ROMAN ITINERARIES – MONTI DISTRICT  – ITINERARY 3

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides

MONTI DISTRICT – ITINERARY 3

The Monti District Itinerary 3 could also be defined as the “Nostalgic Itinerary” because the District, in the area adjacent to the Imperial Forums, has lost all the houses around Via Alessandrina, being however compensated by the coming to light of large sections of the Markets of Trajan and the Imperial Forums.

Largo Corrado Ricci – Via Tor dei Conti – Via della Madonna dei Monti – Via degli Zingari – Via Urbana – Piazza della Suburra – Via Urbana – Via Cesare Balbo – Via Liberiana – Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore – Piazza dell’Esquilino

From the Conti's Tower to the Church of Saints Quirico and Giulitta

THE CONTI’S TOWER

The stroll begins at Largo Corrado Ricci, the archaeologist who started the excavation of the Forum of Trajan and the hemicycle of the Trajan’s Markets. Here the famous gutting led to the isolation of the mighty Conti’s Tower, which belonged to the family of the Conti of Segni. Built at the time of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), the tower incorporated an older building, probably one of the rectangular exedras of the Templum Pacis of Vespasian. The tower, which was later covered with marble from the Forums, was fortified and became the protagonist of violent armed clashes. The earthquake of 1348 knocked it down, reducing it to the only lower body visible today.

Restored in the 15th Century, the tower suffered two other sudden collapses, including the one in 1644 that destroyed the rebuilt structures. The tower has a black and white stone escarpment base with an inscription by Pietro di Nicola that boasts the dominance of the tower.

Let us now take Via Tor de Conti and pass by the Hotel Forum, once the convent of the church of Saints Quirico and Giulitta, from whose roof garden you can enjoy one of the most beautiful views of the city. The convent was built around 1750 by the architect Valvassori who did not want any compensation, asking instead that, after his death, the Dominicans celebrated fifteen masses every year in suffrage of his soul.

THE CHURCH OF SAINTS QUIRICO AND GIULITTA

After a few steps, we find the Church of Saints Quirico and Giulitta, the only one not involved in the demolitions in the Pantani area.

San Quirico was originally from Antioch in Syria or perhaps from Tarsus in Cilicia. His mother Giulitta, arrested because she was a Christian during Diocletian’s persecution, took her son with her to the tribunal where, while being subjected to torture, she shouted her faith out loud until she was beheaded. The little Quirico, then, started to shout his mother’s words too, until he was grabbed by the governor and thrown on the steps of the court, where he smashed his skull and died. Both were declared martyrs.

The church, which in its primitive construction was however dedicated to Saints Stephen and Lawrence, has a beautiful three-mullioned bell tower built in the early 12th Century by Pope Pascal II and an interior reconstructed in Gothic forms with ogival arches.

In 1475 Pope Sixtus IV donated a new portal to the church, by Baccio Pontelli, but subsequent works in 1584 changed the orientation of the church so that the 15th Century portal was placed in the old apse. A definitive rebuilding took place from 1728 to 1734 and ended with the 18th Century façade by Filippo Raguzzini, adorned with simple frames.

The interior of the church has a single nave. The vault depicts the “Glory of Saints Quirico and Giulitta“, painted by Pietro Gagliardi, an excellent 19th Century Italian painter. Beautiful is also the heavily baroque high altar.

You can access the remains of the oldest church and see the 11th Century frescoes preserved in the small apses, depicting figures of saints, and a square well indicating the place where the ancient high altar was located.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
From the Church of Saints Quirico and Giulitta to the Madonna dei Monti

Via della Madonna dei Monti retraces roughly the route of the Argiletum, the road that came from the Suburra and entered the valley of the Roman Forum.

At number 95 there is a beautiful 17th Century house with an aedicule decorated with cherubs, while at number 88 there is another one from the 18th Century.

On the left opens the Via dei Neofiti, which recalls the newly baptized catechumens and at number 14 shows a beautiful portal with the Odescalchi coat of arms. On the right is Via del Pozzuolo, so called because of the existence of a small well in the area.

CHURCH OF ST. SAVIOUR

At the corner with Via dei Neofiti stands the Church of St. Saviour in Monti, which was entirely destroyed by fire during the Lansquenets’ Sack of Rome in 1527.

In 1634, St. Salvatore ai Monti also received the dedication of another suppressed church, that of St. Mary of Monti; then, in 1640, it was erected as the headquarters of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.

The facade is hut-shaped, adorned with a nimble sail-shaped bell tower and an elegant 16th Century portal. The interior is unfortunately devoid of the many works of art that once adorned it: the only memory that remains on the altar is a modern fresco depicting the “Savior between two novices“.

