Home History The sparkling hidden historic gem on Rome’s most sacred hill (updated 2020)

The sparkling hidden historic gem on Rome’s most sacred hill (updated 2020)

by Sarah Trevor

Sandwiched between two landmarks of Rome is an outwardly humble church steeped in centuries of history and legend. Meet the eye-popping Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (St Mary of the Altar of Heaven). 

Blame the prime location. Smack-bang in the middle of two famous fixtures on the Eternal City skyline, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli manages to be both visually unmissable for passersby and, simultaneously, commonly overlooked. If you’ve ever been to Rome, chances are you’ve probably seen it yourself.

To its left is the Monument of Victor Emanuele II, aka the ‘wedding cake’ or ‘typewriter’ — one of the most easily identifiable buildings in the city, for better or for worse, its white marble gleaming beneath enormous black statues of the goddess Victoria riding on four-horse chariots. On the other side, a grand staircase topped with imposing statues leads to the elegant Michelangelo-designed Piazza Campidoglio.

Unassuming on the outside, ostentatious within: the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (or St Mary of the Altar of Heaven).

The drab, nondescript church in between the two, with the kind of funny roof line, standing atop about 7000 stairs? Yep, that’s our guy: the Santa Maria in Aracoeli. If you’re thinking that the plain, rough brick façade of this church is at risk of being overshadowed by its more showy neighbours with their fancy chariots and prancy statues… hold that thought. See how you feel once you’ve made your way up the 51040 steep, gruelling, cardio-and-a-half steps, caught your breath, and stepped inside. The hike up that marble staircase* will be worth it, I promise.

An awe-inspiring mishmash

Where to look first? It’s got an extravagant coffered golden ceiling, elaborate frescoes and paintings, and more crystal chandeliers than a lighting retailer. This place is dripping in chandeliers. Once you see them, you can’t un-see them. Chandeliers hang from spots you wouldn’t expect chandeliers to hang from, encircling the altar and dangling between the motley columns.

Chandeliers galore. Courtesy Dnalor 01.

And I do mean motley: look closely and you’ll see no two of these columns are the same. This is because they were recycled — or pillaged and plundered, tomayto, tomato — from a random assortment of ancient Roman buildings in a practice known as spolia. Look out for the eccentrically mismatched touches that give it away. Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.

There’s a richly patterned stone-inlaid floor and an intricate wooden pulpit believed to have been carved by leading 17th-century sculptor Bernini, one of my all time favourite artists.**

All in all, you don’t have to be an architecture nerd (I’m certainly not) to appreciate the shameless mishmash of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, and medieval elements on show here in the Basilica. A reflection of its hodgepodge history, I guess.

Pagans and emperors: Legendary origins

And, putting aside looks for a moment, this is a place where it pays to know some history. And myth.

Medieval Christian legends claim that an altar was built on this site thanks to a rather unlikely founding father — Emperor Augustus — and an ancient Roman (read: pagan) prophecy. It was here, or so the story goes, that a Roman sibyl foresaw the coming of a future ruler by virgin birth, which prompted Augustus to have an altar erected on this very spot. The prophesied ruler in question? Jesus Christ himself, born during Augustus’ reign.

The Basilica’s main altar. Courtesy Peter 1936F.

True or not (Imma go with not, myself), Augustus’ shrine was known as the Ara Coeli, or ‘heavenly altar’, and the name stuck right through to today. Augustus and the sibyl alike — heathenness notwithstanding — are reportedly depicted on an altar painting, but I haven’t spotted it myself (yet). What’s more, tradition has it that Augustus’ original altar remains here all these 2000 years later within a chapel in the Basilica. But take this theory with a grain of salt.

Long before Jesus, long before Augustus, the Capitoline Hill on which the Basilica stands was considered sacred and the most important of Rome’s fabled seven hills. In fact, some ancient Romans believed the Capitoline was the place where it all began: the site of the city’s first settlement. The two main temples on this hill were dedicated to Jupiter and Juno respectively.

