In 1753 Giuseppe Vasi did not include S. Maria in Aracoeli in Book
3, which covered the main churches of Rome. He did it in 1756 in Book 7 which was dedicated to the monasteries; a perhaps unforeseen effect of this decision was that he had to show the church from its rear side in order to include the entrance to the monastery in the view. He therefore missed the opportunity to show the steps leading to S. Maria in Aracoeli alongside those leading to Piazza del Campidoglio (you may wish to see them in an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi - it opens in another window).
The view is taken from the green dot in the 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Entrance to the Monastery; 2) S. Maria in Aracoeli; 3) Fašade of the church; 4) Part of Palazzo Nuovo. 4) is shown in another page. The small map shows also 5) S. Rita da Cascia/S. Biagio in Mercatello.
The view in March 2010; the inset shows an enlargement of one of the two coats of arms of the Savelli which identify the family chapel inside the church where Pope Honorius IV is buried in a very interesting monument
The church and the entrance to the monastery have not been modified; only the steps leading to them are steeper than they were in the XVIIIth century.
(left) 1564 side entrance and above it the first storeys of a bell tower which was never completed; (right) late XIIIth century mosaic by Jacopo Torriti
S. Maria in Aracoeli stands on Arx, the northern peak of Campidoglio, the hill which was the religious centre of Ancient Rome. In the VIIIth century Greek monks founded a small church near the site of a temple to Juno; in 1249 Pope Innocent IV assigned it to the Franciscans who built an entirely new church; at that time the access to the hill was from Foro Romano and the fašade of the previous church was oriented eastwards. The Franciscans changed the orientation towards what was the centre of Rome at that time, but the actual entrance was located on the side of the building; they started to build a bell tower, but they never completed it because in 1260 it was decided that bell towers were a luxury inconsistent with the rules of the Order.
(left) Fašade seen from a terrace of Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II; (centre) relief portraying St. Matthew; (right) detail of the central portal at sunset
According to a medieval account Emperor Augustus had a vision of the Virgin Mary while he was making sacrifices at an altar on the site of the future location of the church and this explains its name (Ara Coeli means Altar of Heaven).
In 1350 Cola di Rienzo built the steep steps which lead to the fašade; in 1564 the Mattei bore the cost of new portals; they lived in a group of palaces not far from the church and their funerary chapel was inside it. The decoration of the portals has many references to the Mattei: not only their heraldic symbols (eagle and diagonal band), but also the choice of portraying St. Matthew in one of the two smaller portals.
The Renaissance and baroque additions to the fašade were removed in the XIXth century (you may wish to see the building as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome). A clock was relocated to the tower of Palazzo Senatorio in 1806.
View of Rome from the front of the church (you may wish to see a page on the Domes of Rome)
Because of its central and high location and of its size S. Maria in Aracoeli, after its change of orientation, became the Duomo of Rome, in the sense that Romans regarded it as the main church of the city and they preferred to hold important ceremonies there, rather than in one of the rather remote seven basilicas which attracted the pilgrims. Some book illustrations of the XIXth century by Bartolomeo Pinelli and Alberto Pisa show how popular the church was among the lower classes.
It is from the front of the building that the Bambino, a wooden statue of Infant Jesus, blesses the City of Rome on January 6.
(left) Interior; (right) main altar (1565). The inscription is the first verse of a Marian hymn: "Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia"
To build up the bric-Ó-brac of antiquity called the Ara Coeli at a distant and undeterminate period (..) they dug among a quantity of ruins, which makes this church strangely furnished, hybrid and curious. Different in module, the columns do not present three capitals that are alike. (..) The Temple of the Ara Coeli is a veritable museum. It would take too long to enumerate all.
Francis Wey - Rome. Descriptions et souvenirs - Paris 1872. 1903 English edition by unknown translator.
Roughly speaking S. Maria in Aracoeli has the layout of an ancient Roman basilica, a floor of the XIIIth century, Renaissance monuments and chapels and a ceiling of 1571-578.
Details of the Cosmati floor
The floor of S. Maria in Aracoeli is among the finest Cosmati works in Rome. It is remarkable that notwithstanding many modifications to the decoration of the church, overall the floor was not touched (this occurred in other Roman churches, e.g. S. Giovanni in Laterano and S. Maria Maggiore). The design of these floors does not include any references to human beings, animals and even flowers and trees, which is unusual considering that Italian art has always been keen on depicting something real. They resemble marble carpets, in a way similar to the real ones which embellish mosques (e.g. Mihrimah Camii at Edirne Kapi in Istanbul).
