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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in March 2010.

Convento e Chiesa di S. Maria in Aracoeli (Book 7) (Map B3) (Day 1) (View C8) (Rione Campitelli)

In this page:
 The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
 Today's view
 S. Maria in Aracoeli
 Convento di S. Maria in Aracoeli
 S. Biagio in Mercatello

The Plate (No. 130 - ii)

Giuseppe Vasi did not include S. Maria di Aracoeli in Book 3, where he covered the main churches of Rome, but in Book 7 which was dedicated to the monasteries; a perhaps unwanted effect of this decision is that he eventually had to show the church from its rear side in order to include in the view the entrance to the monastery (you may wish to see an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi - external link - where the steps leading to the fašade are shown together with those leading to Piazza del Campidoglio).
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 are placed to correspond with those in the family chapel inside the church where Pope Honorius IV is buried in a very interesting monument

The church and the entrance to the adjoining monastery have not been modified; only the steps leading to them are steeper than they were in the XVIIIth century.

S. Maria in Aracoeli

(left) Side entrance and above it the first storeys of a bell tower which was never completed; (right) mosaic by Jacopo Torriti

S. Maria in Aracoeli (this spelling is more common than that used by Vasi) is located on one of the two peaks 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 the church 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 in contrast with the rules of the Order.

(left) Fašade seen from a terrace of the
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 on an altar at the peak of the hill (Ara Coeli means Altar of Heaven) and this explains the name of the church.
For the Jubilee Year 1350 Cola di Rienzo completed the steps leading to the fašade; in 1564 the Mattei family bore the cost for new portals; they lived in a group of palaces not far from the church and their family chapel was inside it. The decoration of the portals has many references to the Mattei: not only their heraldic symbols (eagle and chequers) and coats of arms, 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).

(left) Interior; (right) altar to an image painted on an ancient column

S. Maria in Aracoeli, because of its proximity to Palazzo del Campidoglio which was the seat of the municipal power, was regarded as "The Church of the City of Rome". This led to a rich decoration which is unusual in a Franciscan building; in 1571 in a re-enactment of the
triumphal processions of the ancient Romans, Marco Antonio Colonna, the commander of the papal fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, attended a ceremony in 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 and Pope Gregory XIII who commissioned the elaborate wooden ceiling (the image used as background for this page is based on its central section).
The church houses several sacred images which are the object of a particular devotion, the most famous one being a wooden statue of Infant Jesus; every year on January 6 it is carried around the church in a popular procession.

(left) Inscription celebrating Pope Urban VIII; (right) stained glass portraying three bees, the heraldic symbol of the pope

The interior of the church contains memories of various periods including a gigantic inscription celebrating Pope Urban VIII: it was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini who placed at its centre a papal coat of arms surrounding the main window of the fašade; the actual heraldic symbol of the pope was painted on stained glass (the effect is more impressive in the afternoon). The inscription is the icon of the What's New page of this website.
The painted background of a historical crib is another work of art of the baroque period, although of a much smaller scale.

(left) Gravestone in the main nave (an early example of fashion plate); (right) marble inlay gravestones in Cappella Mattei

The interior of S. Maria in Aracoeli is particularly rich in funerary monuments of the XVth and XVIth centuries; they were built not only in the chapels, but also in the floor and along the walls; they offer very interesting examples of the different patterns which prevailed in that period.

(left) Monument to Cardinal Louis d'Albret 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 15)

Convento di S. Maria in Aracoeli

(left) Loggia leading to the monastery; (right) steps towards Piazza del Campidoglio

The elegant loggia which gave access to the Franciscan monastery was built in the XVIth century by Pope Paul III as entrance to his summer residence, a tower which was pulled down to make room for Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II; in 1585 Pope Sixtus V assigned the tower to the Franciscans, who used it as Curia Generalizia (headquarters) of the Order. The monastery was entirely pulled down in 1886, but a much smaller monastery was rebuilt in the XIXth century, so that a few friars 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 that year an earthquake struck Rome it is likely that the column was erected as an ex-voto for the limited impact of the earthquake (which however caused major damages to Colosseo).

S. Biagio in Mercatello

(left) Former bell tower and in the background dome of il Ges¨; (right) fresco on the former apse

In the 1930s the enlargement of the street at the foot of S. Maria in Aracoeli led to pulling down (and rebuilding in a different location) the church of S. Rita; it was then discovered that some structures of the church belonged to an earlier church known as S. Biagio in Mercatello (mercatello being a reference to a small fruit market held nearby). This church in turn was built using in part the walls of a Roman insula, a sort of five storey apartment block. The apse and the tiny bell tower of S. Biagio as well as the insula can be seen in a small archaeological area to the left of the steps of S. Maria in Aracoeli.

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:

Scala e Chiesa di S. Maria in Araceli
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:
' Me Puer hebreus, Divos Deus ipse gubernans,
Cedere fede jubet, tristemque redire sub Orcum ;
Aris ergo de hinc tacitus abscedito nostris.'
dalla cui risposta intimorito l'Imperatore inalz˛ nel tempio l'altare col suddetto titolo, e si crede che fosse eretto, ove ora vediamo nella crociata di questa chiesa l'altare isolato, che da Anacleto Antipapa nell'an. 1130. fu ornato con 4. colonne di porfido, e poi nel 1603. dal Vescovo Cavalliense gli fu fatta la cupola con 8. colonne di marmo.
Era quella gran chiesa una delle 20. Badie privilegiate di Roma, e la possedettero per molto tempo i Monaci di s. Benedetto: ma Innocenzo IV. nell'anno 1253. la concedŔ ai Frati di s. Francesco, i quali poi nel 1445. dividendosi tra Conventuali, ed Osservanti, Eugenio IV. la concedŔ a quest' ultimi. Il Card. Oliviero Caraffa la ristaur˛ l'anno 1464. e dipoi il Popolo Romano vi fece il nobilissimo soffitto dorato, per ringraziamento alla ss. Vergine della vittoria conseguita l'anno 1572. ai 20. di Ottobre dall' armata Cristiana contro i Turchi, perchŔ in questa sogliono pigliar possesso i nuovi Conservatori del Popolo Romano. Sono in questa chiesa varj depositi, e memorie antiche, e moltissime cappelle ornate di marmi, di sculture, e di pitture antiche, e moderne, fra le quali sono due quadri del Cav. Benesiani nella cappella di s. Margherita da Cortona, due del Muziano, due di Pasqualino, ed una Madonna nel coro de' frati, che si crede opera di Raffaelle da Urbino, gli altri si tralasciano per non pi¨ infastidire il Lettore; ma non giÓ voglio omettere di indicare le pitture a fresco, che sono nel claustro di qualche merito, e l'iscrizione della terza colonna vicino alla porta della chiesa, in cui si legge A CUBICULO AUGUSTORUM.

Next plate in Book 7: S. Paolo alla Regola
Next step in Day 1 itinerary: Palazzi del Campidoglio
Next step in your tour of Rione Campitelli: Palazzi del Campidoglio