The Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of my favorite churches in Rome. While the entire area of Trastevere is becoming increasingly more popular among tourists and is now a major nightlife hub in the Eternal City, the church remains a safe haven, away from the largest tourist crowds that are typical in Rome. But that’s just one of the reasons you should visit.
Indeed, the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is – quite simply – a gorgeous church, home of several art pieces you should take your time to admire. If you happen to be wandering in this part of town, you should definitely consider visiting. In fact, you should actually make it a point to include Trastevere in your Rome itinerary.
Curious to find out more? Continue reading this post: I will be sharing the history of the church, the main things you need to spot when visiting, and lots of information that will help you plan your visit.
Head over to my post A Short Guide To Trastevere, Rome.
The History Of The Basilica Di Santa Maria In Trastevere, Rome
Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in Rome. It was originally one of several titular – churches of Christian worship in ancient Rome. It wasn’t just any titular, however: Santa Maria in Trastevere is, in fact, believed to be the first place in Rome where mass was openly celebrated.
A Christian house church was first founded here by Pope Callixtus I in around 220 AD. This was on the site of a refuge for retired soldiers called the Taberna Meritoria. It was Emperor Alexander Severus, reigning from 222 until 235, who created a space for Christian use on this site.
He did so in order to settle a dispute between tavern keepers and the Christians. It is said that the emperor stated, “I prefer that it should belong to those who honor God, whatever be their form of worship.”
The next iteration of the church is thought to have been built under Pope Julius I, who was pope between 337 and 352. It was built on a larger scale than the vernacular building that was situated here first, as a specific place of Christian worship. According to a legend, however, in 38 BC a sudden gush of oil erupted from the ground on this very site. This was seen by some to herald the birth of Jesus.
Some sources claim that the dedication to Santa Maria was established in 112 by Pope Alexander I.
Others claim that it wasn’t always known as Santa Maria in Trastevere. In fact, the church has gone by various names and has been dedicated to various saints throughout its 1,800-year history. And aside from the name, the church has undergone various renovations.
Two big restorations took place in both the 5th and the 8th centuries. In 790, Pope Gregory IV oversaw a major reordering. This was a time when various bands of so-called barbarians were overrunning the Italian peninsula, from the Lombards to Saracens.
In order to protect the relics of martyrs that were located in catacombs outside the walls of the city, many of them were brought closer to Rome and enshrined in the city’s various churches.
This was also the case in this particular church. Pope Gregory IV enshrined the relics of Saints Cornelius, Callixtus I (founder of the basilica), Julius I and Calepodius. The pope at this time also founded a college of priests, who were intended to be the administrators of the basilica.
The church as it is seen today is a reconstruction of the earlier church, which was carried out under Pope Innocent II between 1138 and 1148. The reconstruction was necessary as the pope himself had actually ordered the church to be destroyed, along with the tomb of his rival – the Antipope Anacletus II. This was so that he could be buried in the former spot occupied by his nemesis.
To rebuild the basilica, the pope utilized raw materials that came from the Baths of Caracalla. Some parts of it are also believed to have been taken from the nearby Temple to Isis. In fact, when the capitols (top parts) of the Ionic columns used in the reconstruction were identified by 19th-century scholars to contain the faces of Isis, Serapis and Harpocrates, Pope Pius IX ordered them to be chiseled off.
The design of the church was based on the original Romanesque style, at a time when the more ornate Gothic style was becoming more fashionable in Europe. Because many of these old stones from the Baths of Caracalla were used, it’s quite difficult for historians to work out what parts of the church are original, and what was scavenged from the baths.
Unfortunately, Pope Innocent II would not live to see the completion of his project. However, he did leave enough money to ensure that it would be finished.
Further restoration work took place over the centuries. Between 1580 and 1595, the church’s all-important doorways were altered; and, in 1596, the ceiling of the transept was changed. The ornate nave ceiling was added in 1617 (previously it would have been relatively undecorated).
