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The 3rd century is known as the "troubled century" in Roman history; it saw a steady decline in Imperial power, and the threat of the so-called 'Barbarians', the non-Roman tribes at the far reaches of the Empire. This threat became such that in 271AD work began under the Emperor Aurelian on the building of walls around the city.
For the first time in 500 years the city needed fortification, and the hurried building of the Aurelian Walls over the next four years was a sign that things were taking a definite turn for the worse. Less than fifty years after the walls had been begun, another major event took place; in the year 313 the Emperor Constantine made Christianity one of the legitimate religions of state. Whether or not he did this following conversion is uncertain; undoubtedly he sought to appease the, by now very significant, part of the Empire which followed an illegal religion which refused to acknowledge the divine role of the Emperor. Such had been the spread of Christianity that even the Emperor's mother, St Helena, was a convert and her role in its decriminalisation was undoubtedly significant.
Once he had legitimised Christianity, Constantine set about building places of worship for the Christians. The first church he built was dedicated to the Saviour, subsequently rededicated to Saints John the Baptist and Evangelist and was built on land just within the city walls on land which had belonged to the Lateran family. As the first official church built in the city, St John in Lateran still today houses the throne of the Bishop of Rome (one of the Pope's many titles), and holds the title Mother Church of All of the Catholic World. Some ten years after the Lateran Basilica had been constructed, work began on another. Built over the tomb of St Peter, prince of the Apostles, the Basilica of St Peter in the Vatican was consecrated in 326AD. The reign of Constantine is a fundamental moment in the Christianising of the city.
A city within a city and a country within a country, the world's smallest sovereign state houses the world's largest church, and one of its largest museums. Enjoy Rome's 3-hour "Vatican City" walking tour covers highlights of the Museums, including the Octagonal Courtyard, the Gallery of the Maps, the Sistine Chapel, and St Peter's Basilica.
St Peter's Basilica (Open daily 7am-6pm, May-Sept; 7am-7pm, Oct-Apr. Free)
Built over the tomb of St Peter by Constantine in the early 4th century, the basilica stood for almost 1200 years, but after the millennium of muddled violence which characterised the Middle Ages, centuries which saw absence of maintenance, sackings by various invaders, and subsidence of the vast structure which saw some of the walls 6 feet away from the perpendicular by the late 1400s. Plans to restore the basilica began under Nicholas V in the mid 15th century, but the dramatic decision to demolish the basilica absolutely and replace it with a new one was taken following the election of the fearsome and dynamic Pope Julius II in 1503. The project which followed took 120 years, cost more money than anyone had ever imagined, and was indirectly one of the catalysts which sparked the Protestant Reformation.
In the first chapel on the right hand side as you enter is the Pietà. Carved by Michelangelo from a single block of marble, it was intended to decorate the tomb of Cardinal Jean de Bilhéres. The piece, completed when Michelangelo was just 24 years old, marks the beginning of his career as a major sculptor.
Under the vast dome of the church is the High Altar, which is where the Pope holds mass. The high altar rises above the believed place of the tomb of Peter far beneath, and above the altar the spectacular Baldacchino is the work of the never-knowingly understated Baroque genius, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Also by Bernini is the Glory of Saint Peter, the mass of gilded wood and stucco work which explodes from around the oval window bearing the dove, representation of the Holy Spirit. Beneath is the symbolic throne of the Popes, cast in bronze to encase a wooden throne known as the Throne of St Peter.
When Bernini died aged 82 he was working on the tomb of Alexander VII, just beyond the left transept. Completed by Bernini's workshop, it is a fabulously theatrical solution to the problematic spot over a service corridor. Bernini clad the doorway in black marble, from which a gilded skeleton emerges. Representing Death, the skeleton clasps an hour-glass, a reminder of the constant passing of time, and is enveloped by a cloak of carved Sicilian marble above which kneels the figure of Alexander VII, triumphant in prayer and victorious over death.
Other things to visit around the Basilica.
