3 Amazing Churches in Rome You Simply Can’t Miss
With Rome and the Vatican being the centre of the Christian world, you simply cannot miss visiting a church or two on your visit to Rome. But with more than 900 churches to choose from, how do you decide which churches to see? Luckily for you, I’ve spent my Friday morning compiling a wee list of my top 3 unusual churches in Rome.
Most of you will know that I used to study in Rome, as it’s something I’ve written about extensively here on the blog (especially all the amazing food and the art of the Italian aperitivo). But few of you will know that I used to take a class on religious art, meaning that I spent quite a few beautiful spring days hidden away in church cellars, dark basements and crumbling ruins. It’s a fact that a lot of people find amusing – especially when you take into consideration that I’m not religious at all. I must agree, for a non-religious person I’ve spent an awful lot of time in churches in Rome.
Luckily though, you don’t need to be religious to appreciate great art and fascinating history.
You probably don’t need me lecturing you on how much impact Christianity has had on Rome throughout history. The answer is written all over the Vatican, all over the 900 churches of Rome, all over the history books and all over the faces of those millions of people that make a pilgrimage to the Eternal City every single year (Speaking of, unless you’re looking for redemption or salvation, never visit Rome over Easter). Also today’s Romans are deeply connected to the Catholic world – although the relationship can often only be described as slightly complicated. ”It’s difficult to be a Roman”, said Roberto, my landlord during my last semester in Italy. ”We can’t really stand to be in a church, but we can’t really stay away either. So we go, and then we feel annoyed because we went. But if we don’t go, then we’ll feel annoyed because we didn’t. So instead we go. All the time”.
After living in Rome for 2 years, it’s safe to say that I’ve spent more than just my fair share of time in churches. So which Roman churches should you visit? And which ones are not worth your time?
Let’s dive in and discover the hidden world of Rome’s churches.
Basilica di San Clemente – My Favourite Roman Church
San Clemente is undoubtedly the underdog in this guide, but oh my do I love it!
But what is so special about it? Well, behind a dreadfully boring 16th century facade, San Clemente is hiding a well-kept secret – or three. And let me tell you this: No one – absolutely no one – visits this building unless they know what it’s hiding behind the facade.
Despite it’s awful exterior, this church was originally constructed around 1100. I recommend that you spend some time admiring the stunning mosaics in the main room, the motifs are breathtakingly beautiful and they’re all deeply influenced by eschatology – the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. However as rewarding as this might be, this has absolutely nothing to do with San Clemente’s great secrets. You see, San Clemente is built directly on top of the remains of a church from around year 300, making it one of the first ever churches to be built in Rome. If you remember your history, you’ll know that Emperor Constantin introduced Christianity in Rome at around 300 AD.
For 5 Euros, you can crawl down below the church floor to admire the old church and its remaining frescos. What an incredible experience!
But the church below San Clemente has a really interesting history in itself. In year 1084, there was a devastating conflict between Pope Gregor and the Emperor – a conflict that leads to the Pope being held captive in Castel Sant’Angelo. The Normans, if I’m not entirely mistaken, comes to his rescue, but at an astonishingly high price: the soldiers ended up plundering the streets, leaving most of Rome in complete ruins. The church is so badly devastated that the Romans simply fill it with sand and pebbles – and by the time San Clemente is built, the original church below it is already long-forgotten.
San Clemente has yet another secret. Beneath the old church, there is another ruin. The early church is built directly on top of a house from Ancient Rome, and this level is also open for visitors. 15 metres below ground level, you will find that the original water stream is still running through the house. Now, as in Ancient Rome, providing the house with clear water. In the house, you’ll also find the remains of a temple – once used by Rome’s powerful Mitras-worshippers.
But hold your breath – beneath the house, you’ll find a fourth level. It has yet to be excavated, soil samples have made archeologists speculate on whether it might be traced back to Nero’s devastating fire….
Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere
Despite having less secrets than San Clemente, Santa Maria in Trastevere is still one of my favourite churches in Rome. The interior is beautiful – but not in an extreme way (which is often the case with some Catholic churches). As with San Clemente, Santa Maria is one of Rome’s titular churches – in other words, it’s one of the first Catholic churches that was allowed to be built on Roman ground. You can find a complete list here, if you’re keen on ticking all off your list.
The walls of the basilica can be dated back to year 340, making it one of the oldest churches in Rome. Pope Innocent 2 ordered a huge restoration in the 12th century – something which unfortunately led to the end of Emperor Caracalla’s famous bath house. You see, the early Romans had an unfortunate history of recycling building materials. Every time they needed to built something new, they used materials from something a weee bit older. Parts of Colloseum ended up being used for a restoration of Saint Peter’s, and materials from Caracalla’s bath house has been used in most Renaissance buildings within Rome’s city walls. Unfortunate, but true.
Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere is still amazingly beautiful, and I can highly recommend a stop here during your next Roman holiday.
Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano
Saint Peters. Of course it made the list.
While being far from my favourite church in Rome, it’s still a must-see in Rome – especially if this is your first visit. First of all, despite popular belief this is not the cathedral of Rome, that’s the Lateran church. However, this is undoubtedly the most important church in Catholic history.
Peter, Apostle of Jesus and the first ever pope, was crucified on Nero’s Circus. Later, the first Saint Peters’ church was built directly on top of where Peter was supposedly buried. A fun fact for you: In the late 1960s, the Vatican confirmed that archeologists had found the remains of Saint Peter. However, no other archeologists have ever been allowed to question it – and it’s been awfully quiet on this matter ever since…
The church you see today was built during the 16th and 17th century, and the stunning St Peter’s Square was designed by Bernini himself (but, of course, you know this if you’ve seen Hollywood blockbuster Angels and Demons). But Bernini is far from the only one – also Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo has participated heavily.
While in the church, I would recommend that you take a close look at the stunning oil paintings. You see, they’re not actually oil paitings, they are actually little masterpieces of mosaic!
Anyway, the decor is quite extreme. And you know what? Anything that looks like it’s made of gold, is actual gold. Bernini has a wide range of beautiful scupltures in the church, and this is also the home of Michelangelo’s famous Pietá. Definitely worth a visit – if only to tick it off your bucket list.