Curious is the funeral memory of the painter Agostino Masucci, who died in 1758. The epigraph says that he left the fame of himself to posterity: in fact, he left his children not even a penny, and they were able to bury their father for free in this church.

Next is the beautiful 17th Century building of the College of Neophytes, which was intended for the baptized from other faiths: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, philosophy and mathematics were taught there. It was closed at the end of the 18th Century, and today it is a Parish House.

THE “MADONNA DEI MONTI”

This brings you to one of the churches dearest to the inhabitants of the Monti District, the Church of St. Mary of Monti, better known as “Madonna dei Monti“.

The Madonna dei Monti Square extends on the side of the church according to an irregular design: here there is an elegant 16th Century fountain designed by Giacomo Della Porta and built by Battista Rusconi under Pope Sixtus V, whose coats of arms alternate with those of the Roman people on the sides of the octagonal basin.

Once, where the church is today, there was a house that had been part of an abandoned Poor Clare monastery, then divided between several residents.

On April 18th 1579 a certain Camilla, lodger of the house, went to the owners, the Attavanti nobles, declaring that she did not want to live there anymore because it was three nights that the house was shaking from the foundations. They examined the house and calmed the woman, but in the following days the tremors continued to grow stronger and stronger and all the occupants believed that the house was haunted by spirits. Many people ran to the place and found that the house looked like it was in an earthquake.

Many passers-by started hitting the walls with scythes and knives, but one of them heard a voice say, “Don’t hurt me“. The voice was from an image of the Madonna and Child Jesus between Saints Stephen and Lawrence, painted on the wall of a once monastery hall.

Immediately, the news spread throughout the entire district and a blind woman named Anastasia, accompanied by two friends at the sacred image, regained her sight. After this event, every day a crowd of sick and needy people began to rush in front of the house, so much so that Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) decreed that the image had to be moved to the nearby church of St. Saviour in Monti.

On the morning of May 8th 1580 some prelates, accompanied by bricklayers, approached the house to remove the fresco, but the inhabitants of the district raised the alarm and the papal workers fled. Gregory XIII did not give up and sent a handful of guards, but they found the streets blocked by barricades.

At this point the Pontiff’s butler, Monsignor Bianchetti, convinced the Pope of the need to leave the image on the spot and offered to pay the expenses of an altar, while Cardinal Sirleto declared himself ready to pay for the construction of a church.

Constantly repeating the miracles, the Pope gave his consent to the construction of the church, which Cardinal Sirleto commissioned to the architect Giacomo della Porta. In 1583 the Senate and the people of Rome decreed that every 26th of April, the anniversary of the first miracle, people should go to the Madonna dei Monti to attend the sung mass and to offer a silver chalice and four torches.

THE DECORATION OF THE CHURCH

Construction works on the church lasted until the early 17th century, while important restoration work was carried out in 1899. The travertine façade is of a mature Renaissance style, with Corinthian pilasters and capitals and a beautiful classical portal with a colonnaded upper loggia. At the crossroads of the transept there is an eight-segment dome on a high octagonal drum in which high windows open. The interior has a single nave, on the walls of which there are quite deep chapels, while under the dome there is a large transept. In the vault stand out the frescoes of the Ascension, by Cristoforo Casolani, dated 1620.

The chapel on the right dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo is decorated with 17th Century paintings with the Stories from the life of the Saint, paid for by the converted Jew Andrea Baccino, whose family gave its name to the nearby Via Baccina. In the third chapel stands out the Pietà by Antonio Viviani known as “il Sordo” (the deaf one), painted in 1588.

The main altar, by Della Porta, consists of a sumptuous aedicule surmounted by the statues of the Saviour among Angels; the altar contains the first famous image of the Madonna of which the religious legend speaks. In the apse stand out the frescoes by Giacinto Gemignani that look like big baroque tapestries. Important are the paintings of the dome, among which stand out the Angels painted by Cesare Nebbia and the great caravaggesque painter Orazio Gentileschi.

A visit to the sacristy cannot be overlooked, especially for the presence of a very elegant marble washbasin designed by Onorio Longhi at the end of the 16th Century and decorated in the centre with a small reproduction in relief of one of the basins in Farnese Square.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
From Via degli Zingari to Via Urbana

VIA DEGLI ZINGARI

On the corner of Via dei Serpenti and Via degli Zingari stands the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. According to Christian tradition, Sergius and Bacchus were two noble Roman army officers who suffered martyrdom under Emperor Maximian (IV Century): Bacchus was flogged to death, while Sergius was beheaded. Some churches were dedicated to them in Rome and this one in the Monti District is already documented in the 9th century.