As a whole, however, the nave still stands on its original foundations and takes up the same space as the pre-12th century plan.
In more modern times, between 1855 and 1856, the questionable restoration by Pope Pius IX led to the church being heavily changed. During this redecoration, many archeological finds were uncovered, but sadly were left either to be destroyed or were completely ignored and went unrecorded.
And, as mentioned before, ancient stonework was erased. Additions included stained glass windows, side aisles, frescoes and the transept roof was restored.
A particularly important aspect of Santa Maria in Trastevere is the fact it is one of the earliest titular – a church that is given to a member of the clergy who has become a cardinal. The first of these was in the third century, with Saint Calepodius (not an official cardinal, but with the equivalent rank). One cardinal in the 18th century was Henry, Duke of York and pretender to the English crown.
Today, the church is a marvel of architecture and art that wows visitors at every corner.
What To See When Visiting Santa Maria In Trastevere, Rome
The Madonna della Clemenza
One of the most important pieces of art to be found in the church is the Madonna della Clemenza. This iconographic panel painting is what is known as an encaustic painting, which uses heated wax with added pigments. The wax is then applied to the wood through a canvas.
This piece of art, which depicts the Madonna and child, is believed to date back to between the 6th and 9th century, and is believed to have Byzantine origins.
In the painting, Mary is shown with iconography that is almost completely unique to Rome in late antiquity. She is seen wearing clothes that are specifically those worn by a Byzantine empress – a style known as maiesta (majesty) – showing her as the Queen of Heaven.
In the painting, Mary is seated on a throne covered in pearls while she also wears a crown that is encrusted with pearls.
Christ, depicted as a child in this picture, appears dressed in purple robes that are similar to his mother’s. Both he and Mary have golden haloes. This Marian icon is one of five of the oldest in existence, and also the largest of those five. It illustrates the rise of Christianity and the equation of Mary and Jesus with royalty.
Whether or not the painting was initially intended to be housed at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is still debated by scholars. There seems to be evidence in which the icon is documented during the reign of Pope Gregory IV (pope from 828 to 844).
Others say that it was actually commissioned for a new palace in the city’s Greek quarter during the short papacy of John VII; the palace never finished. Pope John II is believed to be depicted in the painting, kneeling at Mary’s feet, though the painting is worn; if so, this makes it one of the first known donor portraits, which shows the person who paid for the painting within it.
During the Catholic Revival or Counter-Reformation, following the Religious Wars of Europe, the icon was framed. The reason for it being framed was that, if the icon was a framed piece of art, it could not be accused of being a “false idol” and therefore remain in place at the church. Today the icon still hangs over the Capella al Temps in the basilica.
The columns inside the church, all 22 of them, are ancient Roman in origin. It is thought that they come from a variety of monuments, including the Temple of Isis and the Baths of Caracalla (built during the early 3rd century).
The church’s facade was fully restored by Carlo Fontana in 1702. Fontana replaced the church’s ancient porch with the current one, which is a sloping, tiled roof. It’s also from here that you’ll see the church’s octagonal fountain, which sits in the piazza in front of the fountain; Fontana (a coincidental name!) also restored this too.
The facade features five arches, which are edged by Ionic pilasters and blue marble Ionic columns. Here visitors to the church can see four Baroque statues on the balustrade; these depict Saints Calixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius.
This 12th-century structure is made of brick in the Romanesque style. Each of its four storeys have been separated by decorative cornices; the clock can be seen on the second storey of the campanile, where it has been in place for the past 250 years.
Close to the top, there is a mosaic of the Madonna and Child, which also dates from the 12th century. The mosaic depicts the Madonna sitting on a throne while breastfeeding the child, surrounded by 10 lamp-holding women.
This depiction of Mary aligns with the late-Medieval, early Renaissance popular image of her, but the motif actually has roots in the much earlier 7th century Coptic imagery which can be found at Wadi Natrun in Egypt.