Inside the basilica, by the left transept, is the entrance to the Treasury Museum (9am-5.15pm daily, €6) which contains lots of glittering crosses and chalices, as well as the fabulous bronze tomb of Pope Sixtus IV, the man who built the Sistine Chapel.
To the right of the gate into the basilica itself a smaller gate leads to a souvenir shop (the place for the most authentic Vatican rosaries), the entrance to the crypt of the church (site of the tombs of many popes, including John Paul II), and if you would like to climb to the top of the dome follow the signs reading 'Cupola' (8am-5pm daily, €7 with elevator part way, €5 without).
Past the Swiss Guard (Vatican army) in their stripy pantaloons at the bottom of the steps on the right as you leave the Basilica is the entrance to the Ufficio Scavi (Excavations office). Here highly recommended tours organised by the Vatican lead down into the Necropolis underneath the Basilica, into the area where St Peter is believed to have been buried. Numbers are limited and bookings should be made well in advance through firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don't have reservations and find yourself in town don't bother sending an email, you'll never get a reply in time. However it is sometimes worth dropping in at the Excavations office on the off chance; persistence and flexibility can sometimes pay off.
If you would like to attend Mass in St Peter's, daily services are held at 12 noon, usually in the left transept, and at 4.45pm, usually at the altar at the end of the choir, under the Glory of St Peter. Papal masses require (free) tickets, which along with tickets for the papal general audience, every Wednesday at 10.30am, can be obtained through the Prefettura della Casa Pontificia. The office is open Mon-Sat 9am-1.30pm, reservations for tickets can be made by calling (+39)06 69883114, or sending a fax to (+39)06 69885863.
Once the incredibly long project of building the Basilica had been completed, attention was turned to the piazza in front of it. It was the ever prolific star of Roman art of the 17th century, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was brought in to create the spectacular space which would welcome pilgrims into the new Basilica. Its colonnades forming the embracing arms of the Church have at the centre, the Egyptian obelisk which once stood in the nearby Circus of the Emperor Nero, and which is believed to have witnessed the crucifixion of St Peter.
The Vatican Museums, viale Vaticano. (Mon-Sat 8:45am- 6pm, last entrance 4.20pm; €15 full price, €8 concessions (excluding 'skip the line' reservation fee))
One of the largest and most visited museums in the world, the Vatican Museums are a patchwork of existing areas of the Papal palaces (such as the Gallery of the Maps, and the Raphael Rooms - once the apartments of Julius II), and areas purpose-built as museum spaces from the late 18th century onwards. It is home to the world's largest archaeological collection, including the spectacular Hellenistic sculpture of the Laocoon in the Octagonal Courtyard. However, undoubtedly the majority of the 4 million people who flood through the doors every year are here to see the Sistine Chapel. Still today the private chapel of the Pope and the College of Cardinals, and the place of the elections of the Popes, the Sistine Chapel contains paintings by the great Florentine and Umbrian masters of the late 15th century; Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and company. Most celebrated, however, is the vast ceiling painted by Michelangelo. An ingenious illusionistic architectural framework was painted to house scenes from the Book of Genesis, prophets, and the ancestors of Christ. Each plays their part in an elaborate theme which speaks of redemption and salvation, and which was to set the model for ceiling painting for several centuries.
As well as St Peter's in the Vatican, there are three other Patriarchal Basilicas; churches under the direct control of the Pope which are Vatican territory, despite being outside the walls.
Church opening hours: Major churches are open all day, usually from 9am until 7pm, whilst the vast majority are open from 9am until noon, and reopen again from 4.30pm until 7pm.
St John in Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano) (metro: San Giovanni). Mother Church of all of the Catholic World, this is an important stop for any pilgrim visiting the city. The vast Basilica, first built by Constantine and rebuilt and remodeled several times, owes its interior appearance to the 17th century Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. The heads of Saints Peter and Paul are held above the baldacchino over the altar. As well as the basilica, there is also a splendid cloister, the Scala Santa (the Holy Stairs from the house of Pontius Pilate, said to have been brought back from the Holy Land by Constantine's mother, Helena), and the baptistery where legendarily Constantine himself was baptised.
