Rome’s basilicas comprise one of the city’s most popular attractions, and rightly so: they are among the most beautiful examples of religious architecture in the world.
The four so-called major basilicas, designated by the Pope, are all within the diocese of Rome. These are San Giovani in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Paulo Fuori Le Mura, and St. Peter’s in the Vatican. (In this post, I will only talk about the first three, since I’m also writing a post on the Vatican.) Besides these four major basilicas there are a multitude of minor basilicas to visit, which are minor in name only.
Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the few churches in Rome for which you need to pass through security to enter. Standing outside, there are burly Italian soldiers carrying assault riffles, in addition to the security guards manning the metal detector. All these defenses should tell you that this is a precious building.
From the outside, the Basilica is hard to miss. Aside from its massive size, the basilica is notable for having the highest bell tower in Rome, a lovely 14th century construction. The inside is even more impressive. When you stand in the center, looking down the central nave, everything seems to be made of solid gold. The coffered ceiling is covered in gilded wooden flowers. Light pours in through the top row of windows, which sit above a row of marble columns. Straight ahead is the main chapel; on the apse above is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary’s coronation amid a golden background. The decoration is absolutely sumptuous.
The feature that most stuck in my memory was a sculpture of Pope Pius IX in prayer, which sits in a sunken area before the main altar. But much more important, historically and artistically, are the mosaics. Mosaics run along the nave in a row under the window, and also surround the semidome above the main altar. Unfortunately, the mosaics on the nave are difficult to see from the ground, but those around the arch are lovely works of art.
Santa Giovanni in Laterano
Bad luck again. I followed my phone to the Basilica di Santa Giovanni in Laterano, and it wasn’t open. The gates were shut, the doors were closed.
In the plaza nearby was another Egyptian obelisk. (This is the Lateran Obelist, the largest ancient obelisk in the world, according to Wikipedia. I am embarrassed to say that I hardly took the time to look at it.)
I sat down sullenly on the surrounding barrier, determined to wait until the basilica opened. The thin metal railing was uncomfortably skinny, so I switched to one of the concrete supports. That was slightly better, but still too spherical to make a good seat. If I leaned forward or back, I would slip off; and my tail bone kept rubbing painfully against the concrete. On top of that, it looked like it was going to rain.
I sat and waited. A family of tourists walked up to the gate and then turned back, disappointed. A young couple did the same. Meanwhile, two Italian soldiers, standing beside an armored vehicle and carrying intimidating assault riffles, talked amongst themselves. Their job was not to interact with tourists; their job was to shoot anyone who does anything fishy.
An hour went by. Now it was drizzling. I began to seriously doubt whether this basilica was worth it. The outside was not terribly impressive. Maybe I could just bag it? But I’d come all this way to see it! And there’s no reason it should be closed! Idly, I checked the map on my phone. I could see that the building was quite big, occupying a whole block all by itself. Maybe there was another entrance?
With nothing to lose, I got off my perch, my butt a bit tender, and walked around the corner. Once there, I smacked myself in the head. This was obviously the entrance. I had been waiting in the wrong place for a whole hour. But I am too used to doing this to get very frustrated when it happens.
As I lingered near the entrance, I was amused to see a young American couple being forced to tie bits of colorful cloth around their waists. They had to do this because they were both wearing shorts, and the churches in Rome have a dress code. In my brief experience, this dress code applies more stringently to women than to men; several times I observed men walking around basilicas in shorts, while women were always made to cover up their shoulders and legs. Keep this in mind on your visit.
The façade of the basilica is austere and neoclassical, full of straight lines and right angles, rising up to an impressive height. The inside is still more impressive. The main nave is cavernous and enormous. Far above hangs the gilded wooden ceiling, sectioned off into quadrilaterals and covered in armorial and floral motifs. At the far end of the main nave is the main altar, covered with a gothic baldachin; this is like a guard tower, with two figures (presumably saints) keeping watch inside.
The most outstanding quality of the basilica, however, is the series of statues of the twelve apostles. These are situated in niches in the columns of the main nave. Under the direction of Pope Clement XI, in the early years of the eighteenth century, seven sculptors were commissioned to make these statues. Each one larger than life-size, and each one is elegant and glorious.
Walking from one end of the basilica to the other, from the entrance to the main altar, dwarfed beneath the gilded roof, passing between these dramatic apostles with their flowing robes and outstretched hands, you can feel the gripping power of the Catholic faith—even if, like me, you don’t belong to it.
San Clemente al Laterano
The Basilica of San Clement is one of the more historical and well-known minor basilicas in Rome. Unfortunately for me, my experience with this basilica is largely of frustration.