Musei Capitolini: decoration from one of the two ambos (oblong pulpits) of S. Maria in Aracoeli which included an ancient circular relief depicting episodes of the life of Achilles. The enlargement shows the fight between Achilles and Hector and Achilles dragging the body of his enemy around the walls of Troy
The Cosmati decoration of S. Maria in Aracoeli was not limited to the floor, but it included other parts/elements of the church, which are mainly lost with the exception of two ambos.
A detail of one of them shows that in the XIIIth century ancient works of art were beginning to be admired, after many centuries of neglect and despise for everything which smelled of paganism.
(left) Gravestone of Matteo Scriniano (d. 1313), a relative of the Savelli family; (right) marble inlay gravestone of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei (d. 1603)
The church is richly paved, but the decorative strips are reduced to patches by the profusion of sculptured tombstones; those of the fourteenth century , which abound in relief, are so numerous, that in going through the church one is caught at every step. F. Wey
The floor of S. Maria in Aracoeli is particularly rich in tombstones, not only in the chapels, but also in the naves and along the walls; they offer very interesting examples of the different patterns which prevailed through the centuries. You may wish to see that of Pietro Lante di Pisa, Senator of Rome in 1380-381.
(left) Benozzo Gozzoli: St. Anthony of Padua between two donors; (centre/right) XVth century Madonna and donor (School of Viterbo)
S. Maria in Aracoeli has more than twenty chapels which were much sought after, especially during the XVIth century when the restorations of the basilicas and the construction of new large churches were yet to come. The owners of a chapel often redecorated it and dedicated it to another saint. In 1572 the Paluzzi Albertoni commissioned Giacomo della Porta to redesign their family chapel, but to retain a fresco which Benozzo Gozzoli, a Florentine painter best known for his frescoes at Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence (it opens in another window), had made in ca 1450. At that time the church must have been so fully painted that even the columns had frescoes.
Cappella Bufalini: Glory of St. Bernardino of Siena by il Pinturicchio (ca 1486)
The decoration of this chapel was most likely suggested by the Franciscan monks of Aracoeli to the Bufalini. St. Bernardino, a famous preacher and a leader of the Franciscans was canonised in 1450, only six years after his death. The Bufalini were from CittÓ di Castello, a town not far from Perugia and they commissioned Pinturicchio, a young painter from Perugia, to decorate the chapel. The frescoes were so praised that eventually Pinturicchio was asked to work at Appartamento Borgia in Palazzo Apostolico and at Libreria Piccolomini at Siena.
(left) Monument to Cardinal Louis d'Albret (d. 1465) by Andrea Bregno; (right) Monument to Cecchino Bracci, perhaps designed by Michelangelo, who wrote several epitaphs in his memory (Cecchino Bracci died at the age of 16 in 1544)
The monument to Cardinal d'Albret is one of the first Roman works by Andrea Bregno, a sculptor from Lombardy, of whom we know very little before his arrival to Rome in 1465. He became the leading sculptor and architect in the city during the last part of the century. In the monument to Cardinal d'Albret he introduced major changes to the traditional gisant pattern by replacing the Gothic canopy with a novel one, which was based on the study of ancient buildings.
We know that young Michelangelo greatly admired the works by Bregno. He too introduced novelties in the design of funerary monuments and in particular a type of sarcophagus which had no precedents in antiquity and influenced many later monuments, including those by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (e.g. the Monument to Pope Urban VIII).
Ceiling by Flaminio Bolongier (who designed also that of Sala dei Trionfi at Palazzo dei Conservatori). Its rich decoration is unusual in a Franciscan church
The proximity of S. Maria in Aracoeli to Palazzo Senatorio which was the seat of municipal power, made it "The Church of the City of Rome". In 1571 Marcantonio II Colonna, the commander of the papal fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, attended a Mass of Thanksgiving at S. Maria in Aracoeli during which he offered a silver column with a statue of the Virgin Mary. The victory was celebrated by Pope Pius V by commissioning a richly gilded wooden ceiling (the image used as background for this page shows the section with the coat of arms of the Pope). Another detail of the ceiling can be seen in the historical section of this website.
(left) Stucco Fames holding an inscription celebrating Pope Urban VIII; (right) stained glass portraying three bees, the heraldic symbol of the pope
A gigantic stucco decoration was designed on the rear fašade of the church by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1634. He turned the main window into the heraldic symbol of the Pope. This use of stained glass is very unusual in Rome.
