The Church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, built in the 5th century AD, is one of the earliest examples of a centrally-planned church. It is situated inside a garden and the access is under one of the vaults of the Nero’s extension of the Claudian aqueduct, which is surrounded by Roman walls.
The majestic interior consists in a ring of twenty two precious marble columns separating a large central area, creating two circular walkways around the main altar at the very center of the church.
There was originally a third, concentric ambulatory with interior cruciform division: we owe its present appearance to Pope Innocentius II who added the outside five-arch portico and, above the altar, three large ribbed vaults supported by two enormous Corinthian columns. The third circular walkway was dismantled during the fifteenth century restoration.
The eight-sided balustrade is decorated with paintings depicting episodes from the life of St. Stephen by Antonio Tempesta (1580). Another noteworthy feature of this church is the Martyrdom Cycle, a series of thirty-four fresco paintings along the peripheral wall of the church, executed by Pomarancio and Matteo da Siena (1582). The first chapel on the left, dedicated to SS. Primus and Felicianus, contains some mosaics (7th century AD): on the upper end of a brilliantly decorated cross appears a small head of Christ. The walls of the chapel are covered with frescoes by Antonio Tempesta (1568).
Excavation reveled that the church was built on the remains of the Roman barracks of the Castra Peregrina, destined for non-Italian soldiers, and on a 2nd-century Mithraeum.
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