The first time I went—and remember that I walked everywhere in Rome, so this was a major investment of time—it was closed. I don’t know why it was closed, but it was.
The second time I went was quite late. I arrived at 5:30, just half an hour before the basilica shut its doors for the day. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem; the place isn’t very large, so half an hour was more than enough time to see everything.
But the Basilica of San Clement is not famous for its main floor; it is famous for what lies buried underneath. The present basilica—which I’ll describe in a moment—was built in around the year 1,100. It was built over the remains of an older, smaller basilica, which had been converted from the remains of a Roman house. This house had served, at various times, as an early Christian church and as a small temple to the god Mithras. Before that, there had been a house built during the Roman Republic, destroyed in 64 AD by the Great Fire. (I’m getting all this information from the Wiki page.) Many of these ruins are preserved in the lower levels of the basilica.
The basilica itself, like all basilicas in Rome, is free to enter; but you need to pay to go down to the basement levels to see the archaeological remains. I was more than willing to pay, since it sounded fascinating, but by the time I arrived they had stopped taking new visitors. I missed my opportunity.
In any case, the basilica itself was worth a visit. It is more on the scale of a church than a basilica; the roof does not tower above you, and there is no overwhelming sense of space. The semi-dome over the main altar, and the wooden roof above the central nave, are richly ornamented and glimmering with gold. The paintings and designs decorating the semi-dome have that lovely, medieval simplicity that always strikes me as noble and fresh. The portraits of the saints, with white beards and robes, and the lambs symbolizing the twelve apostles, strike me as Byzantine in style, although I’m no art scholar.
San Paulo Fuori Le Mura
The only subway ride I took in Rome was to see the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. As you might have guessed, its name derives from the fact that it was situated outside of the (now nonexistent) walls of Rome. As a consequence, the basilica is quite far from the city center, which is why I had to take a subway.
The train was absolutely covered in graffiti. It reminded me of photos I had seen of the New York City subway in the seventies. There must be very lax security if people are able to so completely cover the outside of the train cars. I always wonder: where and how graffiti artists do it? Is there a place where the trains are stored for the night, that the artists can sneak into? Maybe a railway yard in some corner of the city? For my part, I thought that the paint job was a little messy, but I appreciated the bright colors.
The walk from the metro to the basilica was instantaneous. In a second I was there, sweating like a pig in the Roman sun, facing the grand edifice. To enter, I needed to pass through military-controlled security, perhaps because the basilica, although in Italy, is technically owned by the Vatican. I was going through customs.
Before entering the basilica proper, you must pass through a courtyard. In the center is a statue of Saint Paul, sword in one hand, book in another, his bearded face staring down ominously. The courtyard is surrounded on all sides by rows of elegant columns, which makes it feel more like a Roman ruin than a Catholic church.
And indeed, this feeling is justified by the history of San Clement Outside the Walls. The basilica was founded all the way back in the reign of Constantine, and was later expanded by Theodosius in 386. Although damaged at various times in its history due to wars and earthquakes, it retained its original, ancient form until 1823. That year, a workman repairing the roof caused a fire that consumed nearly everything. As it stands now, the building is almost entirely a reconstruction. It is ancient in design, but modern in appearance and execution.
When I went inside, the most lasting impression was of space. Even more than other basilicas, Saint Paul’s is vast and spacious. The paneled ceiling, covered in golden designs and decorations, glows from the light pouring in through the top row of windows. Between each of these windows is a painting of an episode from Saint Paul’s life. The ceiling is so long and wide, and the area underneath so empty, that it seems impossible it could stay suspended above you without more support. Why doesn’t the middle crack under so much weight?
The most beautiful part of the basilica, for me, was the apse mosaic. I am not sure whether it is the original mosaic or a reconstruction; but in any case, it captures wonderfully the medieval mood of simple piety that I find so appealing in religious art. Sitting underneath it, with Jesus benignly looking down upon me, I thought I could feel a trace of the comfort that believers must feel in these sacred places.
But I haven’t mentioned the basilica’s most holy treasure: the grave of St. Paul himself. In truth, there isn’t much to see. In a lowered section of the floor, there is a clear, plastic panel through which can be glimpsed white stone. In a wall adjacent there is another transparent screen with more white stone. I wouldn’t have had any idea what I was looking at if there hadn’t been a sign.
By chance, just when I walked down the stairs to see this tomb, an entire American football team came marching into the cathedral. They seemed to be of college age, and there must have been at least fifty. Why so many? A nun with an Irish accent guided them to the tomb (I made a hasty retreat to get out of their way) and they all gathered to hear her give a brief explanation. Then, they all bowed their heads in prayer.
