The work Caravaggio was to carry out in the Contarelli Chapel between 1599 and 1602, constituted the artist’s first public commission as he rose through the roman social echelons thanks to the success of his previous exhibitions. Cardinal del Monte noticed and appreciated Caravaggio’s genius and promptly gave him mandate to decorate the chapel of the French church he received from Cardinal Mathieu Contarel.
One of his paintings in particular the “Vocazione di San Matteo” (Saint. Matthew’s Vocation) illustrates the extraordinary force and mystical beauty of his work. It depicts the scene of when Christ calls upon Matthew to follow his vocation. The ray of light portrayed symbolises how divine intervention can come into every day life bringing salvation. The hand of Christ painted by Caravaggio assumes the same pose, only reversed, as that of Adam in Michelangelo’s “Creation” you can admire in the Sistene Chapel.
The Mouth of Truth – Something profane that fell into a religious context and that in olden days was attributed the power of pronouncing oracles. It is a great big mask with an opening at mouth level that, as the legend goes, would have munched off any liars’s hand.
In Medieval times, all those husbands suspecting their wives’ unfaithfulness made great use of it nearly to a point of obsession. In this respect, the legend has it that a woman that was to undergo the Mouth of Truth treatment, astutely agreed with her lover to fall into his arms feigning a fainting spell as the defaming accusation was announced, and so she did. This way when she was about to put her hand into the big mouth she was able to confirm that the only arms she had ever fallen into, were those of her husband and of the man who had come to her rescue moments earlier!
The famous monument “The Mouth of Truth” annexes the ancient Basilica of St.Mary Cosmedin which, in the 8th century was entrusted to the Greeks who had escaped to Rome from the East. Often re-visited throughout the centuries, it today holds the relics of the patron Saint to all lovers, St. Valentine. It became particularly famous following a scene here during the epic film with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck “Roman Holidays”
The Pyramid, o Piramide di Caio Cestio, was built to honour the death of Caius Cestius Praetor of Rome (magistrate), tribune of the people and a member of the organization of sacred banquettes, (of all things…) who died at a time unknown between 18 and 12 BC.
An inscription on the side of the building states that the Pyramid was built in just 330 days and that it was commissioned by his family; the reason for having it built so fast apparently lies in the provisions of his will: had the construction taken longer than one year to the day …NO PYRAMID, NO MONEY ..for nobody .. A convincing argument wouldn’t you say?
With its base of 29.47 m and a height of 36.8 m it was rested upon foundations made of concrete and travertine marble. In deference to other pyramids present in Rome, this one was restored and made internally accessible by the will of Pope Alexander VII in 1663.
The cemetery for non-Catholics annexes the pyramid and it is rather unique in the whole of Europe. It was created by will of Pope Pius VII in 1821 as a resting place for those who didn’t profess the Catholic faith, as a result it was also known as the Protestants’ cemetery. Writers, artists, neo-classical poets and romantics who embarked upon the Great Tour and died in this city were buried here: John Keats, Goethe’s son, Shelley but also Italians such as Antonio Gramsci (statesman).
When you can visit The Pyramid o Piramide di Caio Cestio
Opening times: 2nd and 4th Saturday in the month at 11.00 am.
The Pyramid may only be visited with a guided tour – bookings on 06-39967700
The Basilica of St. Paul’s Out of the Walls, or San Paolo Fuori Le Mura was erected over the tomb of Paul the Apostle by will of Constantine and it expanded over the years to reach even greater proportions than the ancient Basilica of St.Peter’s. It was enriched by splendid works of art such as the Candelabra by the Vassalletto dating back to the XIIth century or the wonderful mosaics or the tabernacle by Arnolfo di Cambio.
A horrendous fire in 1823 destroyed the treasures of 15 centuries in just under five hours. Apparently an absent minded plumber left his heat source to burn unattended after he had repaired the gutters… Pope Leo XII invited the catholic community of the world to ‘tax’ itself for the refurbishment and he decreed that the church should stand where and how it had been.
Today’s Basilica is of course somewhat different from the original but it is still of outstanding beauty. One curious detail is that the columns of the porch come from Lake Como in northern Italy and were shipped on water all the way to Rome. They sailed on barges from the lake along three rivers to the Adriatic sea, they then circumnavigated the whole of Italy to enter the Tiber and reach Rome. Trip time … four years!
