Home History The sparkling historic gem on Rome’s most sacred hill

The sparkling historic gem on Rome’s most sacred hill

by Sarah Trevor

Sandwiched between two icons of Rome is a seemingly humble basilica steeped in centuries of history and legend. Meet the 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 attractions of the Eternal City, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli manages to be both visually unmissable for passersby and, simultaneously, commonly overlooked. Chances are if you’ve been to Rome 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 on the city skyline, for better or for worse, with its white marble façade beneath 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).

In between the two is our guy: just a short walk up some 124 steep marble steps (’cause Romans) stands the Santa Maria in Aracoeli. You’d be forgiven for expecting that this church, with its fairly plain, rough brick façade, is at risk of being overshadowed by its more, well, showy neighbours. That is, at least, until you make your way up the stairs, catch your breath, and step inside. The hike up the stairs 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. They hang from spots you wouldn’t ordinarily expect chandeliers to hang from, encircling the altar and dangling between the motley columns.

Chandeliers galore. Courtesy Dnalor 01.

And I do mean motley: no two of these columns are the same. This is because they were recycled — or pillaged, depending on your viewpoint — from a random assortment of ancient buildings. 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. (True story: the eye-popping lifelikeness of his sculptures in the Borghese Gallery singlehandedly made me interested in classical art. How he got that marble to look so human I will never comprehend. #odetobernini) All in all, you don’t have to know much about architecture to appreciate that this Basilica displays an ostentatious yet intriguing mishmash of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, and medieval elements.

Pagans and emperors: Legendary origins

Splendour aside, 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, which prompted Augustus to have an altar erected on this very spot. The prophesied ruler in question? Jesus himself, born during Augustus’ reign.

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

True or not, 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 Augustus or Jesus, the Capitoline Hill on which the Santa Maria in Aracoeli sits was considered sacred and intricately bound with Rome’s history. In fact, some ancient Romans believed the Capitoline was 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 thanks to the vocal complaints of some residents of Juno’s temple, formerly on this site. As enemy Gauls stealthily scaled the citadel walls, the sacred geese here saved the day — their cranky honking tipped off the Romans to the threat in their midst!

Skip forward a millennium or so to the advent of Christianity. As ancient Roman temples around the city gave way to early churches and basilicas (often literally), this summit of the Capitoline remained a place of worship. Various monasteries, plus a friary for good measure, were located around these parts before the ‘new’ Santa Maria in Aracoeli — still standing 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 itself boast designated churches for different associations and even occupational guilds; with a church on seemingly every corner, there’s no shortage of niche ones around. This Basilica is an important one, though, 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 catalogue 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.

Its stairway of 124 marble steps marks the city’s deliverance from the Black Death of the 1340s, while the extravagant ceiling was painted and gilded in the 1570s to celebrate a victory against a Turkish fleet — both undertaken to thank Mary, Mother of Jesus. (Yeah, look, she tends to pop up a fair bit in Roman Catholic churches. Shocking stuff, I know.)

Famous Romans of centuries gone by also left their mark. Michelangelo himself, for one thing (he got around too, having also designed another of my favourite churches in Rome). He designed the tomb of Cecchino dei Bracci, his friend, pupil and, most likely, lover who died at just 16 years of age. In case the artistic/architectural works of this world-renowned genius weren’t quite enough, Michelangelo also penned a fair few sonnets about the youth. 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 death’s injurious night
He opened them on God in Paradise.”

Another chapel of the Basilica houses the relics of Saint Helena, whose influence upon her son Emperor Constantine is believed to have catalysed his conversion to Christianity, changing the course of history. No biggie.

Outside is a vaguely Assassin’s Creed-esque statue dedicated to one of the city’s more enigmatic 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, the Santo Bambino (which literally means ‘saint baby’) is without doubt the number one drawcard of the Basilica from a religious perspective.

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 finished the job and painted it while he slept. Despite being thrown overboard en route to Europe, the Santo Bambino miraculously survived storms, pirates and other travails only to end up at the friar’s feet on the shores of Italy. And the miracles don’t end there; the statue often made rounds in the hospital wards of Rome, as many believed it possessed the power to heal the sick and dying.

After the fall of Napoleon, the Santo Bambino was recovered and restored to its rightful place in the Basilica. 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 its predecessor. According to the Churches of Rome Wiki, this incarnation of the Santo Bambino remains as adored as the original — 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.”

[* Word on the street is they actually are quickly opened — just to check for donations.]

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 and he sat here among the ruins of ancient Rome, even referring to the Basilica by the name of its ancient temple counterpart:

As I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter [sic!], 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 replica statue of an infant… and even the trampling of horses and honking of geese! It’s a far cry from the tourist chatter and car horns you hear around the Basilica today, sure, but all the more reason to visit. This is certainly not a church to overlook if you have any sort of interest in the history of Rome.

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