Santa Maria in Aracoeli is the city church of Rome, a 13th century minor basilica and former convent church on the Campidoglio. The postal address is Scala dell'Arce Capitolina 12. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
The church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Heavenly Altar ("Aracoeli").
This church is the only one on the Capitoline Hill , which the ancient Romans regarded as being the location of the first settlement in their future city. A legend, already very old in their days, claimed that the hill-fort here was originally called Saturnia after its founder Saturn, and there might be a hint of truth in this. The headquarters of the Latin tribe in the early Iron Age, about 1000 BC, was in the Alban Hills and Rome was an outlying settlement probably founded to control the lowest ford on the Tiber (about where the Ponte Palatino is now). The Capitoline is an isolated hill, actually the eroded core of an extinct volcano, and it has two summits overlooking the ford. The larger summit is the Capitoline proper, and the smaller was called the Arx which means “stronghold”. The church is on the latter.
In ancient Rome, the Capitoline had two major temples (and many minor ones). One which took precedence over the whole city was for Jupiter Capitolinus on the larger summit. It held three idols featuring Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (Zeus' daughter), who was the goddess of wisdom and often seen as the protectress of cities. There was a temple to Juno on the Arx under the title of Juno Moneta or the Warner (the first city mint was next to it, hence the word “money”). This temple preceded the church. It was founded in 345 BC, although surviving fragments indicate that there was another pagan temple even older than that.
Some archaeologists argue that the temple was on a site marked by some masonry just to the south-east of the church, with the church occupying the location of an Auguraculum which was the headquarters of the public augers or omen-tellers. The point is disputed.
In ancient days, the access to the summit was not by the staircase and ramp there now from the Piazza Aracoeli. There was a carriage road, the Clivus Capitolinus which started at the Arch of Septimus Severus, tracked up the side of the hill past the Temple of Saturn and turned sharply right to end in front of the Temple of Jupiter. However, this side of the hill collapsed in an earthquake in the Dark Ages (possibly the one recorded in 847) and took the road with it. It is thought that the church was already there by then. It, and the previous temple, had access by a staircase called the Scalae Gemoniae from next to the Temple of Concord at the top end of the forum (about where the modern staircase there now is).
History of the name
A mediaeval legend mentioned in the Mirabilia Urbis compiled about 1140, but itself possibly of the 8th century, gives an explanation for the present name. According to it, some years before the birth of Christ, the emperor Augustus consulted the Tiburtine Sibyl in his palace about the wish of the Senate to have him acclaimed as a living god, and had her reply that “the future ruler will descend from the sun”. Thereupon he had a vision of heaven opening to reveal a young woman shining with light, standing on an altar and holding a child, while a voice proclaimed “This virgin will receive in her womb the Saviour of the world, and this is the altar of the Son of God”. Augustus then refused to be considered a god and built an altar on the spot where the vision appeared, and called it the Ara Coeli ("Heavenly Altar").
This is one of the reasons why the Sibyls were regarded in mediaeval times as prophets of Christ to the pagans, and why they feature in paintings in several churches including the Sistine Chapel.
Augustus was called Octavian before he became emperor. There was never an emperor's palace on the Capitoline, but there was a large surviving building here in the 14th century called the Palatium Octaviani which was used as a reception hall. The name Aracoeli occurs from that century, the first documentary reference dating from 1323.
Further, it is recorded that the original high altar had an inscription on it which read: Noscas quod Caesar tunc struxit Octavianus hanc ara, celi sacra proles cum patet ei (“You know that then Caesar Octavian erected this altar, when the offspring of heaven was revealed to him”). Celi is a genitive of proles, not ara, but some people could have taken the words ara celi as belonging together.
The first church is thought to have been founded by Greek-speaking Byzantine-rite monks in the 7th century or, less likely, the 6th. There were monastics in the city before then, but nothing is known about their rules of life or whether there was an earlier monastery here. The first monks appeared in Rome about the mid 4th century, and became well-known when one of them was elected as Pope Gregory the Great in 590. He appointed fellow monks to positions of power in the Roman Church, but this was seriously resented and the policy was reversed on his death.
Monastic refugees from the East started to arrive in numbers from the east in the 7th century, owing to Muslim conquests. They swiftly dominated monastic life in the city, but also the papal curia and several Easterners became popes (Theodore I, John VI, Sissinius , Constantine, Gregory III and Zacharias). This period has become known as the Byzantine Papacy There was another major influx when Emperor Leo III imposed an iconoclast policy by force in the Byzantine Empire in 730, which was resisted by almost all monastics.
Iconoclasm was abandoned in the Byzantine Empire in 843, and the decline of the Byzantine rite in Rome began then as many Greek monastics went home in the context of a growing hostility between the churches of Rome and Constantinople.
Unfortunately, this hostility led to a complete breach in 1054. One possible result was a removal from the historical narrative of the presence of Byzantine rite monastics in the city. This may have had support in a reform campaign undertaken in the previous century by the Order of St Benedict, which promulgated the notion that monastic life in Rome had been Benedictine since the late 6th century. Little has been preserved about the Roman Byzantine-rite monastics.
It is not known when the Greek monastery here closed, but the massive earthquake that wrecked the city in 847, and caused part of the hill to collapse, could have led to an abandonment.
The monastery was re-founded as Benedictine by the early 10th century, as it was listed in 944 as a possession of the abbey of Subiaco. It gained independence as an abbey towards the end of the same century, as the superior signed himself as Ego Abbas Dominicus Capitolii in 1015. The abbey church appeared in documents as Sanctae Mariae in Capitolio, and this remained its name for the duration of the abbey's life.
A surviving bull dated 1137 by the antipope Anacletus II confirmed the abbey's privileges including possession of the entire Campidoglio. This indicates that the monastery was the only functioning entity on the hill, the other buildings being in ruins or demolished.
Despite the grant, the Roman noble clan of the Corsi built a four-towered castle on the ruins of the Tabularium in 1195 and by the 14th century this was the place where the city council or “senate” used to meet regularly (the first documented meeting of a self-proclaimed city council somewhere on the Capitoline was during a rebellion in 1143). The castle is the ancestor of the present Palazzo Senatorio, which is still the City Hall.
The main access remained from the Roman Forum, via the Scalae Gemoniae staircase or the stub of the carriage road bending in a hairpin to reach the abbey and castle via a mustering ground which is now the Piazza del Campidoglio. A goat track must have developed early on around the alignment of the present Via delle Tre Pile, if only because the city's main provision market established itself at the bottom of the hill around the present Piazza Aracoeli. This was a public road of some sort by the 12th century, and the abbey seems to have had some jurisdiction over the market because the later friary was in charge of a tribunal for disputes there.
