A Tourist in Rome - Santa Maria in Aracoeli
|Location:||West side of the Victor Emmanual Monument, at the top of the first long flight of steps|
|Metro:||Colloseo, or Circo Massimo and Bus #160, or see it on my To the Forum Boarium and Beyond Walking Tour instead|
|Time:||about 30 minutes|
|Hours:||9 AM - 12:30 PM and 2:30 PM to 5:30 PM (winter) or 6:30 PM (summer)|
124 steps (1st and 2nd photos below) lead up to the front door of the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in its original plain unfinished brick facade. Those steps were once climbed, on their knees, by Roman women who wished for a baby. They believed the struggle would be rewarded with pregnancy; others believed climbing the steps on their knees would pardon their sins. I think it's difficult enough to get up those steps on my feet, let alone even thinking of climbing them on my knees, but then, I don't ever want to be pregnant. Do be very careful when climbing or descending this stairway, especially if the weather is bad, since there are no landings to limit a very long fall. The church at the top of those steps is on the site where Emperor Augustus had a premonition of the coming of Mary and Christ standing on an "altar in the sky" (ara coeli). The church is located on the top of the Arx, the smaller and taller peak of the Capitoline Hill. The church was built in the sixth century on the ancient site of the Temple to Juno, and renovated and expanded in 1249-1250. It is loaded with history, as might be expected from its location on the Capitoline Hill. For example, the arches that divide the nave from the aisles are supported on 22 columns scavenged from Roman ruins, with no two columns alike (3rd and 4th photos below). They are made of various stones and styles. The capitals are also a mix of Doric, Ionic, Corinthian or Composite. Since the columns vary in length, some have bases, some have their bases on plinths and others have no bases at all. The wooden gilded and painted ceiling (3rd and 5th photos below) was given to the church in 1575 in thanksgiving for the Christian victory against the Ottomans in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), and the central coffer (6th photo below) is a wooden relief carving of the Virgin and Child standing on the altar in the sky. A SPQR city shield is on either side of the central coffer; one is right-side-up near the top of the 5th photo below.
An inscription (Cubiculo Augustorum) on the third column of the left side, counting from the front door (1st and 2nd photos below, and the rear-most column on the left side of the 3rd photo above), states that it comes from the bedroom of the Augustus, another name for the emperor. This column is far too tall to have come from the bedroom (cubiculum) in the modest house on the Palatine Hill that Augustus himself lived in, but could certainly have come from one of the immense palaces of the later emperors. As in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria in Trastevere and probably several others, the floors in Santa Maria in Aracoeli are excellent examples of cosmatesque pavement, a style of inlaid stonework used in medieval Italy, derived from that of the Byzantine Empire (3rd, 4th and 5th photos below, and 3rd and 4th photos above). The cosmatesque floors in this church were damaged by the hooves of horses when during the French invasion of 1797, the church was desecrated by being used by the French cavalry.
Tombstones are scattered throughout the floor (1st and 2nd photos below). The pulpit of the church (3rd photo below) is thought to have been designed by Bernini. Between the second and third chapels on the right is a colossal statue of Pope Gregory XIII (4th photo below) sculpted in 1585 by Pietro Paolo Olivieri. It used to be in the Capitoline Museum, but was ejected in 1872 after the fall of the Papal government and subsequently found a home here. A statue of Leo X is shown in the 5th photo below.
The main altar of the church is shown in the 1st photo below. But the most famous thing in the church is Santo Bambino, an olive-wood statue of the baby Jesus from the 15th century which was carved from a tree from the Garden of Gethsemane. The Santo Bambino is brought out only at Christmas. The original statue was stolen in 1994, but the tradition continues with a modern copy (2nd photo below) housed in the Chapel of the Holy Child (3rd photo below). The San Bernardino Chapel, first on the right, features a fresco by Bernardino Pinturicchio (4th photo below) in which Saint Bernardino of Siena holds an open book which extols the name of Jesus to St. Augustine, on the left, and St. Antony of Padua, on the right.
Another chapel is shown in the 1st photo below. One side of the trancept of the church is shown in the 2nd photo below. Mary is shown in the 3rd photo below.
Those desiring a less-strenuous way into the church can climb the more gentle ramp to the right of the stairs (5th photo below), which leads to the Campidoglio. In that piazza are the three buildings which form the Capitoline Museum. Walk around the right side of the building on the left (the one which is nearest to the huge white Victor Emmanuel Monument), and climb the white 30-step stairway (1st photo below) leading up to 3 arches (2nd photo below). Angle to the left on those stairs and you'll find a small side entrance to the church (3rd photo below). If you don't enter the church through that door, be sure to peek outside the side entrance while you're inside the church to see the great mosaic of 'The Madonna and Two Angels' above that door (3rd photo below) and the granite column just outside that doorway (4th photo below). And returning back to that first photo at the top of this page, the two stairways at this location are sure a pretty sight, especially early in the morning before all the tourists arrive; the stairway to Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the left, the Cordonata stairway to the Campidoglio on the right.