Secreted away in an unassuming 16th-century church in Rome you’ll find traces of the once mighty empire — and the ruins and rebirth that followed its fall. Colossal ancient ruins, Renaissance astronomy and sheer architectural splendour await at the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Saint Mary of the Angels and Martyrs).
This is a place that’s seen it all. From the largest baths in ancient Rome, to a quarry and mediaeval hunting ground, to an opulent 16th-century basilica: Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri and its surrounds form an interesting record of Rome’s changing fortunes over the centuries.
It’s located just a five-minute walk from Rome’s main train station, Termini, in a part of the city that some tourism websites euphemistically describe as ‘colourful’ (read: sorta dodgy).
From the outside the Basilica looks distinctively un-church-like — certainly far from the architectural grandeur of many of Rome’s famously extravagant places of worship.
Its front façade is a concave, semi-crumbled brick wall, complete with tufts of shrubs spurting from the edges. The only clues to its religious purpose are a cross and the simple sign bearing the Basilica’s name.
But don’t let this humble exterior fool you. What the Basilica lacks in architectural splendour externally it makes up for in interior opulence. Plus there’s a very good reason why, from the outside, the church kind of looks like a ruin — it is.
This Basilica was built within the fabric of the surviving ruins of what was once the largest, most sumptuous bath complex in ancient Rome, if not the entire empire.
Ruins, re-use and recycling
The Baths of Diocletian were built here from 298 to 306 AD. Don’t be fooled by the name: though dedicated to Emperor Diocletian, they were in fact commissioned by his co-ruler Maximian. With a reported capacity of 3,000 people, and a size of nearly 11 acres, these Baths were larger than the still extant Baths of Caracalla. As the name would suggest, public baths such as these tended to be open to both rich and poor; women typically bathed at different hours.
A good thing, too, as for the ancient Romans, public baths served a purpose beyond mere hygiene. They were also places to socialise, swim, relax, read and even enjoy a massage or health treatment. The Baths of Diocletian also boasted Greek and Latin libraries and theatre-style seating from which bathers could watch athletes competing.
But after the siege of Rome in 537, when the Goths cut the city’s water supply, the Baths gradually fell into abandonment and disrepair. Rich in marbles and rare stone, the once-grand Baths of Diocletian then came to form an unofficial quarry, possibly for centuries.
This wasn’t unusual. Throughout the city, ancient monuments’ materials came to be ‘recycled’ for use in other buildings as part of a practice called spolia. It’s likely many Roman churches and palazzi owe some of their grandiose mosaics, columns and other embellishments to these plunders. So, why the rampant ransacking? After the fall of Rome, the city had lost its prestigious status as the western capital of the empire — and, later, home to the Papacy. And so its urban fabric fell victim to architectural pillage, disuse and decay.
So ruined and overgrown were the Baths by the mediaeval era, in fact, that Roman noblemen came to use the site as a hunting and riding ground. Nature had by then reclaimed these ruins, amidst a city that was a mere shadow of its former marble-monumented self. A bizarre thought to entertain today amidst the splendour of the Basilica, and the traffic noise outside.
Nameless slaves and a famous sculptor
The current structure owes its origins to the vision/visions of a Sicilian priest called Antonio Lo Duca. He visited the Baths’ remains in 1541. While on site, Lo Duca had a vision of the Christian slave labourers who had, in ancient times, been forced to build the expansive baths complex that then stood in ruins before him. He took this as a sign that a church should be built here — obvs, right? — and dedicated to both these ‘martyrs’ and the angels, his cult of choice. (Hence the Basilica’s name.)
Certainly thousands of slaves toiled here during and after the Baths’ construction, maintaining the complex from their underground passages while the free bathed and frolicked above them. But it’s difficult to determine how many of them were Christian, and how much of the martyr story is legend rather than historical fact.
At any rate, the next person to leave a mark on the site was no stranger to the historical record. It was to be the last church project of Michelangelo himself, then 86 years of age. Construction on the Basilica began in 1563 to his design, though his student Jacopo Lo Duca (nephew of Antonio) completed the project after the great artist died a year later.
Intriguingly, the Basilica is not only set on the imperial Baths’ ruins but incorporates them into its fabric. It gives you a real sense of the sheer scale of the Baths of Diocletian in their ancient heyday.
The underwhelming main entrance, for starters, marks the former caldarium (or hot bath) of the complex. It’s just one of the ways in which the original design played with space, structure and void with, well, exactly the kind of genius you’d expect from Michelangelo himself. (Four for you, Michelangelo, you go, Michelangelo.) As Andre Stiles noted in his thesis on the Basilica:
… [H]aving the patrons walk through the massive ruined hole in the facade creates, for them, a closer connection to the ruin. They literally reuse this portion of the building by entering through it and experiencing its decay.
Some aspects live on, however. Take the original vaults from the Baths of Diocletian, today serving as the nave of the Basilica — a slice of imperial Rome tucked into the ceiling of a 16th-century church. Michelangelo’s design was attuned to both the evocative power of the ancient ruins, and the site’s dual meaning as a Christian relic of the forced labour of slaves. All brought together in a beautiful place of worship amidst the Renaissance ‘rebirth’ of Rome.
And these aren’t the only ideological tensions etched onto the brick and mortar of the Basilica since its construction some 450 years ago.
A cosmic line between science and faith
Large, airy and vividly frescoed, the Basilica’s interior also features an unexpected curiosity engraved on its floor: a meridian line sundial, crafted of bronze and white marble. One of several in churches around Italy and beyond, the meridian line marks an interplay between Catholicism and astronomical science. (Curious, that is, for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Galileo Galilei’s persecution by said Catholic church just 70-odd years earlier…)
Typically housed in grand basilicas and cathedrals, meridian lines were like in-house showcases of the Church’s success in utilising astronomy to reform the Gregorian calendar and fix the date of Easter. They flaunted, by extension, the supremacy of the Church over the pagan calendar of old. Sound abstract? Architectural writer Geoff Manaugh explains the mechanics of how it worked:
As the sun tracks from north to south on its annual migration between the summer and winter solstices, its image on the cathedral floor also shifts, moving slowly along the meridian line. Halfway between the solstices, of course, are the spring and autumn equinoxes. Once the position of the solar circle indicates the spring equinox, believers must simply wait for the next full moon; the first Sunday after that full moon will be the proper date of Easter.
Indeed, one of the reasons this particular church was chosen out of Rome’s hundreds as the setting for the meridian line was its location on the site of the ancient Roman baths — once a monumental imperial project named for a pagan emperor. Here was a particularly resonant site in which to symbolically proclaim the superiority of the new Gregorian calendar to outdated pagan time-keeping. This exercise in self-congratulatory astronomical sass was completed in 1702.
In today’s digital world, where even many a wristwatch has been relieved of its time-telling duties by smartphone screens, these meridian lines are more tourist curiosities than useful astronomical tools. But this one remains in working order. Each day a ray of light seeps through a sneaky hole in the Basilica’s wall. If you ever find yourself in Termini with an hour to kill between trains, why not drop by and see if you can spot it?
Yeah, it might not look like much from the outside but the Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri is an architectural masterwork. It stands in testament to Michelangelo’s knack for adaptive re-use (or a precursor of it) centuries before the term was coined. But sheer architectural impressiveness aside, perhaps the most fascinating pieces of the Basilica’s story are, after all, a hole in its wall, a line engraved on its floor, and the traces of ancient ruins that still linger in its fabric.