Nothing is known of the abbey buildings, but the consensus is that the church's orientation was south to north with its façade approximately where that of the Palazzo Nuovo is now. The high altar seems to have been that under the present chapel of St Helena, and the Cosmatesque ambones were part of the schola cantorum.
In a cashless economy based on barter and tribute, Benedictine monasteries were financed by grants of land. This was problematic, since the monks could then claim noble status and be tempted to adopt a lifestyle to fit. By the end of the 12th century, the Benedictines in Rome were only allowed to continue at San Paolo fuori le Mura.
So, the monastery here was shut down. In 1249 Pope Innocent IV granted the complex to the Franciscans, who rebuilt it as the Roman headquarters of their order. They were responsible for the present church, which incorporated some elements from the older building such as the ancient columns and the Cosmatesque schola. The friary that they added was large, arranged around three courtyards and rather precariously perched on top of the slope to the east and north of the church.
Unlike their Benedictine predecessors, the Franciscans relied on cash donations for their upkeep. As a result, the work took some time. The church was consecrated in 1268, but work on the interior continued until 1300 under the patronage of the Savelli family, who obtained a large mortuary chapel in the transept. The city council started to meet in the castle next door soon afterwards. The new church quickly acquired a special link to the city's civic establishment, which it has kept through the centuries.
The friars encouraged donors to add chapels to the church, resulting in the many and various side chapels to be found here.
In 1347, Cola di Rienzo seized power in Rome in the absence of the popes who were resident at Avignon in France. After winning a battle against the nobles, he proclaimed himself Tribune and Liberator of the Holy Roman Republic, and one of his first acts was to oversee the building of a staircase to the church in thanksgiving to Our Lady of Aracoeli for stopping an epidemic of bubonic plague. The ordinary people of the city donated to the cause. But things went wrong for the new Tribune. He dedicated his sword and sceptre at the church's altar and fled the city before the stairs were completed (he did not inaugurate them). On his return six years later, he was picked up and executed at the foot of the stairs in 1354. There is a small statue of him in the garden to the right.
This began a tradition of condemned criminals being executed at the same site.
In 1464, there was a restoration of the church fabric, which had been allowed to fall into disrepair. This was overseen by Cardinal Oliviero Carafa.
Between 1534 and 1549, the sacristy (including the later Chapel of the Bambino) and the present campanile were added. The original 13th century campanile over the present side entrance was demolished. This work was part of a rebuilding of the friary ordered by Pope Paul III. At the time the popes were residing at what later became the Palazzo Venezia, and he wished to live at the friary in the summer months to catch some breezes on the hill. Hence, in the latter half of the 16th century the friary doubled up as a papal summer palace. This continued until Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) restored full possession to the Franciscans.
Pope Pius IV (1559-65) ordered a destructive remodelling of the church. Very many sepulchral monuments were cleared out and dumped, and the medieval schola cantorum in front of the sanctuary was destroyed. In 1565, the apse of the church was demolished and replaced with a choir for the friars which is still behind the high altar.
In 1575, a magnificent ceiling was provided for the nave in thanksgiving for the Christian victory against the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto. Toward the end of the century, many of the chapels were re-ordered. Side entrances to the façade were provided, but the Franciscans were never able to improve the rest of it.
In 1686, the original Gothic windows in the central nave upper walls were replaced with the present rectangular ones.
In the 18th century, the Franciscan Observants (who had inherited the convent after the order split) made some effort to enhance their witness in the church by adding decorations and furnishings appropriate to their Order. This includes the high altar, restored in 1723, and some side altars to their saints.
On October 15th, 1764, the English historian Edward Gibbon sat by this church when, in his own words: "As I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter (sic), that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind." Twenty-three years later, he published the last volume of his vast work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
In 1797, on the invasion of the French, the church was desecrated by being used as a stable by cavalry. The hooves of the horses were blamed for damaging the Cosmatesque floor. The chapel of St Helena was temporally dismantled, and several of the chapels despoiled. The friary was shut down for the duration, but was re-opened in 1815 only to be confiscated by the Italian government in 1873. It was then used as a barracks and headquarters for the Vigili Urbani, an early city police force.
Despite the antiquity of the convent buildings, some surviving from the 13th century, the whole friary was demolished to make way for the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II now occupying the north flank of the hill. Work on this began with the demolition in 1885, and the monument was inaugurated in 1911. The church itself was unaffected by the project.
A tragedy occurred in 1994, when the revered Bambino (a little wooden sculpture of the Christ Child) was stolen and never recovered. It is hoped that it is in a private collection and might turn up in the future. Other rumoured alternatives are that it was stolen for the jewels on it and then thrown away, or (worse) that it was destroyed.
Despite now being dependent on the parish church of San Marco, the church is still that of the Senate and People of Rome (SPQR).
The church was made titular in 1517.
The present cardinal is Salvatore De Giorgi.
Layout and fabric
The church is basilical in plan. It has a nave of twelve bays with side aisles, followed by a transept and then by the sanctuary with choir. The three pitched and tiled roofs of central nave, transept and sanctuary form a Latin cross.
The side chapels were added ad-hoc, and have individual roofs. There are nine off the left hand aisle, all about the same size and not aligning with the bays of the nave. The right hand aisle has eight, with a side entrance vestibule occupying the space for the ninth, and three of these chapels have apses -the fourth, fifth and sixth. Also, their width varies and the fourth is the biggest.
A further pair of external chapels flanks the sanctuary. Oddly, the right hand one of this pair (now the Blessed Sacrament Chapel) has yet another chapel opening off it to the right which it is easy for visitors to overlook.
The shop, sacristy and the Bambino Chapel are off the left hand end of the transept. There is a chamber over the last aisle chapel at this end, and in between this and the transept roof is the campanile of 1537. This has the form of two very tall arches in brick, looking like a fragment of a railway viaduct, with a triangular pediment on top containing a little round-headed aperture. The bells are dated 1566, 1595, 1615 and 1719.
The original church fabric is of scavenged ancient bricks. From the Piazza del Campidoglio, you can see that the rectangular windows of the central nave used to be Gothic with two lights each; tracery from the tops of these windows has been left embedded in the brickwork.
If you go round to the left hand end of the transept, next to the Vittoriano, you can see some tufa masonry low down in the external wall. This looks as if it belonged to the previous Benedictine church.
The impressive staircase leading up to the church, which comprises124 marble steps (the two bottom ones shorter than the rest), was designed by Lorenzo di Simone di Andreozzo in 1348, and donated to Our Lady by the people of the city as a thanksgiving for the deliverance of the city from the plague. The marble was looted from ancient buildings, and there are traces of carving to be found on some of the slabs.