The church was extensively restored under Pope Urban VIII and was given to the Minims of St. Francis of Paola, who were succeeded by the Russian Basilians, so that today it is the Lithuanian national church.

In 1718, a fresco of the Madonna and Child Jesus was found under the plaster of a church wall: considered miraculous, the image was transferred to the high altar, thus also changing the name of the church, which became dedicated to the “Madonna del Pascolo” (Virgin Mary of the Pasture).

Considered miraculous, the image was transferred to the high altar, thus also changing the name of the church, which became dedicated to the Madonna del Pascolo. The image is still visible today, covered in silver, in the centre of the splendid high altar by Filippo Barigioni (1690-1753), decorated with an aedicule with two columns of antique green marble and Corinthian bronze capitals.

Go out again into the square, taking Via degli Zingari, which recalls how the gypsies once stayed in the area when they passed through Rome: the men made pots and pans and metal tableware, while the women went around, offering to read the future in their hands in exchange for offers of money.

Via degli Zingari climbs the Esquiline Hill crossing Via del Boschetto, whose name recalls the elm woods that in the Middle Ages called the district. On the right there is the small Via dell’Angeletto, which took its name from a tavern that had a small angel for a sign. When you reach the Gypsies’ Square, you will see two beautiful 18th Century houses with elegant wrought iron balconies.

VIA URBANA

Turn right onto Via Urbana and reach Suburra Square, where a shrine with several plaques recalls the lost Church of St. Salvatore in Tres Imagines, so called because of the three images of Christ reproduced on the portal and depicting the Trinity. At this point take Via Urbana, which is one of the derivations of the Argiletum.

During the Middle Ages it was called Vicolo Patricio, whose name derives from the Vicus Patricius of Roman times, of which a topographical reproduction remains in one of the marble fragments of the Forma Urbis Severiana, which shows an area rich in insulae and Roman houses. The current name derives from the last arrangement made by Pope Urban VIII and is now a fairly busy street, embellished by two 18th Century palaces and three important churches (two more were demolished for the arrangement of the street): that of St. Lawrence in Fountain, that of the Jesus Child with its monastery and that of St. Pudenziana.

THE CHURCH OF ST. LAWRENCE

The Church of St. Lawrence in Fountain was so called because of its proximity to a well or perhaps because once there were Roman baths here. In any case, the water from the well still gushes out and tradition remembers how St. Lawrence, held prisoner in some rooms of these baths, baptized with the water from the well his guardian Hippolytus, who converted to Christianity together with his whole family. As you probably know, St. Lawrence was martyred on the grill, while Hippolytus was condemned to forced labour in the mines of Sardinia: for this reason, the two Saints began to be venerated together in this church.

The most famous of the two is undoubtedly St. Lawrence: he is a saint much invoked by the Romans, not only because during his night (August 10th) you can see shooting stars and make a wish, but also because he takes care of lumbago, prevents fires, protects the vineyards, protects hosts and cooks.

The neoclassical façade of the church preserves in two niches the frescoed images of the two Saints. The interior has a single nave with a barrel vault and on the floor is carved the grill of St. Lawrence. Many of the interior decorations have been lost, but through a door you can access the basement, where a circular room is described by some sources as the prison of St. Lawrence and other sources such as the remains of the house of St. Hippolytus, where Lawrence was kept prisoner. It is still possible to see the small well decorated with two small columns, on which in bas-relief is depicted St. Lawrence baptizing Hippolytus.

The most important piece, however, is displayed in the sacristy: it is a bust of the Bernini’s school, depicting Pope Urban VIII, so realistic as to appear real.

THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHILD

After the crossroads with Via Panisperna, continuing along Via Urbana, you come to the ancient Church of St. Pudenziana, in front of which stands the great monastery with the Church of Jesus Child.

The convent was designed by Alessandro Specchi and Carlo Buratti, while the church is the work of both Buratti and Ferdinando Fuga, who finished it in 1732. Renovation works were necessary at the end of the 19th Century to raise the level of Via Urbana.

The facade of the church is simple, as is the entrance portal, while more elegant and sumptuous is the large window adorned at the top with a coat of arms with festoons. The interior is in the shape of a Greek cross and in the center holds an eight-segment dome.

Interesting artistically is the Chapel of the Passion, designed by Virginio Vespignani in 1856, in neo-Renaissance style with polychrome marble, gilded stuccoes and tempera paintings by Francesco Grandi (1831-1894). On the altar is a statuette of “Jesus Nazarene” from the 18th Century, seated crowned with thorns: this is what remains of a group of six statuettes each representing one of the moments of the Passion.

