Churches of Lazio
Roma •  Viterbo

Rome has many interesting churches with fine art work worth a visit.   Many churches stay open all day but some close for a few hours in the afternoon.  These churches have free entrance (2006) but some have museums, cloisters, or archaeological areas with a fee.

19th-century drawing of Old Saint Peter's Basilica as it is thought to have looked around 1450. The Vatican Obelisk is on the left, still standing on the spot where it was erected on the orders of the Emperor Caligula in 37 A.D.

Saint Peter's Basilica - today


The Basilica of St. Peter is traditionally believed to have been erected over the spot where St. Peter was buried after his martyrdom in Rome around 64 CE.  That he was indeed martyred, that it took place in Rome, and where it took place, remain controversial questions. Some scholars support the tradition that St. Peter was buried Ad Catacumbas (i.e. at the catacombs of San Sebastiano) on the Via Appia.

Over two hundred years later, in the early 4th century, Emperor Constantine (died 337 CE) erected a basilica dedicated to St. Peter on the Vatican Hill on the south side of the Tiber River. The basilica was erected with difficulty on the sloping side of Vatican Hill, the floor built out from the hill and over an earlier Roman cemetery.  The fact that this awkward site was chosen, instead of level ground to the south, has convinced some that it was Constantine's intention to mark the site of the apostle's tomb.  However, the site may also have been chosen to both mark the cemetery which may otherwise have been a sacred place, and, in more practical terms, to remove the building from the poorly-drained, swampy ground near the river.


left: Michelangelo's Pietà, was completed when Michelangelo was just 24.   After it was vandalized with an axe in 1972, the sculpture was placed behind protective glass.   right: Interior shows the transept arms to right and left, and the chancel beyond the baldicchi.

View of Rome from the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica

Bernini's monumental colonnade with saints.


Excavations undertaken in 1939 underneath the floor of St. Peter's uncovered a Roman cemetery. At a spot located directly beneath the main altar of the basilica was discovered a small shrine. Although there was no indication other than location, it was claimed by some that the shrine was dedicated to St. Peter.

Besides trying to identify the presumed burial spot, or shrine, of St. Peter under the basilica, it was the burden of the excavators also to prove that Constantine himself was not mistaken about the location of St. Peter's tomb.

The Roman cemetery on Vatican Hill was evidently located next to the Circus of Nero. It is conjectured by some that St. Peter was first martyred (by being crucified upside down) in the circus, and then buried in the neighboring cemetery.

Constantine's basilica was demolished in the 16th century and the present church was built on the same site. The Basilica of St. Peter is the 'mother-church' of the Roman Catholic faith and has remained a sacred site and a place of pilgrimage for many hundreds of years



Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterno


The Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano is Rome's cathedral, the seat of Christiandom in Rome.  The Basilica was Rome's first church, and the adjoining Lateran palace the home to the Popes until they left for Avignon in 1305.  The Basilica of St John Lateran was burned, sacked, ravaged by earthquakes and rebuilt several times over the years.

There are six papal tombs inside. The papal altar is said to contain many relics, including the heads of Saints Peter and Paul and part of St Peter's wooden altar.


Santa Maria Maggiore


The present building, Santa Maria Maggiore, near Rome's Termini Station was built over the pagan temple of Cybele and dates from the time of Pope Sixtus III in the fifth century. The 16th century ceiling was fashioned from a design by Giuliano da Sangallo.  

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore became a Palace of the Popes when it was determined that the the Lateran Palace was in no condition to accept the Popes returning from Avignon. The papal residence was later moved to the Palace of the Vatican in Vatican City.

It has some beautiful 5th century Biblical mosaics.  The marble floor, bell tower, and mosaics on the triumphal arch and in the loggia are medieval.  Its spectacular ceiling is said to be decorated with gold Columbus brought back from the new world.

The Feast of the Assumption of Mary is celebrated each August 15 at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.





The Pantheon (Latin Pantheon), from Greek Πάνθειον Pantheon, meaning "Temple of all the gods") is a building in Rome which was originally built as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt circa 125 CE during Hadrian's reign. The intended degree of inclusiveness of this dedication is debated. The generic term pantheon is now applied to a monument in which illustrious dead are buried.


It is the best preserved of all Roman buildings, and perhaps the best preserved building of its age in the world. It has been in continuous use throughout its history. The design of the extant building is sometimes credited to the Trajan's architect Apollodorus of Damascus, but it is equally likely that the building and the design should be credited to emperor Hadrian's architects, but not Hadrian himself as many art scholars once thought.


Since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been used as a Catholic church. The Pantheon is the oldest standing domed structure in Rome. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres (142 ft).


Church facade at the Abbey of Casamari.

Casamari's cloisters


The Abbazia di Casamari (Abbey of Casamari) is a 13th-century, still-active Cistercian monastery southeast of Rome, near Frosinone, in the Italian region of Lazio.

The Abbey of Casamari is named for the "house of Marius." Caius Marius was consul of Rome a record number of seven times; his son was the Sulla's opponent in the civil war of 88 BC.

A Benedictine monastery was established on the site in the early 11th century and briefly flourished before falling into decline in the 12th century.   Following a visit from St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134, the Abbey of Casamari became the 29th daughter house of Bernard's Abbey of Clairvaux.