This staircase has always belonged to the city of Rome, and was a traditional site for political debates. Also, destitute pilgrims and indigents used to sleep here. A rather satirical modern myth has grown up, that if you climb the stairs on your knees you will win the Italian national lottery.
The little garden on the right has been there since Michelangelo laid out the Piazza del Campodoglio in the late 16th century. However, to the right there used to be a series of domestic buildings starting with the church of St Rita where the ruins of the ancient insula now are. Their loss was a pity; one of them had an ancient Roman sarcophagus built into it, and also (rarer) fragments of 11th century marble plutei or sanctuary screens in a Byzantine style. These seem to have come from the Benedictine church.
Do take care with these stairs if you are infirm, or if the weather is bad. If you fall, you are liable not to stop until you reach the bottom. If in doubt, use the side entrance of the church off the Piazza del Campodoglio.
The fabric of the frontage is largely original 13th century brickwork, and you can tell that the friars scavenged the ancient bricks from different buildings. The façade was never completed according to the original plans, and it was not intended to leave the brickwork exposed. Efforts were made to add a façade right up to the mid 19th century.
What we have is basically a brick cliff, displaying shallow putlog holes for the builders' scaffolding poles. It has three entrances, with two round windows having marble transennae above the side ones. The portions of the façade above these are false, being screen walls above the actual side aisle roofs. In the centre is a rectangular niche containing an unusual heart-shaped window.
At the top is a cavetto cornice; that is, a horizontal wall which curves outwards and which contains a little round-headed window lighting the void above the nave ceiling. The reason for the curve is that there used to be a mosaic here, and the curve meant that it was not fore-shortened when viewed from the top of the stairs. Only a few small fragments remain, but Cellini in the 16th century saw it and thought that it had been executed by Jacopo Torriti. The subject was the Dream of Pope Innocent III; the story is that the dream reassured the pope about the basic orthodoxy of the nascent Franciscan movement at a time at the end of the 12th century when it was in danger of being condemned as heretical.
The three entrances are not in their original state. The main entrance has a floating porch in the form of a semicircular arch, and in the tympanum of this are traces of a fresco executed in 1465. The side doors have Gothic tympani containing two Evangelists in 16th century shallow marble relief, St Matthew to the right and St John to the left.
The aperture in the cornice used to have a clock in it, installed originally in 1412 (very early for a clock) as the city's main timepiece. It had two attendants, the Moderatores Horologi, to make sure it kept the right time. The problem was, until the 19th century Rome kept to the ancient form of telling time which was to divide daylight and night-time into twelve “hours” each. Since obviously the length of the day changed through the year, the clock had to be reset daily. Perhaps partly because of this, it caused a lot of trouble by going wrong and breaking down. If you look carefully, you can see the round scar left by it. The clock was moved to the centre of the façade in 1728, and removed altogether in 1806.
The central window used to have a Baroque frame, and between it and the cornice was a large fresco. Both of these embellishments were removed senselessly in the 20th century (the fresco was badly decayed when it was destroyed).
To the left of the main entrance is a plaque recording the provision of the staircase. It reads:
Magister Laurentius Simeoni Andretii, Andrea Karoli fabricator de Roma de regione Columpne fundavit, prosecutus est et consumavit ut principalis magister hoc opus scalarum inceptum anno domini ann CCCXL VIII die XXV Octobris.
Some mediaeval tomb-slabs were re-used in the paving outside the main entrance, but these are too worn to decipher or even properly to date.
The side entrance from the Piazza del Campodoglio, on the right hand side of the church, is behind the Palazzo Nuovo and is accessed via a short staircase. It is in the same style as the main entrance, but here the tympanum under the arched porch has a mosaic of The Madonna and Two Angels by the school of Pietro Cavallini or by Jacopo Torriti. This was transferred from the original side entrance in 1564 to make way for the present Chapel of St Matthew. It is easy for visitors to miss it.
Over this entrance are the remains of the original mediaeval Romaneque campanile. There is a brick wall of two storeys each with an arcade of three molded arches, the first arcade being blank but the second one piercing through the wall.
To get to this entrance from the piazza, you have to go up some stairs and then turn left around the back of the Palazzo Nuovo. At the top of the stairs is a loggia with a pitched and hipped roof, displaying an arcade of three arches separated by Doric pilasters. This was the entrance gateway to the friary, and is the only surviving part of it.
The staircase has two flights, and on the intervening landing is a granite Corinthian column with a stone ball on top of it. The latter used to have a cross finial which has gone missing (it has recently been replaced).
The Franciscan friary was a very serious loss, some of the fabric being over six hundred years old when demolished (most was early 16th century). It was arranged round three cloisters or courtyards. Once through the gate, you found yourself in a tiny triangular courtyard with the actual entrance door in the far corner. Through that was the well cloister, fitted against the choir of the church and having two-storey arcades on the other three sides. These had ancient arcade columns with ancient capitals in the Ionic style in the first storey and in a foliated mediaeval style in the second one. The wellhead was in carved stone, and the well was very deep.
The main cloister was to the north of this, perched right on the crag and slightly out of square to fit. It was arcaded on all four sides, the arcade passages having Gothic cross-vaults. Finally, along the north side of the church was a long, narrow garden court with a range on its own north side which looked down to the Piazza Venezia and features in old depictions of the city.
The body of the church is made up of a central nave and two side aisles, The twenty-two antique columns in the arcades were salvaged from a variety of ancient buildings and are a very mixed lot in various stones and styles. The capitals also vary, some being Doric, some Ionic and others Corinthian or Composite and, because the columns vary in length, some have bases, some have their bases on plinths and others have no bases at all.
The third column on the left is inscribed with the letters E CVBICVLO AVGVSTORVM and is said to have come from one of the bedrooms (cubicula) of the imperial palace on the Palatine. A more likely source is a building on the Capitoline misidentified as the palace of the emperor who saw the vision of the Ara Coeli . Nobody knows why this column should have a hole through it; the suggestion that it was used for astronomical observations is a guess.
The last column on the right has another graffito, saying PROBI which means “useful ones”. Was this approval for use in building the church?
The floor is a delightful mixture of Cosmatesque work and a large number of tomb slabs. When slabs were inserted, the Cosmatesque stone pieces were sometimes relaid haphazardly but other surviving areas are very intricately designed. Most of the carved floor slabs are very worn, but are still worth examining.
Above the arcades run a pair of entablatures, and on the projecting cornices of these are iron railings making two very narrow walkways. These meet below the window in the counterfaçade.