Go now in front of the Church of St. Pudenziana.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Church of St. Pudenziana

CHURCH OF ST. PUDENZIANA

Pudenziana, sister of St. Praxedes and daughter of the Roman senator Pudente, according to the tradition converted to Christianity by the apostle Peter together with his family, transformed part of her house into a domus ecclesiae. In truth, this was done by her father, who had hosted St. Peter in his home before the apostle was arrested, so that the church is also known as Titulus Pudentis. During the persecution of the Christians, accused by Nero and the people of the burning of the city, Senator Pudente, his wife Savinella and his daughters Prassede and Pudenziana suffered martyrdom.

Pudenziana had taken a vow of chastity and had dedicated herself with great fervour to assisting other Christians in need, burying the martyrs by collecting their blood in ampoules (as her sister Prassede already did) and then pouring it into a well which is still visible in the rooms of the house preserved under the church.

The church was restored by Popes Hadrian I (772-795) and Gregory VII (1073-1085). At the end of the 16th Century the architect Francesco da Volterra extensively restored it on commission of Cardinal Caetani. A rumour, probably false, tells that, while Francesco da Volterra dug the new foundations for the construction of the dome, his workers found another statue of the Laocoon, broken in several parts, which was soon made to disappear to sell the pieces.

Around 1870, Cardinal Luciano Bonaparte ordered the rebuilding of the facade, having it covered by Pietro Gagliardi‘s frescoes, which were supposed to reproduce the 16th Century ones that had been lost; today, unfortunately, even the modern ones have been lost.

The church, which today is at a lower level than the street level, is accessed via a double ramp from which you can admire the beautiful Romanesque five-storey bell tower of the 12th Century, decorated with disks of polychrome marble inserted into the masonry.

The portal reuses two ancient fluted columns and one of the most beautiful medieval trabeation in Rome, where among the vegetal spirals, symbol of Paradise, are the images of the Blessed, the Blessing Shepherd, the Pudenziana with the volume of the doctrine, Prassede and Pudenziana with the ampulla of blood and the Lamb of God with the nimbus.

THE INTERIOR DECORATIONS

The interior, originally with three naves, is now a single nave with side chapels. Here and there on the floor are the remains of the Roman building. While the elliptical dome with frescoes by Pomarancio (1520-1598) and the splendid 18th Century cupboards in the sacristy are of great value, by far the most precious treasure is the mosaic in the apse basin, depicting “Christ among the Apostles, Jerusalem and Golgotha with the symbols of the Evangelists and the personification of the Church of the Gentiles and the Church of the Circumcision crowning Saints Peter and Paul“. The mosaic, from the IV Century, therefore represents the so-called “parusia“, that is the apparition of Christ the Judge who comes with the Apostles to judge his people. The city of Jerusalem appears reproduced with the necessary fidelity to identify the Constantinian sanctuaries.

On the left is the Chapel of St. Peter with the marble group by Giacomo Della Porta depicting the “Handing over of the keys“.

Then follows the Marian oratory with frescoes from the time of Gregory VII, a real cycle dedicated to St. Pudenziana, St. Pudente, St. Paul and St. Timothy, as well as the Popes Valerian, Tiburtius and Urban (11th Century).

Here is the well of tradition, with the splendid Caetani Chapel next to it, begun by Francesco da Volterra and finished by Carlo Maderno, decorated with marble, stuccoes and funeral monuments. In the vestibule, 17th Century mosaics based on drawings by Federico Zuccari stand out. The four statues of Theological Virtues are also beautiful. An epigraph on the outside of the chapel reminds us that some important relics were kept in the church, among which some fragments of the tunic of Christ and the Cross.

The basement of the basilica preserves, as said, the remains of the Roman house that according to the tradition Novato and Timothy (two other sons of Pudente) would have replaced with a thermal building, transformed, as an inscription of 384 AD in titulus, in the church by a certain Leopardo, who was one of the commissioners of the wonderful mosaic in the apse.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
From St. Pudenziana to St. Mary Major

Turn now towards Esquilino Square, passing in front of a palace of academic style by Carlo Busiri Vici (1856-1925). Here, at the crossroads with Via Cavour, during the excavations for the subway in 1940 the remains of a villa of the Hadrian’s age appeared, returning Roman copies of statues of Skopas and Prassitele, now on display in the Capitoline Museums.

Now take Via Liberiana, which flanks the left side of the basilica of St. Mary Major, passing Via Paolina, opened by Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) with the demolition of the ancient patriarch of the basilica. Via dell’Olmata follows, also on the right, which until 1870 was a fairly rugged escarpment, covered with elm trees, where the Romans used to go for outings and drinks.