Restored to its splendour the Basilica of St. Paul was consecrated in 1854 in the presence of one Pope, namely Pope Pius IX, 50 Cardinals, 40 Archbishops, 97 Bishops whose names were all inscribed on the marble tables located near the Apse. looking up at the caisson ceiling you will notice frescos and mosaics depicting the portraits of all the Popes from Saint Peter to his living successor.
When to visit the Basilica of St. Paul’s out of the Walls – San Paolo Fuori le Mura
Opening times: every day from 07.00 to 19.00 Gregorian Chanted Vespers by the Monks every weekday at 18.00 and holidays at 17.00
The Basilica of St. John Lateran was built by will of Emperor Constantine between 313 and 318. He in fact boasted about personally carrying 12 hods of earth on his back to help lay the foundations, one for each Apostle.
The most famous event involving the ancient Basilica dates back to 897 under the papacy of Pope Stephen VI, it involved a: “A dead man’s trial”. Indulging the wishes of Empress Agertrude, a dead man’s body was put on trial. The body belonged to Pope Formosus and Agertrude found him guilty of crowning a foreigner as Emperor instead of her son, he should therefore be tried for betraying the national cause… even if he had been dead for 8 months! They even went through the motions of dressing him in Papal attire and sitting him on the throne: The living Pope asked the dead one: “How could you possibly seize the apostolic seat out of shear personal ambition”? Well that was it… lawyers and synods damned the Pope to eternity, his paraments were torn off, the three fingers of his right hand were swiftly cut off and his body was carted away in the streets of Rome before being promptly thrown into the Tiber. Exit Formosus…this time for good…Not yet, he came back again but this time appeared in a dream to a monk and begged him to bury him!
Many other legends revolve around the Basilica such as that of Pope Joan discovered to be a woman despite her disguise of many years as a man; The Stercoraria Throne which, after Joan’s debacle, had subsequent Popes sit on this marble throne for ”inspection”. The throne had a hole in the middle of the seat so that a trembling priest could verify the presence, or lack of…. “appendages” from under the papal ‘seat’.. and so on!
The Basilica of St. John Lateran holds the relics of the Apostles Peter & Paul and also of the Last Supper of Christ. The present interior of the church dates back to the XVIth century when it was restored by the Maestro Borromini who managed to encompass the original columns to create the colossal pillars and their niches that were to host the statues of the twelve Apostles. The Lateranese Palace, the Benediction Loggia, and the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Fonte where Emperor Constantine is purported to have been baptised annexe the basilica.
When to visit the Basilica of St. John Lateran – San Giovanni in Laterano
Opening times: every day 07.00 to 18.30 ENTRANCE: FREE
The name of the Basilica of The Holy Cross in Jerusalem derives from the fact that Saint Helen, Constantine’s mother, took the relics of the Passion of Christ from the Holy City to place them here. These are now held in the Relics Chapel expressly constructed in 1930.
Specifically, they comprise three pieces of wood from the Holy Cross, a nail and part of the inscription over Christ’s head “INRI” (Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews). You will also find a number of others: two thorns from His crown, St.Thomas’ finger that touched Jesus’s ribs, fragments of the column whereupon Jesus was tied for fustigation, fragments from the cave and the Holy Sepulchre, one of Judas’s “infamous” 30 pieces of silver, the sponge imbibed with vinegar to quench Jesus’s thirst and finally the rock upon which Jesus sat when he forgave the Magdalen.
These precious objects were held in the Chapel of St-Helen for 1620 years. The chapel is now partially underground and a plaque near the entrance recounts how the Saint had the earth of the Calvary shipped to Rome. Another peculiarity of this chapel is the staircase of the Calvary at the beginning of which we’ll find part of the cross of the “good thief”!
Opening times: every day 07.00 12.45 and 15.30 – 19.00
During Mass, no visits are allowed to the Chapels of the Relics and St. Helen.
Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III had a wife called Eudossia Licinia daughter to Eastern Emperor Theodosius II and his wife Eudocia Augusta. Tradition has it that while Empress Eudocia was on a trip to Jerusalem, the Christians of the town gave her the chains that had held St. Peter prisoner as a gift. She sent them to her daughter Eudossia who in turn took them to Pope Leo I. The Pope showed her the chains that had held St.Peter prisoner somewhere else, in the prisons of Mamertine, as the two sets of chains came into contact they miraculously forged together as one.
In memory of this event the Basilica was founded and was consecrated by Sixtus III in 493 before being restored in the 4th century by Sixtus IV and in the 5th by Julius II – further refurbishment took place in the 7th and 8th centuries.
The chains are held behind the Tabernacle of the Confession. A very important work of art is Julius II’s Mausoleum largely designed and executed by Michelangelo between 1513 and 1516 that he himself defined as the “Tragedy of the Burial”. The most breathtaking statue is, of course, the Moses, seated and looking disdainfully at the worshipping Jews. Apparently, as Michelangelo proudly looked at his masterpiece on a day, he said to it: “Speak then!”. Angered because no reply came he threw a scalpel at the statue hitting its right knee. Unfortunately, there is no sign of the blow today!
Opening times: every day 08.30 to 12.00 and 15.00 to 16.00
Pope Martin I (649-55) had a very poor experience inside the church. Exarch Olympus attempted his murder aided by his footman who was to stab the Pope as he gave Olympus his Communion. As the moment neared the servant suddenly became blind and therefore couldn’t go through with the murder. Witnessing the miracle, Olympus repented and revealed to the Pope the orders he had received from the Emperor.
The basilica grew over the centuries, acquiring beauty with the addition of altars and chapels as well as the tallest bell tower in Rome standing at 75 metres dating back to 1376. The Basilica hosts a number of relics including parts Baby Jesus’ manger which is located by the Confession Altar inside a silver casket by Luigi Valadier. However in the actual Chapel of the Relics (in the centre of the right aisle) you will also be able to see stones from Jesus’ Stable, strands of straw from the same and also fragments of cloth. Indeed in the last chapel along the right aisle, rather confusingly called the Sistine Chapel, the oldest Roman crib (1290) by Arnolfo di Cambio is exhibited.
The Basilica is also famous for its magnificent mosaics that line the nave depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament, the Childhood of Christ, and Scenes from the life of the Vergin all by Jacopo Torriti.
The golden caisson sealing by Giuliano Sangallo was apparently decorated with the first gold imported by the recently discovered Americas and donated to the Pope by the Spanish royalty.
Finally, Pope Clement VIII had a column erected in the courtyard on the right-hand side of the Basilica in memory of Henry IV of Navarre, King of France, who repudiated Protestantism during a solemn ceremony in Saint Peter’s on 17 September 1595.
Opening times: every day from 07.00 to 18.30
The Museum is open every day from 09.30 to 18.30 – furthermore guided visits may be organised to see “la Loggia delle Benedizioni” – The Benediction Lodge with its XIII century Mosaics, and the Crib by Arnolfo di Cambio.
The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels is another masterpiece by Michelangelo. This Basilica was meant to be built in 1378 following the generosity of two benefactors who left Pope Urban V the sum of 3000 Florins to that end. However the Pope decided to use that sum to refurbish the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme advising the Carthusian monks to get on with the job. Somewhat later, in 1561, Michelangelo was appointed to design the existing Basilica. The result of that project is the immense space you’ll be able to see today: 90.8 metres in length by 27m in width by a height of 28m. The 8 columns made of red granite from the Far East are 13.8m tall.
A giant statue of Saint Bruno founder of the Order of the Carthusian Monks, is set into a niche to the right. Apparently Pope Clement XIV going passed it one day said: “It’s a talking statue” but then soon corrected himself by saying: “well it would be if the rules of the Order didn’t forbid it to!” the Carthusian’s vow to silence being the reason for his comment.
You should note along the floor of the right wing the magnificent Meridian Line: “la linea Clementina” after Pope Clement XI who had it designed together with the signs of the Zodiac and the variations of the Polar Star. It served to fix the time for all roman timepieces until 1846 when it was replaced by the roaring canon fire from the Gianicolo every day at noon.
Opening times: every day 07.00 to 18.30 – Entrance is Free.
