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 Rome » Sights and attractions » Basilicas and churches » Santa Maria Maggiore

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the four Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome. Its construction was ordered by Pope Liberio who – they say – on August 5th 356 saw the Virgin Mary in his dreams. She indicated him where to construct the church through a snow fall that happened on the Esquilino Hill (this is the reason why the church is also called by the second name of Saint Mary “ad Nives”, of the Snows). It seems, however, that the actual Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica was built under Sisto III who erected it and dedicated it to Mary’s motherhood, just after the Council of Efeso in 431.

One needs to notice that since the times of the late empire the Esquilino Hill had hosted a small temple dedicated to Giunone Luncina protectors of births, to whom matronal feasts were dedicated.
Internally, in spite of the various interventions, the church has maintained the 3 aisles of the V century, separated by 40 monolithic marble and granite columns. In 1288 Niccolo IV ordered the construction of the transept. Alessandro VI (1254-1261) decided the building of the central aisle’s ceiling, for which – according to what the tradition says - materials arrived directly from the New World because of the Spanish origins of the Pope.
The bell tower with its pyramid-shaped point dates 1300, and with its 75 metres it’s the tallest in Rome. In 1500 the side chapels were added.

On the back of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Piazza Esquilino one can admire the apsidal area realized in 1600 by the architect Carlo Rainaldi who re-elaborated a previous project by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
In the centre of the Esquilino square is a huge obelisk originally from the Mausoleum of Augustus, and erected by will of Pope Sisto V in 1587.

Apart from the apse, Clement X ordered the construction of the building that we can admire on the right of the main façade opening on Piazza Saint Mary Major, while Clement XI wanted the building on the left of the façade, later finished together with the new façade by Ferdinando Fuga in 1743-50.
The entire Basilica was repaired by Fuga even internally. The architect kept the palaeo-christian structure with the forty monolithic columns that divide the space in three aisles. The great canopy that stands on the altar is also a work by Fuga, while the four red porphyry columns that support it were enriched by a golden leaves decoration by Giuseppe Valadier (1800).

The church has important chapels on the side aisles. On the right we find the Sistine Chapel or of the Holy Sacrament commissioned by Pope Sisto V to Domenico Fontana in 1585. Then we have the Paoline Chapel commissioned by Paul V to Flaminio Ponzo who realized it between 1605 and 1613 (copying the Sistine Chapel). Here is kept the icon of the Virgin Mary Salus Populi of the IX century, dear to the Roman people for having saved the city from a pest epidemic.

Remarkable artists participated in the making of the chapel, like cavalier D’Arpino and Guido Reni for the frescos. Around the entrance we find the Cross Chapel and Saint Michael’s and Saint Peter in Chains Chapel, whose frescos are attributed to Piero della Francesca.
In the left side aisle we find the Cesi Chapel of the XVI century, in honour of the martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alessandria described in the frescos.
There’s also the Sforza Chapel, realized in the XVI century by Giacomo dalla Porta, and of which the original plan was designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti.


The Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica is open every working from 7:00 to 19:00 (in winter until 18:00), on Sundays and holidays from 9:30 to 12:00. Free entrance.

How to get there: get off at the stop termini of the underground, take via Cavour until Largo Esquilino. The Basilica is located on the square with the same name - Piazza dell'Esquilino.


 

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