Yes, you read that correctly. Having our professor pulled to the side by police and almost arrested within the first 5 minutes of class at the Pantheon started our first day in Rome off with a bang!
Thankfully, he didn’t end up actually being arrested, and we were able to explore the Pantheon with no problems. We also visited: not 1, not 2, not 5, but 6 churches! Needless to say, we had a full, albeit exhausting first day in Rome.
In this post, I’ll explain why my professor was almost arrested just for teaching at the Pantheon, and tell you about all the churches I saw. I’ll also let you know which ones are must-sees, and which you can skip.
What’s going on in Italy?
Right as we’d stepped off the plane yesterday, our professor warned us that “Italy is having a crisis right now”. Apparently, the rise of populist parties has caused a bunch of new laws to be passed. A lot of these laws regulate tourist activities, and it’s important to know what you can and can’t do here in order to avoid a hefty fine.
Our professor was held up at the Pantheon because the police thought he was a tour guide, and it’s now illegal to give or take a tour from an unlicensed guide. Thankfully, our professor can speak Italian, and he had proof that he was a professor and not a tour guide. While it kept him from being arrested, he was still hit with a $400 fine. Ouch.
If any good came out of this incident, it’s that we all learned to be extra careful when visiting tourist areas, and always listened to what the police had to say. This kept us from accidentally breaking other laws, like sitting on the Spanish Steps (that’s a $200 fine).
It’s shocking to see firsthand how changing governments can affect the way you have to operate, even as a visitor. I remember sitting on the Spanish Steps just 5 years ago and watching the sunset with no problems. I can’t say much more about the political climate in Italy since I’m no political scientist, but it will be interesting to see how the country changes in the future.
Anyways, the Pantheon!
The Pantheon is the church I was most excited to see today, because it wasn’t originally a church at all! This place is OLD. Emperor Hadrian built it around 125 CE as a temple to the Roman gods. It’s one of the most in-tact roman buildings in existence, thanks to its repurposing as a catholic church.
From the front, it looks like the textbook definition of an ancient roman building- with it’s huge columns and triangular roof. In contrast to the outside, the inside is completely cylindrical with a huge circular opening at the top of the dome- an eye through which the gods could watch you. The stone carvings in the dome gets smaller the closer you get to the eye, and this is meant to draw the worshiper’s gaze up towards heaven.
The shrines to the gods have now been replaced with little chapels and altars, but my eyes kept wandering up to the giant hole that lights up the whole temple.
The Pantheon is something that you absolutely cannot miss when visiting Rome, so it gets a:
Basilica Santi Quattro Coronati
The Basilica Santi Quattro Coronati, or the church of the Holy Four Crowned is a medieval basilica just a few blocks from the Coliseum.
The church is named after four unknown martyrs who were killed when they refused to sacrifice to Roman gods.
Walking up to the gate, I thought it looked more like a fortress than a church. That’s because there’s a square-shaped watchtower right above the door that you pass under to get to the main courtyard. From there, we walked straight forward into the main basilica.
The interior of the basilica is very light, unlike a lot of the gothic french churches we’ve seen. The light reflects beautifully off the gold interior, and shines beautifully on the massive wall fresco above the altar. This fresco depicts a cloud-covered scene where the four mystery martyrs are being welcomed into heaven.
While the basilica is beautiful, the main attraction is the oratory of Saint Sylvester located in the adjacent monastery.
Although Sylvester’s oratory is a tiny room, a major discovery was made here just 18 years ago! Under a layer of plaster, archeologists found medieval paintings- some biblical, but a lot of them that have nothing to do with religion!
The Basilica Santi Quattro Coronati has some lovely wall frescoes, but it’s main draw is the how it’s function has changed throughout history. The most exciting part for me was seeing the excavation of the recently discovered art, but other than that, it didn’t really stand out among the other churches we visited today. So unless you love roman ecclesiastical history, I’m gonna have to give this one a:
Basilica di Santo Stephano al Monte Celio
Basilica di Santo Stephano al Monte Celio, or the Basilica of St. Stephen on the Caelian Hill is a late-roman church that sits right on top of one of Rome’s 7 hills. That hill just happens to be… the Caelian hill!
Like the Pantheon, the Santo Stephano is squareish on the outside, but has a single room with a circular interior. What makes it different though is that it’s got a row of giant columns around the altar holding up the ceiling.
Normally, the walls of Santo Stephano are covered in frescoes of martyrdom, but we visited while they were doing major renovations. As of now, the walls look like they’ve been whitewashed, and there are even parts of the marble floor have been cracked open and roped off.