Cardinal Corsaro, from Venice, commissioned Bernini in 1644 to construct a family shrine inside this church with the mandate to finish it extremely quickly. Bernini’s interpretation centres upon the alter of the chapel where the main scene depicts Saint Teresa’s meeting with the angel who transfixes her heart with a dart imbibed with the Love of God, whilst the Cornaro family watches on as spectators from two different side-boxes.
Bernini’s portrayal of the pain of Love suffered by Saint Teresa, depicted in the bas-relief of the Last Supper set in the bottom of the altar, symbolically alludes to the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ. Despite the space being very limited, the artist manages to organize it as if it were a small theatre: the altar come stage is drenched with light from a reflecting window. The effect is made all the more realistic by the use of golden bronze rays each of different lengths and by the use of alabasters, jaspers and lapislazuli. This scene of Saint Teresa from Avila is one of the outright masterpieces of the sculpture of all times, a complicated entwinement of passion, surrender and unaccountable mystery.
Opening times: every day 07.00 12.00 and 15.30 – 19.00 Entrance is free.
Cardinal Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII on August 5 1623. He was well known for his love for Art and for supporting artists. His papacy lasted 21 years and, not surprisingly, it coincided with decades of great artistic splendour for the city of Rome.
One of Urban VIII’s preoccupations was to create a residence for the Barberini family that would live up to their name and that could compete with the other “powerfuls” of the Earth. An old palazzo previously owned by the Sforza family was selected and work first began by the hand of Carlo Maderno before none other than Bernini took over. The latter decided to restore the palazzo to its original splendour which we can still admire today.
Bernini’s arch rival Borromini also had his chance to shine in the project and the staircase on the right side of the façade bears his signature. Restoration work was soon over and the entire Barberini family could finally transfer to the new Papal residence.
The history of the collection of the incredible works of art that came and went over the centuries is rather intricate and was influenced by family Estate litigations involving a number of Pope Urban VIII’s descendants. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the works of art began returning to their original “abode” together with other treasures owned by other great families such as: the Orsini, Odescalchi, Chigi etc.
Therefore today we can admire masterpieces dating back from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Some of the more famous are: Raphael’s “Fornarina” (the baker’s girl) as well as paintings by Andrea del Sarto, Bronzino, Lotto, Tintoretto, Tiziano (Titian), El Greco. All these before even seeing the 17th century collection held in the apartments decorated by Cornelia Costanza Barberini the last descendant of the Barberini family.
It is recognized as being the most prestigious exhibition gallery of the Universe and given the collection of paintings and modern/ancient sculptures it holds, it is no small wonder. The original residence belonged to Cardinal Camillo Borghese but when he became Pope choosing the name of Paul V, he left the Villa to his nephew Scipione who also happened to be a Cardinal.
It is set in an enormous park and unlike today, it was regarded then as being in the open countryside, rather like the other “suburban” residences such as Villa Aldobrandini, Villa Medici, Villa Albani.
Cardinal Scipione soon began work on his “museum” as he began his collection both out of pleasure and to bring prestige to his coat of arms. Of course the items confiscated by his papal uncle in the name of the Church certainly helped the cause and the Caravaggios, Cavalier d’Arpinos and other big names of the XVth century art world came a’flocking.
The collection depleted somewhat over the three ensuing centuries but the biggest blow came in 1807 when another Camillo Borghese, brother in law to Napoleon Bonaparte, sold off a great deal of his treasures that are now held in the Louvre in Paris. The sum agreed was a staggering thirteen million francs which secured l’Empereur some 600 magnificent pieces.
One of the more prestigious works currently in the museum is the statue of Paolina Borghese by Antonio Canova as she reclines against the cushion-filled backrest of her bergère. A small piece of cloth appears haphazardly thrown across the middle of her otherwise naked body. To give the statue an even greater human appearance and a velvety look about it, Canova covered the nude parts of the statue with liquid wax which gave the marble a pinkish tone of colour.
Enjoy it, it is truly fabulous!!
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays 08.30 to 19.30 – Closed Mondays, December 25, January 1
Entrance is allowed up to thirty minutes prior to closing time HOWEVER BOOKING YOUR TICKET IS OBLIGATORY. CALL 06 32810 to do so.