Above each column, placed over the entablature, is an elliptical tondo containing a fresco of a Franciscan saint. These total twenty-two, and were painted by one of the friars called Umile da Foligno. Unfortunately, he did not label them. The sleepy nun about to drop out of her tondo, with her little dog trying to get onto her lap, is St Margaret of Cortona. The dog features twice in this church -see her chapel.
Between the central nave windows are large rectangular fresco panels depicting scenes from the lives of Our Lady, King David, and the prophet Isaiah. These which were executed by Umile as well as by Giovanni Odazzi and Giuseppe Passeri. The style of these panels is lively and ebullient, and they are worth a look.
The coffered and gilded wooden ceiling, one of the glories of the church, commemorates the Battle of Lepanto (1571). One of the admirals there was Marcantonio Colonna, who was in charge of the papal contingent and who was given a triumphal procession ending in this church. In the centre coffer is a wooden relief carving of the Virgin and Child, with a pair of city shields (SPQR) either side on the major axis. The side coffers show battle trophies, including beaks of galleys (this was a naval battle between the combined Christian forces and the Ottoman Empire). The carving is very intricate, and tricked out in blue, red, green and gold. The transept has a matching ceiling.
The aisles have undecorated barrel-vaults with pointed arches, which do not meet in the middle to create cross-vaults.
The finely carved wooden pulpit on the left hand side is thought to have been designed by Bernini.
Chapel of Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners
The fourth column on the left has a fresco of the Madonna and Child, thought to be the work of a 15th century artist from Siena. This attracted popular devotion which continues and, as a result, a small chapel was set up here by the addition of a Baroque altar and a low balustraded screen. The architect was Gerolamo Fabi, early 18th century.
Altar of St James of the Marches
Opposite Our Lady's chapel, an altar was placed against a column by the same architect. It is dedicated to St James of the Marches, a 15th century reforming Franciscan who was canonized in 1726. The altarpiece seems to be anonymous, 18th century. He is not a well-known saint, and the Italian Wikipedia article correctly describes the altar as molto meno frequentato compared to Our Lady opposite.
The wall over the entrance is dominated by an enormous stucco scroll supported by two angels, below the window which has an elaborate frame with the Papal tiara and keys and stained glass featuring the Barberini bees. The epigraph, dated 1634, extols Pope Urban VIII Barberini. The work was allegedly designed by Bernini, and executed by Semini. The latter was also responsible for the three monumental tablets below, extolling Carlo Barberini the pope's nephew.
Just to the right of the central door is the monument to Archdeacon Giovanni Crivelli, which is signed by Donatello. The tombstone was designed to be set into the floor, but was set into the wall in 1881. It was made between 1432 and 1433, so had 450 years of people walking on it and is now very worn. The signature of Donatello takes some making out, but the masterly rendering of the feet is a good indication of his genius.
On the left-hand side is the playful Renaissance monument to the astronomer Ludovico Grato Margani (died 1531). It is by the school of Andrea Sansovino, and the master himself might have sculpted the figure of Christ. Also here are monuments to Giulio da Castrovetere, 1588, and Pietro Allio di Allis, 1312.
The transept is structurally distinct from the nave, and is entered through a triumphal arch up three stairs. The ceiling here is as good as that of the nave, but often overlooked. The central coffer contains a wooden relief that looks like St Francis in glory with putti.
On the inner sides of the piers of the triumphal arch are two Cosmatesque ambones or pulpits dating to around 1200 and hence belonging to the previous Benedictine church. One theory is that they are constructed with parts from a single schola cantorum that used to be in front of the high altar, but a recent revisionist theory suggests that they were made at different times. The one on the right is older, and is signed by Lorenzo di Cosma and his son Giacomo. The preservation of the ambones was fortunate, but they have certainly been altered and a panel from the right hand one is now in the Capitoline Museum. This shows a 4th century relief featuring scenes from the legend of Achilles.
The workmanship of these items is amazing, and bears close examination.
Over the right hand ambo is a small fresco by Giovanni de' Vecchi showing the icon of Our Lady of Aracoeli being taken in procession through the city by Pope Gregory the Great during an epidemic. Over the left hand one is a memorial to Catherine, Queen of Bosnia, 1478.
The Cosmatesque floor has two enormous porphyry roundels, sawn from a very high-status ancient column. Alarmingly, the left hand one has had a Baroque tomb slab cut into it and both are badly cracked. This floor was re-laid when the choir was built, and the schola here removed.
This part of the church is not mediaeval. Originally there was an apse with a conch, and the latter had a mosaic by Pietro Cavallini featuring the Ara Coeli legend and the emperor having his vision. However the friars wanted the conventual choir behind the altar instead of in the transept and nave, so the apse was demolished and replaced with the present combined sanctuary and choir on a rectangular plan in 1565. The work impinged on the old well-cloister of the friary, just to the east.
The present high altar dates from 1723. The late Baroque aedicule is unusual in not having any pilasters or columns, but has a pair of gilded stucco angels on the truncated triangular pediment venerating the Franciscan version of the monogram of Jesus within a gilded glory.
Enshrined in the aedicule is a Byzantine-style icon of the Madonna and Child, known as the Madonna d'Aracoeli. It is painted on beech wood, and is nowadays tentatively dated to the 10th century. Some scholars formerly claimed that it might be older, perhaps as old as the 6th century; they connected it with the Greek monks who built the first church here. It used to be part of a larger artwork, an iconostasis or triptych, since Our Lady is gesturing to a missing representation of Christ. Interestingly, the style is very similar to the venerated ancient icon at Sant'Alessio.
According to the fictional tradition just mentioned, the icon was venerated and carried through the streets of Rome by St Gregory the Great during an epidemic. It certainly was so carried during the Black Death of 1348, and the short duration of that outbreak was ascribed to the intercession of Our Lady of Aracoeli. The people of the city put up the money for the access stairs in gratitude.
The icon was crowned in 1636, but the crown was stolen by French troops in 1797. A new crown was added in 1938, and in 1949 the Roman people were consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary before this icon. The crown was removed in a recent restoration, as adding jewelled crowns to the images on ancient icons has now fallen entirely out of favour.
A work by Raphael, the Madonna of Foligno, was hung here instead of the icon from 1512 to 1565 before being taken to a convent in Foligno. it is now in the Vatican museums, in the Pinacoteca. The tomb of Sigismondo Conti, who commissioned the painting, is in the pavement on the right side.
Below the icon is a Cosmatesque panel, and flanking it are two statues of heroes bearing the shield of the city.
The altar “pro populo” in front of the high altar, for Masses said facing the congregation, is better than the usual ones in Roman churches. Here, the mensa is supported by a pair of gilded angels which echo those on the aedicule behind.