The stucco decoration was paid for by the City of Rome and the inscription details a series of initiatives taken by the Pope which were not specifically related to S. Maria in Aracoeli.
This work by Bernini is the icon of the What's New page of this website. Many years later he designed a similar decoration for S. Andrea al Quirinale and he made use of stained glass in the apse of S. Pietro (it opens in another window).
(left) Wooden pulpit with the coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII, perhaps designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; (centre) panel depicting Jesus while delivering a speech in the Temple of Jerusalem; (right) late XVIIth century fresco portraying a saint of the Order of St. Clare, sister of St. Francis of Assisi
S. Maria in Aracoeli was not greatly impacted by changes after the second half of the XVIth century and it contains only a limited number of works of art of the following periods. Some statues of the popes which were at Palazzo Senatorio were moved to S. Maria in Aracoeli after 1870, e.g. the statue of Pope Gregory XIII by Pietro Paolo Olivieri.
(left) Cappella Alcantara: relief by Michel Maille (1684); (right) ephemeral monument to Franšois de Vend˘me, Duc de Beaufort by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1669). Franšois de Vend˘me, a distant relative of King Louis XIV of France, was killed in the defence of Candia
(left) Loggia leading to the monastery; (right) steps towards Piazza del Campidoglio
The elegant loggia which gives access to the monastery was built in the XVIth century by
Pope Paul III as the entrance to his summer residence which included a large tower. In 1585 Pope Sixtus V assigned the tower and the adjoining buildings to the Franciscans, who used it as Curia Generalizia (headquarters) of the Order. In 1886 the monastery was entirely demolished to make room for Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II, but a much smaller monastery was rebuilt in the XIXth century, so that a few Franciscans continue to live near the church.
The base of the column with the cross bears the coat of arms of the City of Rome and the date 1703; because in January and February of that year earthquakes struck Rome it is likely that the column was erected to thank the Virgin Mary for their limited impact on S. Maria in Aracoeli and the palaces of the City of Rome (they however caused major damage to Colosseo).
The lost cloister in two illustrations from "Rome, its Churches, Monuments, Art and Antiquities" which was based on the book by Francis Wey
You enter by a charming doorway. I recall wide corridors with ogival (Gothic) vaults tinted by pale gleams of light (..); as well as a cloister in two tiers, austere, of fine style, which has an air of a Thebaid (a region of Egypt to which many Christian hermits retired), three paces away from the Capitol and its museums. The convent, at the time of the Jubilee of 1450, when St. Bernardin of Sienna was canonised, received in general chapter three thousand brethren from the houses founded by this blessed patron. F. Wey
(left) Former bell tower; (right) fresco of a funerary chapel
In the 1930s the enlargement of the street at the foot of the hill led to dismantling S. Rita da Cascia, a small church to the left of the steps of S. Maria in Aracoeli. The church was eventually re-assembled near Monastero di Tor de' Specchi. It was then discovered that some structures of the building belonged to an earlier church, known as S. Biagio in Mercatello (mercatello being a reference to a nearby fruit market). This church in turn was built using some walls of a Roman insula, a sort of five storey apartment block. A niche and the tiny bell tower of S. Biagio, as well as the walls of the insula, are now part of a small archaeological area.
Walls of the "insula"
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Molto cospicua, e celebre Ŕ la chiesa, che siamo per osservare; perci˛ non mancher˛ di
accennare tutti i suoi pregi. I marmi della altissima scalinata furono presi dalle rovine
del magnifico tempio di Quirino, come diremo a suo luogo; ed il sito della chiesa, si
crede da' pi¨, essere quello, ove stava il famoso tempio di Giove Capitolino, di cui
furono facilmente le molte colonne di granito egizio, che reggono la nave di mezzo,
tanto pi¨, che l'antica denominazione della chiesa ce lo suggerisce, e l'istoria ce
lo dimostra quasi ad evidenza, PoichŔ essendo il nostro Divino Redentore nato in tempo
di Ottaviano Augusto; questi avutane cognizione, secondo alcuni, da' libri Sibillini,
eresse in quel tempio un' altare col titolo di ARA PRIMOGENITI DEI: e secondochŔ
riferisce Dione, e Svetonio, essendo in quel tempo il Campidoglio pi¨ volte percosso da'
fulmini, Augusto volle ricorrere all'oracolo di Apollo Delfico, il quale per divina
disposizione rispose co' seguenti versi: