Churches of Rome Wiki

Santa Maria della Scala is an early 17th century Baroque conventual and titular church in Trastevere , at Piazza della Scala 23 which is just south of the Porta Settimiana. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her special local title of "Our Lady of the Staircase".


Miraculous icon[]

This is one of Rome's devotional churches. It was built as a new foundation to house an icon of the Madonna, which had originally been placed on the landing of an external staircase attached to a nearby house.

This establishment had originally been a private property owned by one Antonio Stinco from Ancona, but he had bequeathed it to a Casa Pia founded by Pope Pius IV in 1563 for women wishing to "convert to an honest life" (repentant prostitutes, in other words). St Charles Borromeo was involved in this project, hence he is commemorated in the dedication of the little oratory that used to stand next to the church.

The fresco icon had been provided when the premises were re-fitted for the purpose. A deformed child whose mother often prayed before the image was cured in 1592, and the church was built in response to the veneration of the people that resulted.

This Casa Pia was united to another one founded at the same time at what is now Santa Chiara, to form a new Augustinian nunnery at San Giacomo alla Lungara in 1628.


The project was initiated by Pope Clement VIII in 1593, together with Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio who was patron of the Casa Pia. They chose Francesco Capriani da Volterra as the architect. Unfortunately, Capriani died in the following year after having completed the nave and side chapels. 

In 1597 the unfinished church was entrusted by the pope to the administration of the Discalced Carmelites, who are still in charge, and as a result many of the artworks have Carmelite themes. The friars contracted with Matteo da Città di Castello and Ottaviano Nonni Il Mascherino to build a convent next door, which was finished at the turn of the century and became one of the most important of the order.

It is actually unclear what happened when Capriani died. Work continued on the rest of the church, but the architect is unknown. The older hypothesis was that Nonni took over, but he himself died in 1606 so this view is no longer held. A modern theory is that Girolamo Rainaldi was the replacement, especially since it is known that he worked on one of the side chapels in 1604.

The cardinal died in 1607, but fortunately his nephew Monsignor Marco Gallio agreed to continue funding and the church was finally completed in 1610.


The friars continued a programme of decorative works for the first half of the 17th century, culminating in the addition by Rainaldi of a spectacular aedicule for the high altar in 1650.

The church was restored in the 1730's, and much of the decoration dates from then.

During the Roman Republic of 1849 the complex was used as a field hospital for Garibaldi's irregulars fighting the French army intent on reconquering the city for the Pope. Most of the action was local to Trastevere, which is why the Garibaldi monument overlooks the church from the Janiculum.

The convent was sequestered by the government in 1873 and turned into a police station, but the Carmelites were allowed to continue administering the church. 

At present, it rather overshadows the actual parish church of Santa Dorotea nearby.


In 1664 the church was made titular, and Paolo Savelli was made the first cardinal deacon.

The last two titular deacons of the church were François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who was appointed on 21 February, 2001, and died on 16 September 2002, and Stanislaw Kazimierz Nagy, who was appointed in 2003 and died in 2013.

The title was granted to Ernest Simoni in 2016.



The plan of the church is based on a Latin cross, with short transepts which do not extend beyond the walls of the nave aisles.

There is a central dome, having a shallow pitched and tiled saucer on an octagonal drum without fenestration. This has a tall lantern, with its own little octagonal cap.

A long rectangular presbyterium is beyond the dome, and on the far left hand corner of this is perched a little campanile of a single storey. The soundholes of this are extended arches, one on each face, and there is a pyramidal cap.


Maria della Scala.jpg

The façade of the church is rather restrained, although large and somewhat dominating in the little piazza.

It is in travertine, of two storeys, and is higher than the nave behind it. The central portion of the first storey is brought forward slightly, and has two pairs of gigantic Corinthian pilasters flanking the doorway and supporting the blank entablature. Another pair of pilasters occupy the outer corners.

The entrance has a pair of swagged Ionic columns, and over the door is a Baroque statue of the Madonna and Child in an ornate arched niche with a ribbed conch, volutes and a crowning triangular pediment intruded into by the conch. The sculptor was Francesco di Cusart, who carved it in 1633.

The second storey has two pairs of pilasters of the same style as those of the storey below, 

Detail of entrance, showing statue of Our Lady

except the capitals are Composite not Corinthian. They flank a large rectangular window with a balustrade and Ionic columns, and this has a raised segmental pediment. The crowning triangular pediment contains a simple coat of arms, and this storey is flanked by a pair of gigantic volutes.


