10 Lesser-Known but Fascinating Churches of Rome
Rome, the Caput Mundi (Head of the World), has enchanted visitors and locals alike for centuries. The Eternal City has played a major role in some of the pivotal events in the history of western civilization ever since its founding in 753BC to modern times. As a result of its incredible, colorful, and storied history, it will undoubtedly continue to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Regardless of the time of year, visitors from all over the world regularly flock to Rome to see its many historic sites and enjoy its world-class cuisine.
Most visitors to Rome visit the usual major must-sees, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, which is the seat of the Catholic Church and an impressive monument and testament to the spirit of the Catholic Counter Reformation, the Colosseum (The Flavian Amphitheater), now only a shell of its former grandeur, the Vittorio Emmanuel Monument, and the Pantheon, in which the great renaissance artist, Raphael, permanently resides. Yet, despite those great monuments, Rome has a great many other attractions that are often out in the open that many tourists usually skip over or miss due to either a lack of time or being simply unaware of their existence.
When I visited Rome for the first time in 2008, I made sure to visit the standard must-see sites, but I also made a point to walk all over the historic center and visit as many churches as I could gain access to. Oftentimes, unbeknownst to most people, the churches of Rome hold priceless works of art in their original locations, so it is possible for a person to see and experience the power of sacred art in a sacred space instead of in a sterile museum environment where the artwork has been taken out of its original context and location. In addition, entrance to the churches is free, so it can be a great way to see beautiful works of art and monuments without paying anything or having to stand in lines at museums. This can be particularly useful for budget travelers and those who tend to be more fiscally-minded. Plus, stopping off in churches is often a good chance to sit down and rest for a bit and look over a map without worrying about potential scammers on the lookout for potential targets who appear lost.
Here is a list of 10 churches that are located within the historic center of Rome that many tourists often skip over, but which hold beautiful treasures and have unique histories associated with them.
S. Maria Maddalena (La Maddalena)
La Maddalena (aka Santa Maria Maddalena) is located very close to the Pantheon, but unlike its more famous neighbor, La Maddalena does not see nearly the amount of visitors that the Pantheon does. The church of La Maddalena is an absolute jewel of eighteenth-century Roman church architecture that has a more free-flowing feel of the architecture that is relatively uncommon in the Eternal City.
The free-flowing architecture of the interior houses an exquisite and highly-decorated eighteenth-century organ that is certainly worth seeing. Since the church is under the administration and control of the Camillians, which is a religious order dating back to the late 16th century, the church also has a museum dedicated to the life of the founder of the Camillan religious order, St. Camillus de Lellis, whose petrified heart can be seen in the museum for free in a small room off the sacristy.
S. Ambrogio della Massima
The church of S. Ambrogio della Massima can be a little bit of a challenge to find, but it is near the Fontana delle Tartarughe and relatively close to the church of S. Maria in Campitelli. This church should be visited since it has a particularly storied and scandalous history regarding the convent. In the 19th century, the convent was the site of a major scandal in the history of the Catholic Church. The scandal dealt with a convent of nuns who engaged in lesbian practices, murder, and extreme devotion to the convent’s founder who was proven to be a fake. For more information about the scandal, I would definitely recommend reading the fascinating book, "The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal" by Hubert Wolf.
S. Maria in Campitelli
The church of St. Maria in Campitelli is one of my favorite churches in all of Rome. Like most of these churches, I came upon this church by complete accident in 2008 while looking for something else. Ever since that time, whenever I return to Rome, I always make it a point to visit this place and just take in the atmosphere.
The church is located close to the Theater of Marcellus, which was built during the Roman Republic and is itself a fascinating site to see, and is quite easy to find. The church’s main claim to fame and attraction is its high altar, which was designed by Melchior Caffa, a respected Maltese artist in his own right and a student of the famed sculptor/architect Gianlorenzo Bernini.
The high altar features a small medieval icon of the Virgin Mary (possible to see by request), which supposedly stopped a plague that was ravaging Rome in the sixteenth-century. The icon itself is framed by a replica of the baldacchino found in St. Peter's Basilica. The baldacchino is completely surrounded by a gilded baroque gloria with a divine sunburst and sunrays emanating outward from behind a group of clouds while winged angels hover beneath the icon and baldacchino to support it and small cherubim make an appearance on the sides to extol the icon's power.
S. Maria della Scala
This church is located in the Trastevere neighborhood and has an interesting history. Back in Rome’s history, prostitution was rife. In fact, one of my advisers in graduate school once made the comment that at one time in Rome, the population was made up of mostly the poor, prostitutes, and clergy. Despite numerous efforts by various popes and reformers to decrease the number of prostitutes in the streets of Rome and encourage a sense of piety, it was quite difficult for old habits to die.
However, the church of S. Maria della Scala was a product on this effort. S. Maria della Scala (St. Mary of the Stairs) was originally founded as a church catering to the needs of former prostitutes, and it is known that most of the church's parishioners at this time were former prostitutes. Thus, one of the church's main mission was keeping these women from returning to their former profession. The church is unique since it shows a painting that features the beheading of St. John the Baptist by the Dutch artist, Gerrit von Honthorst. Because Salome was given the same status as a prostitute who had the predecessor of Christ killed by means of her seductive dance, the painting sends a symbolic yet powerful message to the former parishioners to not return to their former profession.