Another ancient legend holds that one night in 390 BCE, an impending attack on Rome was foiled here outside Juno’s temple, which formerly stood on this site. As enemy Gauls stealthily scaled the citadel walls, the resident sacred geese here saved the day — their cranky honking tipped off the Romans to the threat in their midst. Unlikely alarm system or what.

Skip forward a couple of centuries to the advent of Christianity. As this newfangled religion clambered its way up to the upper echelons of the empire, and ancient pagan temples around Rome gave way to Christian churches and basilicas (often literally), this summit of the Capitoline remained a place of worship.*** Various monasteries and a Byzantine abbey were located around these parts, plus a friary for good measure. Finally, the ‘new’ Santa Maria in Aracoeli — the one still standing before you today — was completed in the 12th century.

Artists, saints, revolutionaries: Historic remnants

Just as the Roman Catholic faith has designated patron saints for, oh you know, just about everything,**** so too does Rome have designated churches for different associations and even occupational guilds.***** But this Basilica is an important one, as the dedicated church of the Roman City Council.

And doesn’t it have the history to show for it. The Basilica’s architectural features form what feels like a tangible compendium of trials and tribulations the Romans faced over the centuries — or, more to the point, the thanksgiving and worship that followed when the crises were averted.  From its zenith in the Middle Ages onward, Roman history is writ large in the very brick and mortar of this Basilica.

The grand coffered ceiling which got a 1570s facelift in celebration of a victory against a Turkish fleet. Courtesy Peter 1936F.

That monumental, endless stairway of 124 marble steps marks the city’s deliverance from the Black Death of the 1340s.****** Meanwhile, the extravagant ceiling was painted and gilded in the 1570s to celebrate a victory against a Turkish fleet.

Famous Romans of centuries gone by also left their mark here. Michelangelo himself, for one thing (decades before he designed one of my other favourite churches in Rome). Here, designed the tomb of Cecchino dei Bracci, his friend, pupil and, most likely, lover who died at just 16 years of age. Because apparently being a world-renowned, painter/sculptor/architect genius wasn’t quite enough, Michelangelo also dabbled in poetry.******* And it seems young dei Bracci was quite the muse for his sonnets. Take the following:

Scarce had I seen for the first time his eyes
Which to your living eyes were life and light,
When closed at last in deaths injurious night
He opened them on God in Paradise.

Another chapel of the Basilica houses the relics of Saint Helena.******** You might not know her by name, but her religious beliefs literally changed the entire course of history in that she catalysed her son’s conversion to Christianity… ever heard of Emperor Constantine? Yeah, no big deal, right?

Last but not least, let’s backtrack outside for a moment and talk about that statue straight from Assassin’s Creed. This statue happens to be dedicated to one of the city’s more enigmatic medieval figures — ironically, not far from his execution site. (Never change, Roma.) The son of a tavern owner and washer-woman, Cola di Rienzo became one of the most powerful and controversial politicians of medieval Rome. In the 1340s, he seized power, declared himself a tribune and liberator of the Roman Republic and set about attempting to restore the glory of ancient Rome. After falling in and out of power over the years, Rienzo came to a sticky end and was caught and killed by a mob while trying to escape the city in disguise.*********

Cola di Rienzo looking very Assassin’s Creed. Courtesy Jebulon.

Statues and stables: Peaks and troughs of history

Perhaps the lowest point of the Basilica’s long life so far came with its desecration in 1797, when French troops under Napoleon used it as a stable for the cavalry horses during their occupation of Rome.

The French also took the Basilica’s most significant monument: an iconic 15th-century statue of Baby Jesus called the Santo Bambino, carved from olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane. Though not the most aesthetically appealing feature in the Basilica — tell me it doesn’t look like a 43-year-old Brexit-voting accountant named Pat — the Santo Bambino (‘saint baby’) is without doubt the Basilica’s number one drawcard for religious visitors.