Santa Maria Maggiore (metro: Repubblica). The baroque facade frames a 5th century basilica, said to mark a miraculous summer snow-fall, celebrated each year on the 5th August. Inside are fabulous mosaics, along the nave from the 5th century, in the apse from the 13th.
St Paul outside the Walls (San Paolo fuori le Mura) (metro: San Paolo). Built over the tomb of St Paul, the basilica built by Constantine survived the vicissitudes of the Middle Ages only to go up in smoke in 1823 courtesy of a couple of neglectful workmen. The church was rebuilt, and several original features survive.
If those aren't enough, add these three; together with the patriarchal basilicas, they make up the Sette Chiese - the route of every medieval pilgrim worth his salt.
San Sebastiano, via Appia Antica (metro: Colli Albani, then bus 660). The 4th century basilica was built over the catacombs which held the remains of Peter and Paul to keep them safe from the persecutions. It was originally named the Basilica Apostolorum, subsequently rededicated to St Sebastian in the 9th century. The façade and interior date from the remodelling carried out in the early 17th century for Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, piazza del Verano (tram 19, 3). Built over the burial place of St Lawrence, martyred in the Roman Forum by being barbecued alive, the first church to be built here was established by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Rebuilt in the sixth century, and modified in the 13th, it was massively damaged by an off-target Allied bomb in 1943, and subsequently heavily restored.
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, piazza Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (metro: San Giovanni) built in a hall of the Sessorian Palace by Constantine's mother, St Helena, the 18th century facade belies one of the most ancient churches in the city. Among the relics on display in the crypt, brought back from the Holy Land by the intrepid Helena, are part of the True Cross, and the finger of doubting Thomas.
As Christianity became ever more popular in Rome it became necessary to find a system for the burial (rather than the cremation, commonly used for pagans) of large numbers of people, the majority of whom were without the money to pay for elaborate tombs and mausolea. The solution was found in the friable tufa rock around the city; relatively easy to dig, the stone hardens in contact with air. From the 2nd until the 5th centuries, 60 catacomb complexes (two of which were for Jews) were dug, each occupying several layers. Of these five of the Christian complexes are regularly open to the public, run by the Pontifical College of Sacred Archaeology.
Tickets are usually €5, and include a guided tour. The catacombs close for a couple of hours around lunchtime, and often close for a period in January/February.
Catacombs of San Sebastiano, via Appia Antica 136. (metro: Colli Albani, then bus 660 and a short walk). Beneath the basilica of Saint Sebastian, this complex gives us the name 'catacomb' for its position ad kata kymbas, meaning 'by the hollow' because of a tufa quarry here.
Catacombs of San Callisto, via Appia Antica 78. (metro: Colli Albani, then bus 660 and a short walk). The largest of all of the complexes, with 12 miles of tunnels, was the burial place of nine popes, and St Cecilia amongst its half a million or so occupants.
Catacombs of Domitilla, via delle Sette Chiese 282 (metro: San Giovanni, then bus 218, and a bit of a walk). Dug on land which once belonged to Flavia Domitilla, banished to the island of Ponza for her faith.
Catacombs of Sant'Agnese, via Nomentana 349 (bus Express 90 from Termini). The burial place of St Agnes (her skull was later transferred to Sant' Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona) at the complex of St Agnes and St Constance on the Nomentana.
Catacombs of Priscilla, via Salaria 430 (bus 310 from Termini). This small two-storey complex dates from the second century.
Some other fabulous churches
Rome has over 900 churches, and even we haven't been to them all! In no particular order, here are a few of our favourites.
Santi Cosma e Damiano, via dei Fori Imperiali. In part built into the temple of the Divine Romulus, in part into Vespasian's Forum of Peace, despite heavy remodelling in the 1600s, the apse has retained a fantastic 6th century mosaic.
Santa Prassede, near Santa Maria Maggiore.The apse and side chapel of San Zeno have some of the finest church mosaics in Rome, from the early 9th century.
