The Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere was the first church in Rome to be dedicated to the Madonna and maybe also the first one where Mass could openly be celebrated. The depiction of Maria on the facade is probably the first one that show her breastfeeding Jesus. The church was built over a very early Christian foundation and is famous for its ornate mosaics.
Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere Rome
Address, opening hours and admission
Address: Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere – Rome (tel. +39 06 5814802). Opening hours: From 07.30 till 21.00 (in August from 08.00 till 12.00and from 16.00 till 21.00. Admission: Free.
History and description
The Basilica was built by orders of Pope Callisto I, at the site where there used to be a Taberna Meritoria (a kind of rest-house for ex-soldiers). The Emperor Septimius Severus had given it to the Christians, saying he would rather that it was in the hands of believers, regardless of what these believers believed in.
In 340, under Pope Julius I, the church was enlarged and later two more restorations followed. In the year 1140, when Pope Innocent II had the basilica , including the tomb of his predecessor and rival Pope Anacletus II, completely torn down and rebuilt, including a tomb for himself in exactly the same spot, underneath the altar.
The foundation was left intact, however, and the basilica was reconstructed according to the original floor plan, The granite columns separating the nave from the aisles were taken from the Terme di Caracalla.
The ionic capitals alongside the nave were either also taken from these Baths or from the Temple dedicated to Isis an the Janiculum hill. In 1870 Pope Pius X, who was obviously less enlightened than Emperor Septimius, had all embellishments referring to Egyptian Gods removed.
Both the facade (1702) and the octagonal fountain in the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere were restored by Carlo Fontana. The picture of Maria on the facade is thought to be the first representation of Maria with Jesus at her breast.
The head of Saint Apollonia is kept as a relic in the basilica.
From the Via della Paglia you can see a part of the annex of the Santa Maria in Trastevere Church.
What to see
The wooding ceiling is decorated with the fresco Ascension (1617) is by Domenichino. The oil-on-copper fresco is octagonal and only occupies a small part in the center of the ceiling. The ceiling itself was also designed by Domenichino.
The Avila Chapel is the 5th chapel on the right. This chapel was designed in 1686 by Antonio Gherardi. The most striking feature of this chapel is the dome, which itself has a dome, which seems to be held up by four angels. Gherardi, inspired by Borromini’s famous perspective in the nearby Palazzo Spada, designed a small, eye-deceiving hallway inside the chapel. By gradually converging the side walls, it seems a lot deeper than it actually is. The painting “St. Hieronymus” is also by Gherardi.
The famous Altemps Chapel is the one to the left of the altar. It is named after Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps, who had also paid for its construction. The overriding theme of the artworks in the chapel is the defense of the church against the reformation. It was also meant to be an exaltation of Pope Pius IV, the Cardinal’s uncle. Work on the chapel, which was designed by Martino Longhi, started in 1584.
The mosaic cycle between the windows were made in 1291 by Pietro Cavallini. They show six scenes from the life of Maria. These are “Birth of the Virgin”, “Annunciation”, “Birth”, “Veneration of the Kings”, “Presentation at the Temple” and “Maria’s Death”. The central panel shows the “Madonna and Child with the Saints Peter and Paul and Bertoldo Stefaneschi”. Stefaneschi was the person who had commissioned the work. Cavallini lived from 1259 to 1330 and was also responsible for some paintings in the nearby Santa Cecilia in Trastevere Church.
Facade and portico
The facade of the basilica was restored by Carlo Fontana. However, the paintings on the facade are of older date. In the wall of the portico fragments of older versions of the church can be seen. These were found during excavations.