San Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran) is the Cathedral of the Church of Rome and is therefore referred to as the “Mother of all churches in the world”. It rises on the same spot where Constantine built a basilica around 314 on grounds that already belonged to the noble family of the Laterani, from which the entire area took its name.
Not far off, along the Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, we reach the fourth century Basilica of St Clement, whose Late Baroque exterior conceals artistic treasures dating mainly back to the Medieval period. Of particular note is its ciborium and cosmatesque pavement, the choir enclosure (schola cantorum) and mosaic of the Roman school depicting “Il Trionfo della Croce” (The Triumph of the Cross), while Fifteenth Century Painter Masolino da Panicale’s genius explodes in all its glory in the Chapel of St. Catherine. A visit to the lower Basilica’s frescoes is especially absorbing, one of which (La Leggenda di Sisinnus – The Legend of Sisinnus) bears in its inscription initial traits of “volgare italiano” or vernacular rather than Latin.
Leaving the Colosseum behind us, on our way towards Piazza Esquilino we come across the fifteenth century five arched portico of the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains). In its right-hand transept, we unfailingly stand in admiration before Michelangelo’s Moses, a sculpture charged with measured vigour initially intended for the never-completed Mausoleum of Pope Julius II.
Continuing up the Via Cavour, we suddenly find ourselves in the stately presence of the best preserved of Rome’s five patriarchal basilicas, Santa Maria Maggiore (Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major). Despite the excellent eighteenth century restoration work on its exterior, it is really once we have entered the basilica itself that the full value of its artistic treasures, in particular its superb mosaics, become so clearly apparent. The attention of visitors is drawn to the 36 panels in the middle nave and the episodes of the Annunciation and the Childhood of Jesus dating from the time of Sixtus III. The mosaic in the apse is the thirteenth century work of Jacopo Turriti and depicts the crowning of Mary between Cardinal Giacomo Colonna and Pope Nicholas IV flanked by angels and saints. In addition to the sumptuous mosaic art, also to beckoning admiration are the frescoes (The Prophets), the Sistine Chapel adorned in antique marble and the magnificent Pauline Chapel with its frescoes by Guido Reni.
It is time to cross the Tiber for a visit to the fifth century Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, located in heart of one of the most fascinating districts of Rome. Of particular note are the works in the presbytery with its celebrated ciborium (canopy), the high medieval mosaic of the apsidal conch and the marble statue of Saint Cecilia, depicting the martyr’s body as seen when her tomb was opened in 1595. The basilica’s true artistic gem is Pietro Cavallini’s masterpiece, a mural painting of the Last Judgement, a fine example of pre-Giotto art.
By walking northwards alongside the Tiber (Lungotevere) we arrive at Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square), Bernini’s work of genius and antechamber to the most important architectural complex in the Catholic World. Millions of tourists and worshipers annually flock to this tiny state, attracted by both the superb works of art and its unparalleled deep symbolic significance.
Exploring Rome’s Christian legacy should not be restricted to visiting its basilicas. There are, in fact, artistic treasures found in churches often referred to as minor, although in reference to their size. This is precisely the case of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Piazza del Popolo, home to two spectacular Caravaggio canvases. The Conversion of St. Peter and the Crucifixion reinvented religious painting with their innovative dramatic use of light and the anti-heroic style of perceptively depicting their subjects’ physical and emotional state.
Just a few hundred metres away there is the Church of Trinità dei Monti with its twin bell towers, creating an image of rare beauty together with Spanish Steps (Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti) unfolding towards Piazza di Spagna below. Continuing towards the Quirinale, we come across the Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (or San Carlino), where Baroque Architect Francesco Borromini’s genius is fully expressed in the undulating façade and elliptic dome.
Two further invaluable examples of Borromini’s inspired brilliance are found in the city centre: while we gasp in awe at the Chiesa di Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza (Church of Saint Yves at La Sapienza) and the symbols of its mixtilinear dome, the incomparable elegance of Sant’Agnese in Agone is conspicuous even to the casual onlooker in Piazza Navona.
The nearby Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio (Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius) is a favourite with tourists who are elated by the stunning effect of the celebrated Tromp d’oeil, Jesuit Brother Andrea Pozzo’s illusionistic ceiling fresco “Entry of St. Ignatius into Paradise”.
The Chiesa Nuova ( New Church or Santa Maria in Vallicella) and the Chiesa del Gesù (Mother Church to the Society of Jesus) both stand on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and are perfect examples of Counter Reformation architecture, even if the former incorporates a number of artistic “licences” (such as the Baroque passage connecting the side chapels).