Perhaps I am just a mischievous cynic, but I couldn’t help wondering how much time these burly, hormonal males spend on spiritual things compared with the time they devote to girls and sports. None of them looked particularly excited to be there.
Santa Maria in Trastevere
From Saint Paul Outside the Walls I took a long walk to Trastevere. For the most part, this walk was unexciting and unpleasant—just sweating and slogging my way past apartment buildings and parking lots in the heat and humidity. The most notable exception to this pattern of boredom was when I turned a corner and saw a pyramid.
This is the Pyramid of Cestius, and is actually one of the best-preserved ancient buildings in Rome. To me it looked as though it could have been built yesterday. Instead, it was built in around 12 BCE as a tomb for Gauis Cestius, a magistrate, when Rome was conquering Egypt and there was consequently a fad for Egyptian paraphernalia in the city. I thought it was strange that Cestius would put up a tomb in the middle of the city; but Wikipedia informs me that, back when it was built, the tomb was well outside the city walls; the city later expanded around it.
It has since been incorporated into the Aurelian Walls. This was done to save money and materials, but it looks a little funny to see a pyramid with walls sticking out on both sides. The fortified gate near the pyramid is also well-preserved.
I did not know this at the time, but near the pyramid is the famous Protestant Cemetery, where John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried. It’s funny how fame works. Keats and Shelley have modest tombstones, no bigger than average; and yet they will be remembered at least as long as English is spoken. The name of Gaius Cestius, by contrast, is not associated with any notable words or deeds; the only reason we remember him is for his peculiar and grandiose taste in funerary architecture.
The novelist Thomas Hardy visited this area in 1887 to pay his respects to Keats and Shelley. The sight inspired him to write a poem, Rome: At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats. He begins by asking: “Who, then, was Cestius / And what is he to me?” He continues:
I can recall no word
Of anything he did;
For me he was a man who died and was interred
To leave a pyramid
And so he was.
Soon I passed the pyramid, walked through the gate, and found myself in Trastevere. This is one of the most historical and most hip neighborhoods in Rome. It is attractive for tourists because of its narrow, stone-paved streets and its plentiful bars and restaurants.
The basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in the city. The basic floor plan comes from the 4th century; and the building as it stands now was largely built during the Romanesque period.
The basilica is lovely from the outside. Unlike many basilicas, it is not imposing or grandiose, but humble and pleasant. Its graceful brick campanile stands above a simple, triangular roof. At the top of the bell tower, above the clock, there is a small mosaic of the Virgin and Child, easy to miss if you’re not looking; and beneath the roof is another, larger mosaic of the Virgin, surrounded by women holding lamps.
The inside of the basilica is even more charming. Its paneled roof is particularly nice; it is divided into stars, crosses, and other shapely forms, and has a painting of the assumption of the Virgin in the center. The glory of the basilca, however, is its apse, covered in medieval mosaics by Pietro Cavallini. (This is the same artist who did the mosaics in Saint Peter Outside the Walls, which were destroyed in the fire.) As is fitting in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, these mosaics depict her life, and center on her coronation in heaven.
I remember the first time I took a serious look at the painting of medieval Europe. It was in an art history class I took in university, and at the time I thought the art was simpleminded and cartoonish. But the more I look at medieval art, like the moving and masterful frescos in this basilica, the more I fall under its spell. There is no pretence at realism. Two-dimensional figures, hardly individualized, stand in a neutral space with a gold background. And yet it is this lack of realism that allows the artwork to be so emotionally expressive. The figures are frankly symbols of higher things, too subtle and spiritual to be realistically expressed; the sign can thus not be confused with its signifier.
I sat under the apse and thought about time. How many years had it taken to build that basilica? How long has it stood? How many have worshipped here? How many have visited? I tried to think of all the people who were somehow connected with the basilica’s existence: the men who mined the rock, who baked the bricks, who carried the materials from the quarry to the building site. The Early Christians who founded the religion amid persecution, and the later Christians who built up the Catholic Church into the most impressive institution of the medieval world. The Popes who commissioned works, the priests who gave services, the artists who painted and sculpted. The poor mother who left a donation every Sunday. The specialists who helped preserve the aging artwork. The tourist who visits and takes a picture with his phone.
I thought of all the years that went into the place, and all the people who contributed, directly and indirectly, in big ways and small, and I thought about how many more people would visit this basilica after I was dead and gone, and I grasped, just slightly, how small I am in the grand scheme of things. Now, that’s some good religious architecture, if it can make you feel that.