The space itself is really cool to walk around in, but until renovations are done, the Basilica di Santo Stephano al Monte Celio gets a:
Basilica di Santa Clemente
This basilica was the biggest one yet! San Clemente is right next to the Coliseum, and is one of Rome’s most popular churches to visit because of its (literal) layers of history. It sits on top of an ancient roman neighborhood!
San Clemente is on the ground level, and is the most recent structure built here (12th century). The golden, swirling mosaic above the apse of the church is the biggest eye catcher, with a crucifix in the middle and sheep lined up below. There are also lots of chapels along the wall, each with its own pastel fresco. There’s also a courtyard with a palm tree garden on this level.
The next level down is another basilica from the 9th century. This one is much darker and felt a little creepier because it’s underground, and there aren’t many decorations other than a few surviving mosaics.
Head down another staircase, and suddenly you’re 60ft underground, walking through the remains of 1st century roman buildings! I cannot convey to you how cool this level was! (especially because no pictures are allowed in San Clemente) Through a series of dim, narrow tunnels, we explored a pagan temple, a school building, and a few houses. I got turned around in about 3 seconds, but I’d never been so excited to be lost in my life! I circled from room to room, and even found an underground stream/fountain type of deal. I thought about drinking the water, but saw a bunch of coins in the stream and decided against it.
The mosaics on the first and second levels are beautiful and amazingly preserved, but the roman ruins underneath are what put the Basilica de San Clemente on the list of Roman churches that you:
Basilica di Santa Prassede
The Basilica di Santa Prassede is an ancient catholic church that’s completely covered in the most incredible mosaics I’ve ever seen. A lot of the figures in the mosaics I’ve seen so far have been kind of blocky due to the square pieces of glass they use to make them, but the mosaics at Santa Prassede are so detailed that I didn’t even know they were mosaics at all until I looked closely. Because of all the colored glass, the whole basilica shimmers with golden light.
The main building of the church has a wooden ceiling with blue panels, which leads up to the altar. The altar is dome shaped, and all of the surrounding walls have mosaics depicting Jesus’s miracles.
above the altar, I saw a my first ciborium- a marble awning that covers the altar. The size of the ciborium and the fact that it’s contained in an even bigger space gives you some perspective on just how massive these Roman basilicas can be!
Also be sure to enter the side chapel- it contains a relic of the pillar that Jesus was supposedly flogged against. This chapel is covered in floor-to-ceiling mosaics.
The Basilica di Santa Prassede is jaw-droppingly beautiful, though not as extravagant as the neighboring Basilica di Santa Maria. For this reason, I couldn’t decide which list to put it on, and have concluded that it’s a:
Must-See if you have time
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is a classical Roman style church dedicated to the virgin Mary, and was the most extravagant church we saw today.
By the time we got here, we’d been in ‘class’ for 7 hours, and so our professor told us that visiting this last church was optional. Part of me wanted to call it quits because I was exhausted and my bum toe was hurting, but the stubborn part that doesn’t ever want to miss out agreed to go.
I am so glad that part won.
Like I said, Santa Maria Maggiore is otherworldly. Like Santa Prassede, this basilica has a giant mosaic at the apse and the arch of the altar. These mosaics are a bit older though, they date to around the 5th century, and depict scenes from Mary and Jesus’s life. The remaining wall and ceiling-space is covered in frescoes, statues, and geometric patters carved from marble. It’s almost disorienting to be in here because every surface is jam-packed with beautiful art.
There are stairs near the front of the altar that lead down to the crypt, where you can see some wood splinters from the original manger, and the body of Saint Jerome.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore was the biggest, most extravagant church I saw today, and the fact that I was still so wonderstruck despite being completely exhausted is reason enough for me to put this basilica on the list of Roman churches that you:
Of all the people in our group that I’d expect to be arrested at the Pantheon by Italian police, our professor would be towards the bottom of the list. It was scary but eye-opening to see that happen, and made me realize just how important it is to know the local laws before you visit a place, even if you’ve been there before.
Thankfully, there were no other encounters with the law today. Although I was completely worn out by the end of the day, I’m glad we got to visit all of these churches. After all, there’s nothing a little pizza and a strong drink can’t fix 😉
Still, that was just a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of churches in Rome. This shouldn’t discourage you from visiting them though, Rome has some of the most beautiful churches in the world!
Hopefully, this guide helped you narrow down your choices 🙂