Santa Maria in Trastevere, piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. 12th and 13th century apse mosaics, 3rd century "recycled" columns, and a 17th century ceiling; Rome wasn't built in a day, and nor was Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, piazza Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. An oasis of calm and a tinkling fountain awaits you in the picturesque courtyard of the church built over the home of St Cecilia. Inside are beautiful 9th century mosaics, and a sculpture of the body of poor St Cecilia herself is beneath the altar.
Saint John in Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano) (Metro: San Giovanni) The heads of Peter and Paul over the baldacchino, and the Holy Staircase across the road. (see above)
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Metro: San Giovanni) (see above)
San Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains) (Metro: Cavour) Built by Eudoxia, wife of Emperor Valentian III, to honour the chains which held Peter when he was imprisoned both in the Holy Land and in Rome at the Mammertine Prison, and which had miraculously fused together. Also here is the tomb of Pope Julius II, with the central sculpture of Moses, by Michelangelo.
Saint Bartholomew, Tiber Island. The skin of Bartholomew, who was flayed alive, washed up on the island of Lipari, off Sicily. Part of it was brought here in 998 by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III who first built a church on the island.
San Sebastiano, via Appia Antica (Metro: Colli Albani, then bus 660 to Cecilia Metella). A spear which wounded St Sebastian, part of the column to which he was tied, and the imprints of Christ's feet during his apparition to Peter. (see above)
For round churches:
Santo Stefano Rotondo, via di Santo Stefano Rotondo (Celio). Just opposite Santa Maria in Domnica, fifth-century Santo Stefano Rotondo is thought to have been inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. 16th century modifications included the addition of 34 explicit frescoes showing the gory fates of various martyrs.
Santa Costanza, via Nomentana 349 (90 express from Termini). Just outside the ancient city walls and part of the complex of Sant'Agnese (which includes the ruined Constantinian basilica of St Agnes, the 7th century "new" church, and a visitable catacomb complex), the exquisite 4th century Mausoleum of Constantine's daughter Constantina has some beautiful original mosaics. There is also a plaster cast of Constantina's tomb (the original is in the Vatican Museums).
For perfect Renaissance architecture:
San Pietro in Montorio, via Garibaldi (Gianicolo). In the courtyard next to San Pietro in Montorio, on the Janiculum Hill above Trastevere, the great High Renaissance architect Donato Bramante built the Tempietto at the beginning of the 1500s on what was once believed to be the spot of Peter's crucifixion. Long admired for its understanding of the rules of classical architecture, it is considered the first building of the High Renaissance.
For thirteenth century frescoes:
Ss Quattro Coronati, Via Ss Quattro (Metro: Colosseo). First built in the 4th century, the church is dedicated to the Four Crowned Saints, thought to have been four martyrs who refused to worship Roman gods. After the Normans razed the church, it was rebuilt as a fortified monastery. In the thirteenth century, the Oratory of St Sylvester was frescoed, to see the paintings ring the bell on your right just before entering the church and place a euro or two in the revolving hatch (once intended for babies who were to be left to the care of the convent) and the closed order of Augustine nuns who still occupy the convent will let you in. The frescoes depict the legend of Saint Sylvester, Pope during the reign of Constantine who is said to have converted the Emperor after curing him from leprosy. The submission of the Emperor to the Pope is a direct allusion to the troubled relations between the papacy and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century.
For Early Renaissance frescoes:
Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Pantheon). Built over an ancient temple to Minerva, Santa Maria contains countless gems (including the remains of St Catherine of Siena, the tombs of two Medici popes, and a sculpture of the Risen Christ by Michelangelo). Our favourite though is the Carafa Chapel, in the right transept with late 15th century frescoes of breathtaking beauty by the fabulous Fra Filippo Lippi.
San Clemente (Metro: Colosseo). San Clemente's main claim to fame is its three levels built one on top of the other. The lowest level was once a mithraeum (a temple to a mysterious all-male ancient religion which involved the sacrifice of bulls), the middle level (the lower church) is the 4th century church, the upper level the 'new' church built in the 12th century, with beautiful apse mosaics. In the upper church, the splendid chapel of St Catherine of Alexandria (immediately to the right of the entrance from via San Giovanni in Laterano) is a glorious work by the Florentine painter Masaccio, before his untimely death.