Many of the buildings in Via Liberiana have interesting stories, especially the first one which, despite its Liberty style facade, dates back to the 17th Century and was the home and studio of Pietro Bernini, father of the more famous Gianlorenzo, who here sculpted “Apollo and Daphne” and “The Rape of Proserpine“, two true masterpieces now preserved in the Borghese Gallery.

At the crossroads with Via Paolina there is Cassetta Palace, reserved by Paul V as the residence of the canons of the Basilica: inside are visible impressive remains of the Patriarch. It was in this ancient Patriarch that the conclave began, which later led to the election of the famous Pope Celestine V, the resigning Pontiff.

The building bears the name of Cardinal Francesco di Paola Cassetta, but in modern times it became linked to the name of one of his descendants, Nicola Cassetta, protagonist of some important Italian counter-espionage operations during the First World War.

Before turning your attention to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, observe the marble column in the center of the square, erected by the architect Carlo Maderno in 1614, on the orders of Pope Paul V, who had it removed from the nave of the Basilica of Maxentius. On the Corinthian capital was placed a bronze statue of the Virgin, made by William Bertelot, while the base of the column is decorated with dragons and eagles, present in the heraldic coat of arms of Pope Paul V.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Basilica of St. Mary Major - Introduction

BASILICA OF ST. MARY MAJOR

St. Mary Major was founded by Pope Sixtus III (432-446) in honor of Mary, Mother of God, as established by the Council of Ephesus in 431. To better celebrate Our Lady, relics from the Bethlehem Grotto and the rest of the cradle of Jesus were moved there, so the Basilica was also referred to as St. Mary in Praesepem.

Archaeological excavations underneath the basilica have provided important data on the topography of the hill: a building with a porticoed courtyard was found, which on one wall preserves a Roman calendar from the late imperial age, accompanied by scenes of the months and agricultural work. This building is not to be identified with the monumental market that Tiberius built in honour of his mother Livia (Macellum Liviae), but with an unidentifiable Roman construction. On the contrary, it is very interesting that, replacing the roof tiles of the basilica’s roof, many from the Roman imperial age were recovered, from Nero to Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius to Septimius Severus and Theodoric: some of them had engraved the monogram of Christ.

The oldest, early Christian basilica, with three naves and apse, was decorated with reused columns and mosaics with Bible stories. From the 15th Century onwards, however, the Basilica underwent numerous renovations and extensions. Alexander VI had the coffered ceiling built, Sixtus V and Paul V the side chapels, Clement XI built the palace to the left of the façade and finally, under Benedict XIV, with the architect Ferdinando Fuga, the basilica took its present form.

It is precisely Fuga who built the façade, enclosed between two twin palaces, preceded by a wide staircase and consisting of a five-arched portico with two triangular and one curvilinear tympanums, adorned by little angels with the statues of Virginity and Humility in the centre, clearly referring to the virtues of Mary. On the portico there is a large loggia with three arches surmounted by a balustrade with statues of Saints and Pontiffs with, in the centre, the statue of the Madonna and Child.

Now, let’s enter in the church: if you want, you could do it with us, booking the 4 Main Basilicas Tour of Rome Guides.

THE ATRIUM OF THE CHURCH

The atrium of the basilica reuses eight ancient columns and from it you can access the loggia where the upper part of the oldest part of the basilica is preserved, decorated with splendid mosaics on a golden background dating back to the beginning of the 14th Century. There you can see “Christ the Creator, the Virgin and Saints” and the “Episodes from the famous snow legend“. Each box has a caption accompanied by musical notes, in order to solemnly sing the ancient fable.

The interior of the atrium is also decorated with 18th Century reliefs including the one in which the patrician Giovanni and his wife offer their possessions to Pope Liberio. On the right is a large bronze statue of Philip IV of Spain, very munificent towards the basilica.

The central door leading into the church dates back to 1937 with bronze reliefs depicting the Incarnation, with the Holy Door on the far left.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Basilica of St. Mary Major - The interior

THE INTERIOR OF ST. MARY MAJOR

Forty-two columns on two rows of twenty-one divide the interior of St. Mary Major (85 meters long) into three naves, of which the first central one is wider. On them stand elegant Ionic capitals and an entablature of golden stuccoes.

The 18th Century arrangement given by the Fuga cancelled all the aesthetic differences between the parts of the basilica, which had been the result of many centuries of history: the architect worked to normalize all the frames, redoing the capitals, giving the same size to the paintings of the altars and eliminating the elevations of the Sforza and Sistine Chapels.

The ceiling, by Giuliano Da Sangallo, is an absolute masterpiece. The first load of gold that arrived in Spain from the newly discovered lands of America was donated by Catholic kings Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. The coffered and lacunar wooden ceiling with the coats of arms of two popes (Spanish by chance), both of the Borgia family, Callisto III and Alexander VI, was thus covered with the gold of the Americas. Thus the original early Christian ceiling was lost, but the popes’ desire for renewal towards the basilica was beginning to be unstoppable.

