple and home of an ancient Roman family. On a visit to the excavations you will descend more than 50 feet underground and witness innumerable layers of history and architecture.
2. Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Many visitors line up outside this church to stick their hand in the iconic Mouth of Truth, a former ancient drain hole cover popularized in the 1950’s movie Roman Holiday. However the real truth lies inside the church. A recently excavated portion of the church below the main altar reveals the original history of the site. And in one of the chapels you can find an unexpected and romantic relic, the skull of beloved St. Valentine.
3. Basilica Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
No need to wait in any lines or purchase any tickets to see the Michelangelo masterpiece in this church located just behind the Pantheon. The church gets its name from the fact that it was built on top of an ancient temple to Minerva. It is the only Gothic interior in Rome and contains Michelangelo’s statue of the Risen Christ sculpted in 1521 as well as well as the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena, Italy’s patron saint.
4. Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
Located at the Porta del Popolo, one of the city’s main entrance gates, this church was the first stop for pilgrims entering Rome from northern Europe. As a result, several wealthy bankers and church officials financed its decoration and the interior contains masterpieces by Renaissance and Baroque masters such as Caravaggio, Bernini, Raphael and Bramante. A local insider can take you behind the altar to the exquisite choir not open to the public. The square in which the church is located was designed by Valadier in the 19th century and contains an ancient Egyptian obelisk dating back to 1300 B.C.
5. St. Agnese in Agone
This church is the best example of the Baroque style that was prevalent in Rome when the city was the artistic capitol of Europe. Designed by Borromini it is a feast for the senses with a circular interior full of concave and convex forms and ornately decorated gold altars. Don’t miss the relic of St. Agnes’ skull as it is believed the church was built on top of the site where she was martyred in the 1st century.
6. Basilica of Santa Pressede
This is the best place in the city to visit in order to witness fine medieval mosaic decoration, an art form fundamental to Christianity. The church also contains an important relic, a pillar upon which Jesus was tortured before his crucifixion in Jerusalem. The relic is believed to have been brought to Rome by Saint Helena along with fragments of the True Cross that are housed in the church of Santa Croce.
7. St. John Lateran Cathedral
Last but not least is Rome’s Cathedral. Contrary to popular belief the city’s principle church, the seat of the Bishop, is not located inside Vatican City. While St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is believed to be the world’s biggest church, the center of the Catholic world has historically been located at St. John the Lateran. The church now has extraterritoriality status with the Vatican and houses the Holy Steps which according to Catholic tradition are the steps that led to the praetorium in Jerusalem on which Jesus ascended on his way to trial during his Passion.