The choir is behind the high altar, and is inaccessible to visitors. Nowadays it is the home of the church organ, which hulks behind the altar in a rather unfortunate way. An organ was first installed here in 1848, but the present instrument dates from 1926.
The choir screen walls, either side of the main altar, have a pair of entrance doorways. Over these are busts of SS Peter and Paul, and large statues of SS Bernardine and Anthony.
The frescoed barrel vault features Our Lady venerated by angels (some of which are playing musical instruments) by Nicolò Martinelli, Il Trometta. In the side panels are the emperor Augustus and the Tiburtine Sybil, an allusion to the apse mosaic or fresco by Cavallini which was destroyed to build the choir. On the left hand wall is a monument to Giovanni Battista Savelli by Andrea Bregno, 1498.
Paintings in here are of St Francis by Odoardo Vicinelli, and Bl John del Prado by Francesco Bertasi. The latter was a Spanish Franciscan martyred at Marrakesh in Morocco in 1631 while ministering to Christian slaves.
The chapels are described in anticlockwise order, starting from the right of the main entrance.
Chapel of St Bernardine
The first chapel in the right aisle is dedicated to St Bernardine of Siena, and is often known as the Cappella Bufalini after its first patrons. The walls are decorated with frescoes featuring the saint by Bernardino Pinturicchio which he executed about 1485. The story is that there was a feud between the clans of Bufalini of Città di Castello and Baglioni of Perugia, which the saint helped to pacify. In gratitude, Niccolò Bufalini commissioned the chapel soon after the saint's canonization in 1450. Since the saint was Pinturiccio's patron, the work was also a devotional exercise for him. Georgina Masson, in her magisterial guide to Rome, wrote that the frescoes are probably the best thing in the church.
On the right wall are scenes from the saint's life, and to the left the Funeral of St Bernardine which is considered the artist's masterpiece. The fresco slants to the right to adjust for the position of the viewer standing just outside the chapel. Pinturicchio obviously enjoyed displaying his grasp of the new techniques of perspective and vista, and also painted real people. Niccolò himself is the old man in yellow on the left. In the distance, the saint's soul is being taken into heaven. Some odd things are going on in the background, including a bullfight.
The altarpiece fresco is actually an element in an old campaign by the Franciscans. The saint was an indefatigable preacher, and he concentrated on the topic of the Name of Jesus to the extent that he always had a banner with him bearing the letters IHS from the Greek IHΣYΣ. (The church still possesses the original banner.) The extolling of the name was new doctrine, and the Franciscans hoped that its popularity would lead to the saint being declared a Doctor of the Church. He never was, but the wish influenced the fresco. To the left is St Augustine and to the right St Anthony of Padua, Doctors, the former being the source of the theology that always influenced the Franciscans and the latter the one who first promulgated it among the early friars. St Bernardine is holding an open book (the emblem of a Doctor) which says Pater, manifestavi nomen tuum omnibus (“Father, I have made known your name to everyone”).
These frescoes were restored by Vincenzo Camuccini, after rising damp damaged them.
The cross-vault has frescoes of the Evangelists also by Pinturiccio. The cosmatesque floor is very good but restored, with an added inscription around the central roundel saying: Riposo alla memoria dei trapassati Mar[c]h[e]si Origo. After the Bufalini family the patrons of the chapel were the Mancini, and then the Origo. Outside the chapel is the memorial to Gioachino Origo, 1865, who was a general of the Papal army in the dying days of Papal rule in Rome.
The chapel has its own English Wikipedia article: 
Chapel of the Pietà
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. The altarpiece is by Marco de Pino, 16th century, and here are monuments to Tuccia Colonna, 1500, and Paolo Mattei, 1590. The frescoes on the side walls and vault are by Cristoforo Roncalli, Il Pomarancio, featuring The Deposition to the left, The Entombment on the right and The Garden of Gethsemane in the vault. The Cosmatesque floor is good.
In the floor outside the chapel are some 15th century tomb slabs, including one to a pilgrim called Pietro Della Valle.
Between the second and third chapels stands a colossal statue of Pope Gregory XIII by Pietro Paolo Olivièri, after 1585. It used to be in the hall of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, but was ejected in 1872 after the fall of the Papal government and found a home here.
Chapel of St Jerome
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to St Jerome, and is the Cappella Delfini. The paintings here are by Giovanni de' Vecchi, with the altarpiece featuring the saint as a hermit in his cave in the (rather verdently depicted) Syrian desert. He also appears in the left hand lunette, with his companion lion who actually belonged to St Gerasimus of the Jordan. He is holding a stone in both pictures, and used to beat his breast with it in order to drive away dirty thoughts. He notoriously didn't do very much about his angry ones.
The memorials on the side walls are to Mario Delfini, 1584, and Gentile Delfini, 1559. The frescoes around them feature Franciscan saints and scholars, notable among them being Blessed John Duns Scotus from Scotland. He was the Franciscans' answer to St Thomas Aquinas of the Dominicans as the last scholastic theologian before the Reformation, and was probably the most influential Scotsman outside Scotland in the late Middle Ages. However, the Protestants hated him and called him “Dunce”.
Here is a memorial to an expatriate Polish nobleman called Michele Corniact, 1594, with a good bust.
The chapel was re-dedicated to St Bonaventure in the 18th century, and restored in 1875. An altarpiece of the saint was provided by Franz von Rohden , which was placed over the painting of St Jerome. Perhaps fortunately, the work by Rohden was stolen recently to reveal the original altarpiece in a bad condition; it has been well restored.
Chapel of the Crucifixion
The fourth chapel on the right is the largest nave side chapel, and has its own apse with a pair of windows. This contains a wooden crucifix carved by the Franciscan Fra Vincenzo da Bassiano in the 17th century. A depiction of the Transfiguration is on the right hand wall, which is a work by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta that used to be in the sacristy.
The Cosmatesque pavement here is also good.
Vanozza, the special friend of St Frances of Rome, was buried here in 1430 and the saint had a vision of her soul going to heaven in the process.
Chapel of St Matthew
The fifth chapel on the right is dedicated to St Matthew the Evangelist, because this is the Mattei family chapel. The designer was Cesare Nebbia, 1580 on the instructions of Ciriaco Mattei with decorations completed by Jacopo Del Duca in 1589. Tommaso Mattei did a restoration in 1686.
The altarpiece featuring the saint with the Madonna and Child is by Girolamo Muziano, heavily restored by Bonaventura Giovanelli from Monreale towards the end of the 17th century.
This chapel used to be the church's side entrance, and the mosaic of Our Lady found over the present one used to be here.