Even the Cosmatesque floor of Eugenio III (1145-1153), paid for by the Roman nobles Scotus and Giovanni Paparone, was partly altered by the architect Fuga because of architectural necessity and because it was considered too damaged in some points: thus the mosaic panel of the two patrons on horseback, a precious ancient image of the church, was lost.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Basilica of St. Mary Major - The mosaics of the central nave

THE MOSAICS OF THE CENTRAL NAVE

Along the walls of the central nave of St. Mary Major there is a series of mosaics which, together with the mosaics of the arch and the frieze of the entablature, is one of the greatest examples of musive art of the first half of the 5th Century and one of the most complete ideological programmes of dogmatic and theological representation guided by reasons of political sense, which can be defined as unique in Rome.

Let us now examine these mosaics.

THE MOSAICS OF THE LEFT WALL
  • Melchizedek, king of Salem, goes to meet Abraham, who returns victorious from his expedition against his brother Lot’s kidnappers, offering him bread and wine.
  • the oak tree of Mambre, where Abraham meets three wayfarers and invites them to stay with him. There they are, just below, sitting at Abraham’s table, who in the meantime offers them the calves and the wine and focaccia prepared by his wife Sara.
  • Abraham and his brother Lot separate with their families. Lot indicates that he will go to the city of Sodom.
  • Isaac invests of the progeny Jacob, imposing his hand on him, while on the table are his favorite foods that his wife had his son offer him.
  • Rachel announces to his father Laban the arrival of Jacob, his nephew, who is seen leading the flocks on the right. Under Laban and Jacob embrace and then again Laban invites Jacob into the house, with Rachel at the door and Lia at the other end.
  • Laban presents Rachel to Jacob, while beside him stands Leah, who Laban will then send to Jacob.
  • Jacob, with the sheep behind him, protests with his future father-in-law about replacing Rachel with Leah. Below is the wedding scene: Jacob and Rachel give themselves the right hand and Laban unites them in marriage according to the pagan rite. On the left Laban invites his friends to the wedding.
  • Having had six children by Leah and one by Rachel, Jacob goes to Laban to claim compensation for his services. Below him, the flocks are divided up.
  • God appears to Jacob who is grazing the flock, ordering them to leave. Below, Jacob gives the announcement of the departure to Rachel and Leah, who appears very worried.
  • On his journey Jacob meets Esau, who has become king of the city of Seir, who is seen behind him.
  • Jacob, now old, negotiates with King Emor and his messengers the purchase of the field on which he had set up his tents. Under Shechem’s insult to Jacob, from whom Leah’s daughter, Dina, was kidnapped.
  • The elders of the city of Shechem negotiate with Jacob for Shechem’s marriage to Dina.
  • The inhabitants of the town are informed of the decision.

At this point two lost panels are missing for the opening of the arch in front of the Sistine Chapel.

THE MOSAICS OF THE RIGHT WALL
  • Moses as a child is introduced to Pharaoh’s daughter for adoption. Behind Moses are in fact the five women needed for the Roman right to adoption. Below, the little Moses is in the middle of a gathering of adults who animatedly discuss with him and marvel at his youthful wisdom.
  • Rachel joins Moses and Sefora’s hands under a pavilion, while friends and wedding guests flock to the sides. Under Moses in the centre she guards the flocks with her father-in-law and another shepherd, but her attention is drawn to the burning bush at the top right.
  • The Jews led by Moses are huddled on the left bank of the Red Sea, while on the other side the Egyptians arrive in force on chariots and horses. Here, however, the sea closes again and the Pharaoh, with his shield raised, becomes prey to the waves.
  • The Jews listen to Aaron calm them, while Moses turns to God who appears ready to help him. Below, the people of Israel rejoice because many quails are beginning to fall from the sky, while Moses, Aaron and Ur witness the miracle with satisfaction.
  • Moses turns to the Israelites who complain of thirst and, dipping his rod in it, makes the bitter waters of Mara sweet. Around him are the Jews watering themselves.
  • During the fight of the Jews with the Amalekites at Rafidam, Moses stretched out his arms in the praying gesture, thus obtaining from God the victory of his men, led by Joshua.
  • Moses and Aaron in front of the oratory of the Holy Ark listen to the story of the explorers who have returned from their patrol of foreign cities. In the lower part, Moses, Caleb and Nun escape popular stoning by taking refuge in the temple, where the Ark of the Covenant appears and a cloud of fire protects them.
  • Moses hands over the Law to the Jews, and then collects it on Mount Nebo where he falls asleep in the sleep of death. At the bottom, some Israelites carry the Ark containing the Law.
  • The Jews, under Joshua’s guidance, cross the Jordan with the Ark. Below, Joshua is with the army outside the walls of Jericho.
  • The archangel Michael appears to Joshua, who pays homage to him, while the explorers descending from the walls of Jericho report back to Joshua.
  • Rahab, on the walls of Jericho, witnesses the onslaught of the city, which (below) will fall because the Ark will be passed before its walls while the priests play the famous trumpets.
  • The battle for the conquest of Haj, with the Jews entering the city and Joshua on the left directing the assault, with God suggesting the military operations to be done.
  • Joshua at the head of his knights defeats and puts the Amorites to flight. In the lower scene, the hand of God intervenes by dropping stones from heaven upon the Amorites.
  • Joshua, before the army, orders the sun to stop.
  • The defeated kings of the Amorites are led before Joshua, who sits before the torment of the captive kings.
THE MEANING OF THE MOSAICS OF ST. MARY MAJOR