For Baroque ceilings:
Just as the spirituality of the 17th century focused on apparitions, miracles and the unexplainable; so its decoration refused to be contained by such banal and earthly conceits as stone and plaster. If the art of the Renaissance is coolly, logically, and mathematically held within earthly boundaries, the art of the Baroque goes over the edges; overwhelming the man-made with a glorious, divine, and inexplicable spirituality. While the model for all ceiling decoration, Michelangelo's work at the Sistine Chapel, kept its scenes nicely, and rationally, contained within the illusionistic framework he created, in the following century the art of the Baroque burst out beyond such arbitrary boundaries giving us some extraordinary and theatrical ceiling decorations.
The Gesù, piazza del Gesù (nr Piazza Venezia).This vast church was built as the primary Church of the Jesuit order during the Counter Reformation, when austerity was the key to beating the troublesome Protestants. Given a major redecoration the following century when Rome was altogether more positive, and art altogether more extravagant, the ceiling was painted by Baroque star, Il Baccicia. The vault shows the Triumph of the Name of Jesus.
Sant'Ignazio, piazza Sant'Ignazio.The second church of the Jesuits, the ceiling of St Ignatius is the great masterpiece of Andrea Pozzo. Unable to build a dome because of building restrictions, Pozzo resolved the problem by painting an illusionistic one. His trickery is best viewed from the circular marker part way down the nave. The main ceiling decoration shows St Ignatius deflecting the light of God, and spreading the Word to personifications of the continents.
For small but beautifully formed Baroque churches:
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, junction of via delle Quattro Fontane and via del Quirinale. The only project by troubled Baroque genius Francesco Borromini to be fully completed, San Carlino (as it's known for its diminutive size) is a heady mass of undulating curves which soar heavenwards in a complex design belied by the apparent simplicity of the stucco decoration.
Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, via del Quirinale. Borromini's great rival Gian Lorenzo Bernini built this small oval church for the Jesuits, and considered it the most perfect work of his career. The church's plan turns the oval so that the entrance and the altar are opposite each other on the short axis. Over the entrance doorway a semi circular disc appears to have swung down to provide the entrance portico. Above the altar a stucco sculpture of St Andrew by Bernini's follower Antonio Raggi shows the martyr ascending towards heaven. The pediment over the altar has obligingly curved back to let him pass from the solid dark earthly level, into the glittering light and gilded decoration of the dome, representing the heavenly realm.
For spectacular Baroque sculpture:
Santa Maria della Vittoria, Largo Santa Susanna (Metro: Repubblica). In the left transept Bernini, the undisputed star of the Roman Baroque, created a splendidly theatrical funerary chapel for the Venetian Cornaro family. Members of the family sit in opera boxes carved in relief on either side, looking towards their communal vision of the figure of St Theresa of Avilà; thrown into ecstasy by a vision of an angel who plunged a burning arrow into her heart, she is illuminated by a hidden window and surrounded by a mass of gilded stucco.
2010 is the 400th anniversary of the death of one of the great figures in Italian art. Born near Milan in 1571, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio spent a turbulent time in Rome working for various patrons before he was forced to flee the city, wanted on charges of murder. In honour of the anniversary a major exhibition is open from February until June 2010 at the Scuderie del Quirinale. If you'd like to find out more about Caravaggio, take Enjoy Rome's private tour based around the great man, or fit together the stories and some of the paintings of Caravaggio with an aperitif or two in Enjoy Rome's Food and Wine Tour.
Follow the Caravaggio trail: Here are the twenty of Caravaggio's paintings which are regularly open to the public, with their permanent locations.
Museums and Galleries
Galleria Borghese: The Galleria Borghese has six of Caravaggio's paintings in its collection - St Jerome in his study, the Madonna of the Palafrenieri, David with the head of Goliath, Self-portrait as the Sick Bacchus, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, and St John the Baptist.
Sant'Agostino: the Madonna of Loreto.