Pat The statue comes with its own fair share of legends. Its creator, a Franciscan friar, maintained that when he ran out of paint to complete the statue, an angel took over the job and finished painting it while he slept. Despite being thrown overboard en route to Europe, the Santo Bambino also apparently miraculously survived storms, pirates and other travails only to end up at the friar’s feet on the shores of Italy. (Again, according to the friar. How’d you guess?) And the miracles don’t end there; after being restored to the Basilica following the fall of Napoleon, the statue often made the rounds in hospital wards around Rome, as many believed it possessed the power to heal the sick and dying.

At least until 1994, that is, when this iconic statue was stolen. No traces found since. A replica********** has since taken its place and is used in Epiphany and Christmas processions, swathed in jewels, just like the original. According to the Churches of Rome Wiki, this successor of the Santo Bambino remains as adored as the friar’s sailing, angel-painted prototype— well, nearly:

The church gets many letters addressed to the Holy Child, all of which are placed before the statue unopened* before being burned. They are intended for the Christ Child, not the priests.

Unfortunately, word is that the replica is not getting the devotion that the original inspired; he needs to perform some miracles of his own.***********

With all its miracles and masterpieces, legends and history, it’s hardly surprising that it was here at the Santa Maria in Aracoeli that English historian Edward Gibbon was struck with inspiration to write his magnum opus on Roman history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The year was 1764.  I imagine he sat at the top of those steps, transposing the Basilica and its ancient temple counterpart in his mind’s eye:

As I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.

A 1751 depiction of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli by Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

The chants of barefoot friars… the prophecy of an ancient sibyl… the annual processions of the beloved statue of an infant… and even the trampling of Napoleon’s horses and honking of Juno’s geese. Unpeel all the stories and legends associated with this deceptively nondescript church on this utterly epic, history-making hill and you come to know the surrounding city all the more deeply. It offers an eye-popping, chandelier-spangled masterclass of Roman history. If you have any sort of interest in Rome and her extraordinary past, this basilica — hiding in plain sight — is not one to overlook.


*OK, OK, only 124 in total. (‘Only’.)
**True story: the eye-popping lifelikeness of Bernini’s sculptures in the Borghese Gallery single-handedly made me interested in art. For real. How he got that marble to look so human I will never comprehend. He was also, as I just learnt two seconds ago while writing this, a bit of a babe. I could picture that face on an Italian soccer/football player. My daguerreotype boyfriend, eat your heart out.
***New God, who dis?
****You think I’m exaggerating? According to this list, there’s a patron saint for playing card manufacturers (St Balthasar), a patron saint for advertising and PR (St Bernardino of Siena, who lived in the 15th century, so… how?), a patron saint for, omgsh, unattractive people (poor St Drogo), a patron saint for ice skaters (St Lidwina)… Even a friggen patron saint for murderers (St Julian the Hospitaller)!
*****I guess when you have a church on every corner, you can afford to cater to the niche(s).
******One last thing about these steps, I swear: they reckon Romans used to climb these stairs on their knees, presumably while praying, in anticipation of miraculous events. These days they say it’ll help you win the lottery.
*******F*cking Renaissance men.
********Patron saint of new discoveries, since you asked. 😉
*********Now why does that sound familiar..?
**********Much cuter, I think. This one didn’t vote Brexit.
***********Word on the street is they are actually quickly opened — just to check for donations. Trust.


Tips, Links and Resources

Visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli

What you should know before you go to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli:

  • Some handy visitor information at the bottom of this post from Rome.net.
  • Price: free, but you may like to make a small donation.
  • Tip: check out the Roman ruins, the Insula dell’Ara Coeli, not far from the base of the stairs.
  • Tip: another fascinating, lesser-known Roman church with a rich, ancient history is the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Saint Mary of the Angels and Martyrs). You can read my post about that here.

Learning More

Deep dive into the history of Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli with my nerdy round-up of resources for learning more:

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