Originally designed by Cesare Bazzani in 1911 in commemoration of the fifty years of a united Italy, the Palazzo delle Belle Arti (Fine Arts Palace) soon became the home to the Gallery of Modern Art which currently exhibits in its side aisles, collections from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Of course, the major collection in the museum is that by Antonio Canova, the genius of neo-classical sculpture.
When he arrived in Rome for the first time in 1799, the sculptor was soon deeply influenced by the classicism of the works of art before him. He preferred to work on mythological themes such as those that are exhibited in dedicated rooms, such as the Hercules and Lica Room. The scene is inspired by one of Hercules’ legends which goes like this: Deianira, the heroes wife, suspected that Hercules was betraying her with another woman. She therefore decides to have young Lica, a strapping young lad, deliver Hercules a robe imbibed with the blood of Nessus the local Centaur. The robe was meant to work as some sort of love filter for when Hercules would return home.
Unfortunately, though, the blood had the effect of a poison and when poor Hercules wore the robe he felt his skin burn unbearably to the extent of preferring death to fire. This is where an example of Canova’s genius can be admired: he manages to express all the pain and anguish Hercules was experiencing through the incredibly realistic tension in his muscles, the detail of his veins and cloth, all expressed thanks to a chisel working on a block of marble.
Go and marvel…
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays 08.30 to 19.30 – Closet Mondays.
Entrance is allowed up to 45 minutes before closure.
The church of Santa Maria del Popolo was constructed over the area where, following his death by suicide, the tomb containing Nero’s ashes once lay. A walnut tree was planted there in his memory. The legend has it that the area was simply “damned”. Evil spirits and demons had taken up residence in the vicinity and at night… they spent their time spooking the community.
By 1099 the scourge of evil had become intolerable and people asked Pope Pasquale II to intervene. Just for openers, the Pope prescribed three days of fasting during which he also retired in prayer and solitude. During one of the nights of seclusion the Vergin Mary appeared to him to instruct him as to what needed doing to get rid of the evil spirits: the walnut tree had to be disposed of, Nero’s ashes were to be exhumed and burned once over together with the tree. The resulting ashes should then be dispersed into the Tiber.
The Pope of course ‘executed’ the Verigin Mary’s commands right after the days of fasting. A short time later, following the request of the people, a chapel was built in commemoration of the happenings. Centuries later, in 1472, Pope Sixtus IV substituted the chapel with the present day Santa Maria del Popolo.
The legend around this church is figuratively recounted upon the arch towering over the main Alter where a gold-leafed stucco relief and a bas-relief depict Pope Pasquale knocking the walnut tree down. A rather charming anachronism is provided by the Swiss Guards standing around him in 1099 whilst the Guards were in fact instituted only in 1505.
Another “damned” tomb was later found in the same area, but it was quietly removed from the Church without any of the fuss accorded Nero’s ashes. This was the tomb of Vannozza Cattanei, known as the “Papessa” (the lady pope) since she happened to be Pope Alexander VI Borgia’s lover. She bore him two children: Cesare and Lucrezia.
Over the centuries the Church became enriched with important works of art such as the Cerasi Chapel with paintings by Caravaggio, the Chigi Chapel designed by Raffaello and just as a cherry on the cake, the magnificent organ built by Bernini.
Opening times: every day 07.00 – 12.00 and 16.00 – 19.00
Other than the 4th of July we all know about, on the same day over 2000 years ago, precisely in 13 BC, the Roman Senate decided that a commemorative monument celebrating Augustus’s return from Gaul and Spain and therefore Peace, should be built. The great Altar was inaugurated January 30th in the year 9 BC.
It was originally located in Campo Marzio and placed in respect of the immense sundial that used the obelisk now in Piazza Montecitorio (near the parliament) as its needle. On the day of the Emperor’s birthday, the shadow from the needle would be projected onto the interior of the altar (Ara) right next to the sacrificial table. The monument is marble made in its entirety is constituted by an enclosure protecting an altar that would be used for sacrifices to the gods.
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays 09.00 -19.00
The ticket office closes one hour earlier – closed on Mondays, January 1 and December 25.