Chapel of St Peter of Alcántara
The sixth chapel on the right is dedicated to St Peter of Alcántara, a rather fierce 16th century Spanish reformer of the Franciscan order -he forbade his followers to wear any sort of footwear or to own libraries, but was a famous spiritual director and was a friend of St Teresa of Avila. The altar in here has a relic niche with a grille, so presumably contains relics of him.
The altarpiece sculpture, in an apse lit by windows, is by Michele Maille and shows the saint in ecstasy. The side wall sculptures show angels holding up two tondi containing relief portraits described as being of "SS Stephen and Ranierus" (the latter is presumably St Raynerius of Pisa).
The vault frescoes are by Marcantonio Napoletano with stucco work by Francesco Cavallini , 1682. The main fresco shows the apotheosis of the saint, and has a wide garland of stucco flowers. Don't forget to look up to see this, as it is a spectacular piece of work.
Chapel of St Diego
The seventh chapel on the right is dedicated to St Diego of San Nicolás, a 15th century Spanish Franciscan lay-brother who became famous in Rome for nursing sick people while resident at the friary here. The city of San Diego in California, USA is named after him
Back then this chapel belonged to the Cenci family and was dedicated to St Lawrence, but it was bought back by the Franciscans in 1597, restored and re-dedicated.
The altarpiece featuring the saint is by Giovanni de' Vecchi, but the side wall frescoes are by Vespasiano Strada. One shows the saint giving alms, the other him curing a madwoman. The altar frontal has a tondo containing an unusual white marble relief sculpture of the saint.
In the vestibule inside the side entrance is a monument to Pietro Manzi de' Vicentini, bishop of Cesena, by Andrea Sansovino, 1504. Here also is the tomb of Cecchino Brachi, died 1545, by Pietro Urbano (after a design by Michelangelo).
If you've come up the main stairs and intend to leave the same way, go outside here to look at the mosaic over the door.
Chapel of SS Lawrence of Brindisi and Paschal Baylon
The eighth and last chapel off the right hand aisle is beyond the side entrance vestibule, and is dedicated to SS Lawrence of Brindisi and Paschal Baylon. The former is the Capuchin Doctor of the Church, famous for his writings about Our Lady (almost none available in English). The latter was a Spanish lay-brother disciple of St Peter of Alcántara, and is the patron of Eucharistic confraternities because of his success in arguing with Protestants over the Real Presence.
The chapel had an altarpiece by Vincenzo Vittoria, and side wall paintings depicting scenes from the life of St Paschal by Daniel Seiter in the style of Caravaggio. It was the funerary chapel of the Busi family, with 17th and 18th century memorials to its members. However, it has been stripped to accommodate a very important late 20th century discovery made in the course of renovation.
Now we have here fragments of frescoes attributed to Pietro Cavallini or Jacopo Torriti, comparable to the former's famous work at Santa Cecilia and precious and rare examples of the so-called “Roman Naturalistic” school around 1300. We see here the transition from a hieratic and Byzantine-influenced mediaeval style to the familiar Mannerist style of the Renaissance. The altar has the Madonna and Child between SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, while the side walls have damaged scenes of buildings and Christ Between Two Angels.
The downside of the re-ordering is that the altar fresco is marooned in exposed brickwork within a Baroque altarpiece, which looks stupid. The altar has a fresco above, in a tondo inserted into a split segmental pediment, and the saint depicted is St Lawrence of Brindisi writing about Our Lady.
The altar frontal has a tondo in pietro dura (stone marquetry) showing St Paschal having a Pentecostal moment. The vault decoration is by Carlo Stanghellini, with stucco decoration by Cavallini.
Outside is a pilaster monument to Alessandro Camerini, 1612.
Chapel of St Francis
The chapel in the right hand end of the transept is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, and became the Savelli family's mortuary chapel when Luca Savelli embellished it towards the end of the 13th century. His tomb is on the left, and is attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio, (c.1287). It features the front of an intricately carved ancient pagan sarcophagus, on which is placed the Gothic tomb chest embellished with Cosmatesque work.
Luca's wife was (Gio)Vana Aldobrandeschi, and her tomb is opposite, 1288. Their son was Pope Honorius IV (1285-1287), and in the 16th century his recumbent effigy was taken from his tomb in old St Peter's and added to that of his mother. Very unfortunately, in 1728 both tombs had their Gothic canopies removed and replaced by the present horizontal lintels in work that was badly bodged; Vana's tomb was given a backing slab of yellow Sienese marble of the wrong size. What was lost in this act of vandalism can be guessed from the intact Acquasparta tomb at the other end of the transept.
Other Savelli family tombs in this chapel belong to Antonio, Mabilia (who married into the Colonna family), another Luca and Pandolfo with a daughter.
The altarpiece is very grand, as befits the saint, but is 19th century. The aedicule is in red marble embellished with green verde antico for the altarpiece frame, panelling, frontal and the two ribbed and gilded Corinthian columns. The frontal has the unusual device of a cloud in alabaster. The altarpiece is St Francis in Ecstasy Assisted by Angels, by Francesco Trevisani -a work of high quality.
The vault has remnants of a fresco cycle of the school of Cavallini.
Here you will find the tomb of Brother Juniper (in Italian, Fra Ginepro), a companion of St Francis who is known from the Fioretti but who nevertheless existed. His remains were interred here in 1956 in a modern monument of yellow and grey marble with two little angels in bronze.
Blessed Sacrament Chapel
The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the chapel to the right of the sanctuary, which is hence a place of private prayer -please respect this. The altarpiece is now a statue of the Immaculate Conception. The first dedication was to St Michael the Archangel, then to St Frances of Rome and finally to St Francis Solano. The last was a Franciscan Observant missionary who died in Peru in 1610.
The chapel's decoration is rich, featuring bronze angle candleholders, alabaster wall pilasters and plinths and a polychrome marble balustrade. The architect was Antonio Gherardi, who painted the lunette to the left featuring The Death of St Francis Solano as well as two little panels in the apse vault with scenes from his life. The other fresco work is by Giuseppe Ghezzi.
The pietra dura altar frontal is very intricate, and in the centre is a depiction of a friar playing a guitar (there is an urban legend that a high-ranking member of the Pius X Society noticed this, and said sourly that it was a prophecy of the vile guitar-accompanied folk Masses promulgated by the Franciscans in the 1970's).
Chapel of St Rose of Viterbo
Oddly, the previous side chapel has its own little octagonal side chapel on the right. It is dedicated to St Rose of Viterbo, a 13th century mystic who should not be confused with St Rose of Lima. The chapel was designed by Stanghellini, but was restored at the end of the 17th century.