Of course, it isn’t always there, but during the Advent season around Christmas you’ll find this in the Crib Chapel inside the basilica. Interestingly, this particular Nativity is depicted as if it is happening in the Piazza di Santa Maria outside the church; it’s a scale model, complete with tiny figures and even a small version of the basilica itself.
Practical Info About Visiting The Basilica Di Santa Maria In Trastevere
How to fit the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere into your itinerary
It is relatively easy to fit Santa Maria in Trastevere into your itinerary – especially if you are staying in Trastevere yourself. If not, it’s still easy to combine a trip to the church with various other sites in the area.
Nearby are the Sapienza-run Rome Botanical Gardens and the National Gallery of Art in Palazzo Corsini.
While Trastevere does have these additional sights, simply wandering around this quite authentic area of Rome is something to do in itself.
Trastevere isn’t far from the Vatican and from Castel Sant’Angelo. It’s a pleasant 25 minutes walk. You can just walk down the stairs from the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II and all the way along the Tiber River until Ponte Sisto, where you can walk back up and finally enter Trastevere where the church is located.
And if you time your visit for late afternoon or evening, then you’ll have the exciting gastronomic delights of Trastevere to enjoy afterwards. There are plenty of places to eat and drink in the area – simply take your pick!
You should also read my post 13 Best Restaurants In Trastevere.
Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere opening hours
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is open every day from 7:30 am to 8:30 pm (9:00 pm on Saturdays). In August the basilica closes between 1:00 pm and 3:30 pm. Visiting the church is free, and there are no security checks for visitors.
Best time to visit the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere
For those who wish to attend a service at the basilica, masses are held on weekdays at 8:30 am and 5:30 pm. If you don’t want to attend a mass, then avoiding these times is probably better as you won’t be able to wonder around freely and take photos then.
A particularly nice time to visit would be towards the late afternoon or later evening. That means, after enjoying a visit to this historic church, you can head out into the often bustling Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere to find somewhere to enjoy an aperitivo or something to eat.
The fountain is a particularly popular place for people to meet with friends before heading out into the evening.
Should you get a guided tour?
Santa Maria in Trastevere has a lot of history going on, so a guided tour could really help to unravel some of the lesser-known aspects of the church. All walking tours of Trastevere will include a visit to Santa Maria in Trastevere on their itinerary.
I recommend this Underground Trastevere Guided Walking Tour by Touriks. It’s the tour I took myself and truly enjoyed it. My guide, Zenda, took me to some of the most unique spots in the neighborhood and skillfully explained their significance, putting everything in context.
That said, a tour is not necessary if you simply want to soak up a quiet moment in the church, just admiring the beauty of the space.
A modest dress code should be followed if you plan on entering any Catholic church in Rome, let alone this important basilica. That means making sure that your shoulders and upper legs (above the knee) are covered. Low-cut tops or crop tops are also not good for visiting churches.
Is photography allowed?
Photography for personal use is allowed. And though not strictly forbidden, it’s probably not a good idea to use flash photography, a tripod or a selfie stick.
There are no toilets situated on-site. However, the nearest public toilet is located near Belli tram stop, which is around a five-minute walk to the east.
There is disabled access to the building; the front entrance has no stairs. However, not all parts of the church can be easily accessed by those using wheelchairs or with other mobility issues.
How to get there
To arrive at Santa Maria in Trastevere by bus, take the number 75 from Rome Termini station and get off at Morosini E. bus stop. If you want to arrive by tram, the nearest tram stop is Belli, which is served by tram 8. Trastevere is a leisurely and panoramic 25 minutes walk from Castel Sant’Angelo.
If you planning on spending time in Trastevere, these other posts will be useful:
- The Best Hotels In Trastevere Rome
- The Best Food In Rome, As Told By A Local
- A Guide To Visiting The Basilica Of Santa Cecilia In Trastevere, Rome