Adjacent to the church is the former friary. The arched main entrance is on the piazza to the right of the façade, and now has a notice over it advertising the Farmacia. This refers to the famous 17th century pharmacy of the friary, where the original furnishings and equipment have been preserved. It used to supply the papal court, and survived as a business until 1954. Fortunately, nobody bothered to clear the premises out and they have now been restored as a museum.

Access is by appointment, but unfortunately the pharmacy website is down. The pharmacy has its own Italian Wikipedia page here. Guided tours are being advertised online.


This was a large and important friary, but has been seriously altered since being expropriated. The main entrance mentioned leads to a tiny cloister arcaded on all four sides, and to the west of this is the former unarcaded garden cloister. The latter still has its fountain, but is now very scruffy.

The friars had another garden to the south of the church, and vegetable plots on the west side of the city block.


Attached to the west side of the church was a single-room oratory, known as Santi Carlo e Teresa. This was the headquarters of a confraternity attached to the church, and was there by 1650.

It used to have its own façade, with a pair of Doric columns supporting a horizontal cornice above the entrance. The columns were well away from the doorcase. Over the cornice was a fresco topped by a segmental pediment below the horizontal roofline and flanked by a pair of windows.

It was apparently still there, but deconsecrated, at the end of the 19th century but was demolished soon after.


Layout and fabric[]

There are three chapels on each side of the single three-bay nave, then a transept with a domed crossing. There is an altar in each end of the transept.  The sanctuary has a single bay, and is continued by a choir with an apse behind the high altar, which has a free-standing baldacchino or ciborio

The interior wall and ceiling surfaces of the church are richly decorated, although not all of the decoration is real. The vaults of the nave, dome, choir and left arm of the transept are decorated with painting intended to resemble mouldings; the attempt is not altogether successful. The right transept ceiling has the real thing, however, and is a very nice example of stucco relief.


Santa Maria della Scala.png

The nave side chapels are entered through arches, having thinly molded archivolts on Doric imposts. Between them are gigantic Corinthian pilasters, revetted in what looks like red marble and with gilded capitals. These support an entablature having a cornice with modillions, which runs round the interior. Above the arches are windows, with lunettes above them in the ceiling vault.

The nave ceiling displays circular garlands set in octagonal frames, rather than a figurative fresco painting. All this is paintwork imitating stucco.

Above the entrance is a spectacular double-decker carved and gilded wooden gallery or cantoria for singers and musicians, which was commissioned by Cardinal Luigi Antonio di Borbone Spagna and designed by Giovanni Paolo Pannini. The church organ occupies the centre of the lower deck.

The floor has several interesting tomb slabs, and the one commemorating Julio Caesari Castellano of 1662 has a charming winged skeleton in opus sectile work.


The dome has imitation square coffering containing rosettes, which is quite effective and has a touch of blue which contrasts with the overall decorative scheme of red and gold.

The right hand transept vault has genuine stucco decoration in a diapered pattern, which contrasts interestingly with that in the opposite vault which is paintwork imitating the nave ceiling.


The baldacchino of the high altar is by Carlo Rainaldi, c. 1650, and is a free-standing domed structure (a tempietto) incorporating sixteen slender Corinthian columns of Sicilian alabaster. The four statues of the Evangelists on it look like bronze, but are terracotta since the originals were looted in 1849. However, the central Lamb of the Apocalypse in glory is in gilded bronze.

To either side of the altar are doors leading into the choir of the friars. Over these are statues of SS Joseph and Teresa of Avila, by Simone Giorgini 1706.

The apse of the choir has a painting of the Queen of Heaven by the Cavalier d'Arpino 1612, flanked by paintings of the Baptism of Christ, the Marriage at Cana, the Last Supper and the Ascension by Lucas de la Haye (Fra Luca Fiammingo) who was a Carmelite friar. The apse conch has a fresco of Christ with Our Lady and St Joseph, and Carmelite saints.

The chapels are taken in anticlockwise order, starting at the bottom right. They contain very rich polychrome stonework.

Chapel of St John the Baptist[]

The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St John the Baptist, and the altarpiece is by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst 1619. He was to have a brilliant career after returning to the Netherlands in the following year.

The altar columns are of black marble, and the work also uses alabaster, Sicilian jasper and yellow marble from Siena.