The paintings here are by Pasquale de Rossi, except for an anonymous Roman work showing The Miracle of St Rose. There are four works by him: St Rose Cures the Blindness of Delicata, St Rose Preaches in Favour of the Pope (the townsfolk of Viterbo were anti-Papal), St Rose Turns Bread into Roses and St Rose Ascends into Heaven.
The treasure of the chapel is a delicate little mosaic of Our Lady Enthroned between St John the Baptist and St Francis dated to the late 13th century. The donor is being presented to Our Lady by St Francis; he was possibly a senator called Giovanni Capocci. The artist was possibly Cavallini or Torriti.
Altar of St Charles
Altar of St Joseph
The corresponding altar to the left of the sanctuary is dedicated to St Joseph, and was designed by Pietra as a match to that of St Charles. The altarpiece shows St Joseph being married to Our Lady, and the winged putto's head in the pediment above is a happy-looking example of the genre.
Chapel of St Gregory the Great
The chapel to the left of the sanctuary is dedicated to Pope St Gregory the Great , and was fitted out in the 14th century for the Orsini family. It later became the funerary chapel of the de' Cavellieri family, and several members are buried here. The altarpiece shows Our Lady being venerated by SS Gregory and Francis.
Below the altar is now enshrined the corpse of Bl John of Triora, a Franciscan missionary who was martyred at Changsha in Hubei, China in 1816.
Chapel of the Holy Child
To the left of the above chapel, a door leads to the Chapel of the Holy Child, which houses a copy of the Santissimo Bambinello. This chapel was constructed in the sacristy area in the late 19th century; before that, the Bambino was kept locked away in the sacristy except for special occasions and its famous outings to sick people.
The original 15th or early 16th century statue was stolen in 1994. According to its story, it was carved by a Franciscan in Jerusalem using a piece of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane and was brought to Rome in 1647. It was not the most beautiful representation of the Holy Child, but many miraculous cures of seriously sick and dying people were attributed to it and this led to its enormous popularity in the 19th century. Another story is from 1848, when the people of Rome expelled Pope Pius IX and declared a republic. They burned all his state carriages except one which they kept for the Bambino, and the pope allowed him to keep it on his return. After 1870, the carriage was provided by the Torlonia family. The Bambino was solemnly crowned by the pope in 1897 after his chapel was built.
The church gets many letters addressed to the Holy Child, all of which are placed before the statue unopened before being burned. They are intended for the Christ Child, not the priests.
Unfortunately, word is that the replica is not getting the devotion that the original inspired; he needs to perform some miracles of his own.
The church's sacristy is just beyond the chapel of the Bambino, and contains a representation of the Holy Family which is a copy of a work by Giulio Romano. This is nicknamed the Madonna della Gatta, because a cat appears in it. The original is at Naples.
Chapel of St Helena
The chapel in the left hand end of the transept is very unusual, in that it is a free-standing rotunda or tempietto instead of being up against the wall. This is because this is the traditional site of the original Ara Coeli altar erected by the emperor Augustus.
St Frances of Rome is said to have levitated while praying at this altar.
The original rotunda was erected in 1602 around the late 12th or early 13th century mediaeval altar, another relic of the Benedictine church. On was placed an ancient porphyry urn containing the relics of St Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine. Her original mausoleum, now in ruins, is at Santi Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros and the relics were transferred in the 12th century.
The rotunda was never actually finished, and the French dismantled it after 1798. After the papal government was restored, the tempietto was rebuilt to the design of Pietro Holl and finished in 1833. This is the present edifice.
In 1963, archaeologists investigated the site. They reported finding that the altar was set on ancient Roman remains, which could (controversially) be interpreted as the augury-altar of the Auguraculum. Also, there was a 12th century carved and painted sandalwood coffer in the urn that contained the relics of St Helena, which is apparently now either in the sacristy or back in the urn.
The present structure is octagonal, with eight Corinthian columns in pinkish marble connected by balustrades. The hemispherical dome has eight sectors separated by wide ribs embellished with stucco flowers, and rests on an entablature with a projecting cornice having modillions and a dedicatory inscription to Our Lady on its frieze. The interior of the dome is coffered with rosettes, and on top is a statue of Our Lady. The cross motif on the dome exterior is an allusion to the discovery of the True Cross by St Helen, and the motif is repeated in polychrome marble pietra dura on the column plinths.
At present, the altar has a polychrome statue of St Helen, replacing a modern sculpture which looked like a spook. Through an aperture, you can see the Cosmatesque altar frontal which has the Lamb of God at the centre, the Madonna and Child at the top right hand corner and the emperor Augustus at the top left.
Left Side of Transept
There are several very interesting funerary monuments around the tempietto, including 14th and 15th century slabs in the floor.
By far the best is that to Cardinal Matteo d'Acquasparta O.F.M. (died 1302), attributed to Giovanni Cosmati. The fresco of the Madonna and Child with St Matthew and St Francis, including a miniature figure of the suppliant cardinal, is attributed to Pietro Cavallini. The recumbent effigy rests on a tomb-chest covered by a draped cloth, a precursor of the rumpled fabrics beloved by Baroque sculptors such as Bernini.
The door in the left hand wall leads into a little shop.
Altar of St John of Capistrano
Against the left hand pier of the triumphal arch is the polychrome marble late Baroque altar dedicated to St John of Capistrano, with four Doric columns in verde antico. The altar frontal has an unusual version of the monogram of the name Jesus, together with the Cross and nails. Above the columns are three urn finials (one has gone missing) which are meant to be flaming but look as if they have fungus growing out of them.
Chapel of Our Lady of Loreto
The ninth and last chapel off the left hand aisle is dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto, and the altarpiece by Marzio Ganassini shows angels carrying the Holy House from Nazareth to Loreto (according to its legend) while the Madonna and Child sits on the roof. The altar has a pair of Corinthian columns in pavonazzetto marble, supporting a triangular pediment broken at the top.
The design of the chapel was by Onorio Longhi 1613, the frescoes on the walls and in the vault featuring scenes from the life of Our Lady are by Marzio di Colantonio and the patterning surrounding them was by his father, apparently.
In the floor outside is the tomb slab of Pietro di Lante, 1403. Also here you can find the memorial to Felice de Fredis 1528 who, in January 1506, unearthed the celebrated statue of Laocöon which is now in the Vatican Museums. The epigraph actually tells you that.
On the pier between this chapel and the next is a memorial with a map of Mussolini's East African empire after he had conquered Ethiopia (Somalia was civilized in those days).
Chapel of St Margaret of Cortona
The eighth chapel on the left is dedicated to St Margaret of Cortona , and was restored in 1729. The altar is a luscious piece of late Baroque (tardobarocco), coved (concave) in polychrome marbles with a pair of fluted Composite columns in yellow Siena (the one on the right has been badly cracked). The Cosmatesque floor is very good.