S. Andrea delle Valle
The church of San Andrea delle Valle is located on the Corso Emmanuel. Due to its location on a main thoroughfare in Rome, the church tends to see more visitors, but each time I’ve visited, there are usually relatively few. Yet, this church is a treasure trove for photo ops.
For great photo opportunities, one should visit the church near dusk. If you visit at the correct time or are willing to wait a little bit, it will be possible to spot rays of the setting sun going across the interior walls, and if you are even more patient, you can see the statues in front of the left altar stare into the light of the setting sun. If you visit at the right time, it often looks as if the statutes have been hit by a burst of divine inspiration and are looking heavenward.
S. Gregorio della Divina Pieta
This is a church that I have never been inside. In fact, I don't know a time when it has been open since it seems to be permanently closed, but it is a unique church due to its location and what is on its facade. The church of S. Gregorio della Pieta (also known as San Gregorio a Ponte Quattro Capi) has a rather dubious reputation due to the inscription on its façade along with the area the church is located in.
The church is located right outside the old Jewish Ghetto near the Great Synagogue of Rome. This church is unique in the fact that for many years until 1870, the Jews of the ghetto were required to attend sermons which regularly denounced their faith and urged them to convert to the Christian faith. Even though the sermons are no longer done, the façade has a carved inscription in both Hebrew and Latin from Isaiah 65:2 which states, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations." The chance of finding this church open is rare, but if the door should be open when you visit, it is definitely worth a quick look.
S. Cecilia in Trastevere
The church of St. Cecilia is located in the Trastevere neighborhood. While the more famous church of S. Maria in Trastevere receives far more visitors, S. Cecilia is usually more empty. However, this church is fascinating since it was supposedly built on the original site of the saint's home. The church is also famous because it holds a famous sculpture by Stefano Maderno of St. Cecilia under the altar.
According to the popular story, St. Cecilia was a Christian woman in the 1st century. She, along with her husband and another were executed for their faith. Hundreds of years later in the 9th century, the pope (Paschal I) discovered her body via a dream and moved the remains to the present church. Over seven hundred years later, a Cardinal ordered renovations of the church, and during the renovation work, her casket was discovered. Even though she had been for almost 1600 years, the workers and Cardinal found the body completely intact with a veil covering the head, but the neck wound still present. One of the workers, whose name was Stefano Maderno, made a sculpture based on the exact position of the body as they found it. The current sculpture shows St. Cecilia lying down with her head covered and three fingers stretched out to show her belief in the Holy Trinity.
S. Pietro in Montorio
S. Pietro in Montorio is a 16th century church located on the Janiculum Hill, and this site is popularly believed to be the place where St. Peter was crucified upside down before his body was buried where St. Peter’s Basilica now stands. Aside from its religious significance, a more darker aspect of this church is that it is reputed to be the burial place of Beatrice Cenci, who was arrested and executed for the murder of her abusive father who had sexually abused and raped her in the late 16th century. However, there is no grave marker, so it is not possible to 100% confirm that story.
Another key attraction is Donato Bramante’s Tempietto (often closed unfortunately), which is in the courtyard of the church. For those who are interested in art, making the walk up the hill will reward a visitor with many works by well-known artists, such as Giorgio Vasari, Dirck van Baburen, and a chapel designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini. In addition, for visitors who make the climb up the hill, they will be rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view of the city.
Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini
The church of Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini (The Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims) is a 17th century church that is one of the few in Rome that offers the Latin Mass on Sundays. The church is run by a traditionalist group called the "Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter" (FSSP), and for the more religiously-inclined visitor, it is possible to attend a Latin Mass here and witness an older form of Catholicism that is not commonly practiced anymore. In addition to the Latin Mass, the church also holds several paintings by well-known artists of the 17th century, such as Guido Reni,
S. Maria della Anima
S. Maria della Anima is just off of Piazza Navona and is crammed somewhat uncomfortably in a side street. Despite its large size, it can be surprisingly easy to walk right past without realizing it. However, for the traveler who walks in, they will be treated to a treat for the eyes. The church is famous for being the national church of Germany, so it is possible to find German masses in session here on Sunday for the German speaking pilgrims, residents, and parishioners in Rome. In addition, the church is the burial place of Pope Adrian VI (1522 – 1523), who was from the Netherlands and the last non-Italian pope until Pope John Paul II’s election in 1978. Pope Adrian VI’s intricately carved renaissance era tomb is located to the right of the high altar.
Overall, Rome's storied history has left the city with a plethora of attractions that could easily occupy a traveler for weeks if not months. Because of its remarkable history, it is a city filled with valuable cultural treasures dating back thousands of years. A visitor could easily spend weeks in Rome walking the narrow streets and exploring each piazza without truly discovering all of the Eternal City's secrets. However, while many visitors will often skip over these churches in favor of more well-known sites, they all have something to offer to the visitor in terms of their storied histories, beautiful art, and architecture.