The meaning of the mosaic scenes lies in the symbolism attributed to the Holy Scriptures through a Catholic reading: Abraham is the faith in one God, Jacob is the figure of the Chosen People, Moses is the proclamation of the Divine Law, Joshua is the Victory of Christianity over pagan idolatry. All these leaders of God’s people, however, also indicate that at the end of the biblical historical path there is the new leader, who is Christ, and therefore his vicar, the Pope.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Basilica of St. Mary Major - The Triumphal Arch

ST. MARY MAJOR – THE TRIUMPHAL ARCH

The symbolic itinerary of the mosaics of St. Mary Major, the only one in the world, continues on the triumphal arch.

In the centre we see the throne, inscribed in a clypeus, where an invisible God is seated, replaced by a cross, with the Book of Revelation at his feet and, on the sides, the apostles Peter and Paul. Below is a caption: “Sixtus, bishop to the people of God, indicates the role of the pontiff, who occupies God’s place on earth and calls the people to worship Mary in the basilica“.

On the left we see the Annunciation, the Vision of Joseph and the Epiphany, all in the regal forms of the Byzantine court.

On the right are the Presentation in the Temple of Jesus, the Prophetic Dream of Joseph and The little Jesus received in Egypt by King Aphrodisio.

Again on the left you can see the Massacre of the Innocents, while on the right you can see the Three Kings received by Herod, with the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem closing the two sides.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Basilica of St. Mary Major - Decorations of the church

RIGHT AISLE

At the side of the entrance to the nave we see the sepulchral monument of Clement IX (1667-1669), the work of Carlo Rainaldi, whose marble medallions depict St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Angel’s Bridge.

Walking along the nave, under the fifth porphyry disk of the ancient Cosmatesque floor, are the ashes of the patrician Giovanni and his wife, the first two patrons of the Basilica.

Along the right aisle stands out the Chapel of the Baptismal Font, made by Luigi Valadier with a cup of porphyry. Above, on the left, you can see the bust of Emanuele Ne Vunda, affectionately nicknamed “Negrita” by the Romans, who came to Rome as ambassador of the Congo. The subsequent sacristy of the canons is decorated with splendid walnut furniture with the coat of arms of Paul V and two admirable kneelers with mother-of-pearl inlays.

From the baptistery you can move on to the small Chapel of Saints Michael and Peter in Chains (today a modest bookshop) where parts of ancient frescoes depicting the Evangelists, which some attribute to Piero della Francesca (1455-1459), are preserved in the cross vault.

From here you can go out into the external courtyard, where you can see the Romanesque-Gothic bell tower, which is the highest in Rome with its 75 meters, with its mullioned windows and polychrome marble. Then note the marble well, with its beautiful ancient iron grille, and the column in the shape of a cannon, built by Clement VIII to commemorate the abjuration of Henry of Navarre (Henry IV King of France: “Paris is well worth a mass“). Today, unfortunately, the column appears without the cross and the capital that supported it.

THE SISTINE CHAPEL

Go back to the Basilica and visit the wonderful Sistine Chapel, completed in 1589 for Sixtus V by Domenico Fontana and Carlo Maderno and frescoed by Cesare Nebbia. The polychrome marbles on the walls and columns were taken from the monumental nymphaeum at the foot of the Palatine Hill, called Septizodium, commissioned by Emperor Septimius Severus as a scenographic backdrop for those who entered Rome from the Appian Way.

In the centre is an altar in marble and semi-precious stones with four gilded angels supporting the ciborium, in gilded bronze, in the form of a church with a central plan and a dome decorated with reliefs. A double ramp descends to the Oratory of the Nativity, where for centuries the famous Nativity of Arnolfo di Cambio (13th Century) was placed.