The Cistercians completely rebuilt the Benedictine buildings between 1203 and 1217, designing a new abbey church and monastery based on the standard Cistercian pattern.  Much of the abbey's architecture and the monks within survived the many hardships of the centuries, including a siege by Muzio Attendolo Sforza in 1417, commendatory abbots from 1430, closure by Napoleon in 1811, and suppression in 1873 (assets were confiscated, but the monks stayed on). The abbey was extensively restored in the 1950s.

Today,  the beautiful Abbey of Casamari still houses a Cistercian community numbering about 20. Despite their small number, the monks have founded new monasteries in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Brazil and the USA, and oversee 19 other monasteries.



Capuchin Crypt.   left: A standing Capuchin monk skeleton surrounded by patterns made with bones.   right:The Crypt of the Three Skeletons. Two small skeletons of children rest on the back wall,each holding a skull with wings made from shoulder blades.  The third skeleton,impressed into the ceiling, is surrounded by a halo. It holds a scythe, the symbol of deathwhich cuts down all like grass in a field, and a pair of scales, representing God's judgment. 


If you're a lover of the macabre... Rome has some fine skeletons for you.  Some are relics; others, sculptures.

At the Capuchin church*, one of the most popular and well visited, is found in Via Veneto, visit the crypt (there's a small entrance fee).  Remains of mummified monks stand gloomily surveying the scene; the bones of others have been used to decorate the walls and ceiling with a morbid imitation of rococo plasterwork.

At the back of the church, Santa Maria del Popolo, an artist created his own tomb, with a skeleton in the closet - grinning out at you from behind a grille.  And in the floor of the nave there's a brass skull and crossbones marking a grave.  Don't forget the skeleton in the floor of the Chigi chapel, either - a marvellous work in many coloured marble.

More skulls and skeletons on the little church of Santa Maria della Orazione e della Morte, in Via Giulia.   This was the headquarters of a guild that helped bury 'unclaimed' bodies - of prisoners who had been executed, or drowned men washed up in the Tiber - so the skulls are quite appropriate. A tasty little skeleton invites you to drop a donation in the collecting box.

Visit San Silvestro in Capite to see the head of John the Baptist.  Or rather, one of them, one in Amiens, France, and apparently there's one in Damascus.

Other bodies abound - Santa Francesca Romana lies in state in the church named after her just off the Forum, while Saint Filippo Neri lies in the Chiesa Nuova (his face replaced by a silver mask).

But the most dramatic skeletons are those in St Peter's, by Bernini. These are on the papal tombs in the east end of the basilica - not always open to the public, unfortunately. These skeletons are real characters; one writes the name of the dead Pope in his book of fame, the other rises up, half-hidden in the marble shround that covers the base of the tomb, brandishing an hourglass. A real sense of drama and the most gorgeous baroque treatment, in fine marble and gilt bronze.

The Crypt of the Skulls in the Cemetery of the Capuchins. In the centre, you can just about make out an hour-glass with wings made from shoulder blades

Many of the monk skeletons are supine
in individual niches.

* Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception (1645), located on Via Veneto, near Barbarini Square.  Visit the crypt (there's a small admission fee) to see the remains of mummified monks, the door is manned by a Capuchin monk.  The bones in this crypt were nailed to the wall and arranged in patterns: cross, floral, arch, triangle and circle, as well as forming objects. A large clock is composed of vertebrae, foot bones and finger bones. The single hour hand represents the idea that time has no beginning or end.

The bones in the six-room crypt represent over 4,000 individual monks.  It is said monks fled the French Revolution (1793-94) and took refuge at the Church in Roma. There are many theories about the arrangment of the bones, but most stories end with the notion that the anonymous artist reaped his heavenly reward. One tale says that a French Capuchins did the work, no doubt mimicing the catacombs of Paris. The Marquis de Sade visited the crypt in 1775 and described it as "An example of funerary art worthy of an English mind", created "by a German priest who lived in this house".




Cathedral of Viterbo


The Cathedral of Viterbo was, according to legend, built on the site of an Etruscan temple to Hercules and although this can not be verified, Etruscan and Roman foundations can be seen on several of the buildings which make up the Plaza di San Lorenzo where the duomo is situated.  An early medieval parish church to Saint Lawrence had formerly occupied the area before construction began on the cathedral in the late twelfth century. Even as the duomo was constructed, the town was already spreading northwards down the hill, leaving the plaza somewhat isolated on the highest edges of town, thus restricting it’s attraction to the townsfolk, a disadvantage which the local bishops for years attempted to reverse by granting the cathedral special religious privileges.

Use as a Papal residence
The cathedral was at the height of its significance during the middle and end of the thirteenth century, when it and the attached Palazzo dei Papi di Viterbo was the home of the papal throne following its flight from Rome and prior to its resettlement in Avignon. Two popes are known to have been buried in the duomo, and others may have been during the period between 1261 and 1277. The first of these popes was Pope Alexander IV, whose tomb was bizarrely demolished during sixteenth century renovations, and the location of his remains are now unknown save that he lies somewhere inside the church.   Pope John XXI is more clearly marked despite several relocations, with a handsome tombstone originally laid over him following his death in 1277 when his study's ceiling in the papal palace attached to the cathedral suddenly collapsed into the room below due to structural weaknesses as he slept.


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