This is the funerary chapel of the Sinibaldi family.

Chapel of St Hyacinth[]

The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Hyacinth, which is also the funerary chapel of the Dionisi and Barisiani families. Two memorials belonging to the Sorbolongo family were moved here when the church was restored in the 18th century.

The altar has columns of pink cottanello marble, and an altarpiece of Our Lady with SS Hyacinth and Catherine of Siena by Antiveduto Grammatica.

Chapel of St Joseph[]

The third chapel on the right is dedicated to Our Lady, St Joseph and St Anne, and has an altarpiece by Giuseppe Ghezzi of 1710 showing the Holy Family. To the left is the Marriage of Our Lady by Antonio David, and to the right is the Dream of Joseph by Giovanni Odazzi. The latter artist also executed the cupola fresco showing The Apotheosis of St Joseph.

The picture of the Sacred Heart on the altar is a copy of 1780 of a famous picture by Pompeo Batoni.

Chapel of St Teresa of Jesus[]

The right transept altar is dedicated to St Teresa of Jesus , the reformer whose work led to the establishment of the Discalced Carmelites as a separate order.

The altar, designed by Giovanni Paolo Panini in 1617, has four spirally ribbed columns in verde antico marble and two marble angels by Giovanni Battista Maini. The altarpiece, the Ecstasy of St Teresa, is by Francesco Mancini 1745.

The side walls have two marble reliefs depicting the saint in ecstasy again, the one on thie right by René-Michel Slodtz and the left by Filippo Della Valle. The stucco reliefs above the altar which continue the theme are by Giuseppe Lironi.

The relic of the saint's right foot is preserved here (the companion of the foot that is nakedly prominent in Bernini's famous sculpture of her at Santa Maria della Vittoria, although she never went barefoot but wore sandals).

Chapel of Our Lady of the Staircase[]

The left hand transept altar enshrines the original miraculous icon in an altar with four large columns of red marble from Verona (marmo rosso di Verona). This is also the funerary chapel of the Santacroce family, and the monument to the Marquis Santacroce is by Alessandro Algardi. That to Livia Santacroce is by Domenico Guidi.

The two paintings showing the Coronation of the Virgin and the Immaculate Conception are by Lucas de la Haye again.

Chapel of the Crucifix[]

The third chapel on the left contains a crucifix enshrined over an altar with black marble columns and an alabaster frontal.

The corpus on the crucifix looks bronze but is actually stucco; it is being venerated by St John of the Cross, and a gang of cherubs executed in white marble. This composition was by Pietro Francesco Papaleo of 1726, imitating Bernini. The other paintings and frescoes here are by Filippo Zucchetti.

Chapel of the Assumption[]

The second chapel on the left is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady, and was designed by Girolamo Rainaldi.

On the vault is painted a dove, while the side walls hold paintings showing the Marriage of Our Lady and the Birth of Our Lady by Giovanni Conca. The altarpiece is the Death of the Virgin by Carlo Saraceni .

This last work replaced a controversial work of Caravaggio , the eponymous Death of the Virgin. Caravaggio was suspected of having used the body of a prostitute drowned in the Tiber as a model (an alternative story is that she was one of his mistresses -alive, not dead), and so the friars rejected it with the alleged comment that doing such a thing lacked decorum and was almost heretical. The picture made its way to the Louvre.

In front of the altar is a statue of St Teresa of Lisieux in a glass box.

Chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel[]

The first chapel on the left is dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

The altarpiece depicts the Virgin Handing the Scapular to St. Simon Stock with the prophet Elijah by Cristoforo Roncalli Il Pomarancio, who also executed the fresco of the Eternal Father above.


The church is open (church website, May 2019):

10:00 to 13:00, 16:00 to 19:00.


Mass is celebrated (church website, May 2019):

Weekdays 18:30;

Sundays and Solemnities 11:30, 18:30.

The parish website of Santa Dorotea mentions a 10:30 Sunday in English, but the church website does not.

There is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Saturdays at 17:30, until the evening Mass.

External links[]

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Church website

Interactive Nolli Map Website (church) 

Interactive Nolli Map Website (oratory and confraternity)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

"Romeartlover" web-page

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

Blog page on pharmacy

Photo of crossing and dome on Flickr by Belsen (superb)

Roman Despatches - blog (with gallery)

List of cardinals