On the walls of the chapel are the funerary monuments of Sixtus V and Pius V, designed by Domenico Fontana. That of Sixtus V shows the pope kneeling among the depictions of the Pope’s religious and social works, including the Dome of St. Peter, the soldiers returning with the severed heads of the bandits and the Vatican obelisk. The monument to Pius V shows the statue of the Pope and, among the scenes, the battle of Lepanto and the victory over the Huguenots, with the terrible massacre of the night of St. Bartholomew.

Leaving the Sistine Chapel, next to the high altar, you can see on the floor the tombstone of the Bernini family, where both the great Gian Lorenzo and his father Pietro are buried.

LEFT AISLE

Wanting to go back to the left aisle, we can now dwell on two specific chapels.

The first is undoubtedly the Sforza Chapel, considered by some to be the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti, and by others built by Giacomo Della Porta, based on drawings by Michelangelo.

The elegant elliptical plan with vaulted ceiling is adorned with frescoes by Cesare Nebbia and the Assumption by the painter Siciolante, while Michelangelo’s hand is clearly visible in the two sepulchral monuments of Cardinals Guido and Alessandro.

THE PAULINE CHAPEL

Another splendid chapel in the Basilica is the Pauline Chapel, built at the behest of Pope Paul V by the architect Flaminio Ponzio between 1605 and 1615. The chapel, decorated with very expensive antique marble, is decorated with extraordinary works of art: the Doctors of the Church by Giovanni Baglione, the Prophets painted by Cavalier d’Arpino in the pendentives of the dome and the bronze relief by Stefano Maderno, depicting Pope Liberius tracing the perimeter of the Basilica in the snow. In this chapel is preserved the Madonna dearest to the Roman people: it is an icon known as “Salus Populi Romani“, a Byzantine work of unknown date.

The chapel also offers two remarkable funerary monuments: on the one hand, the one dedicated to Paul V, with the statue of the Pope on his knees and numerous events told in bas-relief, including his coronation as Pope and the construction of the city walls of Ferrara; on the other, the funerary monument of Clement VIII, with the statue of the Pope seated and the representation of his coronation and peace between Philip II and Henry IV.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Basilica of St. Mary Major - Apse and altar

ST. MARY MAJOR – APSE AND HIGH ALTAR

At this point you will be faced with one of the most extraordinary mosaics of Christianity, executed by Iacopo Torriti in 1295 on commission of Pope Nicolò IV and Giacomo Colonna.  In the centre, within a stellate halo in the background of the firmament, Christ crowns the Madonna, while both are seated on God’s throne surrounded by angels.

Above, on two sides, vegetal racemes wrap themselves up enriched by peacocks, symbol of Paradise, while in the centre, at the top, the empyrean opens. Below them are Saints Francis, Paul and Peter on the left and John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and St. Anthony of Padua on the right. Much smaller and kneeling can be seen the commissioners.

On the underside of the arch, in the centre, is the monogram of Christ and, in the arch itself, the Agnus Dei. Then, on the arch, there are the symbols of the evangelists and the 24 old men of the Apocalypse. Finally, while below the apse flows the river Jordan, symbol of baptism, between the opening of the arch there are the episodes of the Life of Mary: Annunciation, Nativity, Dormition, Epiphany, Presentation at the temple.

Above the high altar, the architect Fuga built the canopy with four porphyry columns decorated by Valadier with golden bronze leaves.

The hypogeum, renovated by Vespignani in 1864, houses a silver and crystal urn from Valadier, where the relics of the cradle of Jesus are placed. In front of it is the colossal marble statue of Pius IX praying, sculpted in 1883 by Ignazio Jacometti.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides
The Esquiline Obelisk

THE ESQUILINE OBELISK

Now go out through one of the doors of the apse of St. Mary Major and observe the granite obelisk that stands on a high base. It originally stood, together with its twin (which now stands on the Quirinal Hill) in front of the entrance to the Mausoleum of Augustus. Both obviously come from Egypt, but the absence of hieroglyphics does not inform us about the first place where they were raised.

The obelisk was found in 1519 in the area of the Mausoleum, broken into three parts, and was left in the middle of the road for a long time, hindering traffic. The complaints of the inhabitants of the area and the desire of Sixtus V to raise the fallen obelisks led Domenico Fontana to transfer the obelisk to St. Mary Major, raising it again in less than six months.

On the day of the inauguration, Sixtus V performed an ceremony of exorcisation, to remove the devilish pagan presence from the obelisk.

Monti District Itinerary 3, Monti District – Itinerary 3, Rome Guides