The altarpiece shows the saint in ecstasy. She was a penitential Franciscan tertiary, and would not have been as clean and neat as depicted. Charmingly, her dog features. The work is described as being by G. Sales, 1823, and the side wall frescoes are by Marco Benefial. The latter show her conversion and death; the former event took place when she saw the corpse of her lover. The dog belonged to him, and led her into the forest where she found him murdered.
Chapel of St Michael
The seventh chapel on the left is dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, and was re-ordered in the 17th century to a design by Carlo Rainaldi . The anonymous altarpiece showing the saint conquering the Devil is an odd work, rather pallid but worth a look.
What should not be missed in this chapel is the pair of neo-Classical monuments on the side walls. That to Barbara Clarelli Marini, 1876 is to the right and has both a cameo and a bust, as well as statues of a man and woman who look as if the bus is late. To the left is that of Settimia Maffei by Francesco Laboureur 1822, with a cameo on an obelisk and two preoccupied putti. These monuments replaced earlier ones, and the important thing about them is the trompe-l'oeil design of the niches in which they are placed. The effect is to make these shallow niches look deeper than they are, with coffered barrel vaults.
Chapel of the Ascension
The sixth chapel on the left is dedicated to the Ascension of Christ, and was designed in 1582 by Onorio Longhi on behalf of the Orsini family. The altarpiece is a copy of a work by Muziano, and the frescoes are by Il Trometta again. Here are monuments to Camillo Pardo Orsini and Vittoria Orsini Frangipani, his wife who oversaw the fitting out of the chapel. The busts are thought to be by Martino Longhi the Elder, and the lady looks very formidable.
Outside there is a floor slab of a 14th century noblewoman.
Chapel of St Paul
The fifth chapel on the left is dedicated to St Paul the Apostle. The altarpiece is a very bad painting of the apostle allegedly by Girolamo Muziano, who was certainly able to do better than this (compare the painting in the Chapel of St Matthew opposite). However, the fresco work is much better and is by Roncalli, Il Pomarancio.
To the lower left is the tomb of Filippo Della Valle, with a recumbent effigy of the school of Andrea Briosco Riccio.
Outside, there are some more worn 15th century tomb slabs in the floor, and on a pilaster the memorial to Anna Luisa Montoya. She was a daughter of the ambassador from Mexico, and died in Rome in 1856 aged twenty-six. The portrait shows a pretty girl with her hair in the contemporary English fashion (the United Kingdom was approaching the height of its power and influence at the time).
Chapel of St Anne
The fourth chapel on the left is dedicated to St Anne, the mother of Our Lady. It was refitted for the Cesarini family in the 18th century, but was repainted in the 19th and 20th centuries and has been “under restoration” recently. It is completely screened off, and is apparently the church's broomcupboard. To be fair, there is nowhere else to keep the cleaning kit.
The three works of art of note here are : The altarpiece by Francesco Trevisani showing The Holy Family Appears to Blessed Serafina Sforza, a side wall oil painting by Francesco Bertosi showing Blessed Andrew Conti Curing a Demoniac and a wall monument to Vincenzo and Fortunata Lanzi which is described as being designed by Michelangelo. It has busts of the deceased.
Chapel of St Anthony of Padua
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. It was frescoed in about 1450 by Benozzo Gozzoli, but only a fragment showing St Anthony with donors has survived as the altarpiece. There are several interesting things about this work.
Firstly, the saint is not shown with the Christ-Child and a lily as is now usual, but with a book and a flaming heart. This alludes to his skill at explaining the Scriptures, and the heart refers to the Walk to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 24:32) where the hearts of the disciples burned within them as Christ explained the Scriptures concerning himself.
Secondly, his proper name is given above the fresco as Sanctus Antonius Ulixbonensis. When he was alive he was Brother Anthony of Lisbon, where he was born, and Padua somehow managed to take over his name after his death.
Thirdly, the red tones in the fresco are from cinnabar, or mercury oxide (seriously poisonous), and the blue background is ultramarine. The latter pigment was fabulously expensive, being obtained from lapis lazuli via a tedious and complicated extraction process. It is also difficult to get uniform blocks of colour using it, as the fresco demonstrates.
The vault frescoes are by Il Trometta, with the dome showing Christ Worshippd by the Host of Heaven, and the ones on the walls are by the school of Muziano. This was the chapel of the Paluzzi family, and the busts flanking the altar are of two of them. On the right is the tomb of Antonio Albertoni Patrizi sculpted about 1509.
Just outside is a monument to Fra Mattia da Sant'Eustachio, which dates from 1300 and is one of the earliest accurate depictions of a Franciscan and of what the earlier friars wore.
Between this and the second chapel sits a large statue of Pope Paul III, sculpted in 1563 for the Palazzo dei Conservatori but, like its counterpart in the aisle opposite, ejected in 1876.
Chapel of the Nativity
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to the Nativity, and is nowadays not actually a chapel but a crib grotto. It is open only around Christmas, when the Santissimo Bambino is placed in a gilded throne in the crib. The church is often crowded around here at this time, especially when children come to recite poems by the crib.
Chapel of the Immaculate Conception
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. The Bambino's gilded throne, in the form of an aedicule, has been kept on the altar here. The altarpiece shows St Francis Solano and St Bonaventure venerating Our Lady, and is by Marzio Ganassini.
The artist responsible for the frescoes was thought to have been Il Trometta, but is now identified as Francesco Pichi 1555. The dome has four panels with Old Testament scenes allegorizing the Immaculate Conception, and two more each are on the side walls and in the side lunettes. The dome panels show David and Abigail; Solomon with the Queen of Sheba; Solomon with Bathsheba; Esther and Ahasuerus.
The church is open, according to the tourist website 060608 (June 2018):
9:00 to 17:30 (9:30 to 18:30 from May to September).
The church cannot be visited during Mass. This is regularly on weekdays at 12:00 but special civic celebrations, and also those involving the military at the monument next door, can also take place (which explains the rather horrid practice of stacking plastic chairs in some of the chapels).
There is a small shop off the left hand end of the transept.
The church can hardly be said to have any routine pastoral responsibility. Hence, the times of regular Masses are limited. There has been a recent change, and the following Masses were advertised by the Diocese in May 2019:
Sundays and Solemnities 8:30, 12:00.
The weekday Masses have been in the Chapel of the Holy Infant. This is off the left hand end of the transept.
Epiphany is a very important feast here, and traditionally the city was blessed with the Bambino on that day.
"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr 1) Side entrance
"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr 3) Interior
"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr 4) Stairs and façade