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Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles, Rome

Top 5 Churches in Rome, Italy

Rome will nourish you, seduce you, make you fall helplessly in love with it. Every street leads to something fascinating, and very often there will be a church along the way that invites you to pop in and be utterly astounded. Each one is a masterpiece, but you may not realize it upon first glance, as often plain exteriors provide little indication of their shockingly gorgeous interiors. Inside, stained-glass windows are fairly rare, but arches, columns, frescoes, gilt, marble, mosaics, paintings, and statues abound. From certain vantage points, such as beside the Fountain of Paul’s Water (one of Rome’s top five fountains) in Janiculum Hill, I could look out at the many, many domes and towers of the city’s churches and try to identify both the ones I had already visited and the ones that were beckoning me to stop in. These are my favorites.

#1 Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius (Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio)

Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, RomeOnce I excluded the Basilica of St. Peter, the world’s most famous Catholic church, because it’s part of the Vatican City and not Rome, I found that St. Ignatius of Loyola rose to the top of my list of favorite Roman churches — no small accomplishment, given the vast inventory of stunning churches in the Italian capital. Anchoring the Piazza Sant’Ignazio, which was designed to resemble a stage, St. Ignatius was intended to replace an existing church serving as the chapel of the adjacent Roman College, a simple school established in 1551 by Ignatius to teach grammar, humanity, and Christian doctrine, all without tuition. When the church was no longer large enough to accommodate the growing number of students, Pope Gregory XV (a former pupil of the school), who had just canonized Ignatius in 1622, suggested to his nephew, Cardinal Ludovisi, to build a new one. The result is a glorious Baroque-style church with a façade ornamented by volutes, pointed and curved window pediments, and empty niches.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped inside was one of the best examples of woodworking craftmanship in the world. Surrounding a massive domed building — complete with ribs, shingles, windows, and statues, and topped with an elaborate lantern — the sculptor crafted dozens of the world’s most famous churches, approached by four miniature ramps. Look for your favorite as you do a 360˚ spin around the world.

As for the church itself, a Latin cross plan features Corinthian pilasters that ring the entire interior, animated stucco figural reliefs, colored marbles, and extensive gilding. Among the numerous side chapels, the grandest contains the spectacular funerary monuments to Pope Gregory XV and Ludovisi — an assemblage of marble figures in highly dramatic poses. Other chapels shelter paintings and richly ornamented altars with soaring twisted marble columns devoted to the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, the Annunciation, and St. Joseph and the Virgin, as well as the relics of three saints: Aloysius Gonzaga, Robert Bellarmino, and John Berchmans, which makes this church a noted pilgrimage site.

In the apse and presbytery, I was introduced to the works of Andrea Pozzo, a Jesuit lay brother responsible for much of the church’s majesty. Here, he created noteworthy paintings depicting key moments in Ignatius’ life and vocation, including services given to plague victims, the siege of Pamplona, and Francis Xavier being sent to the East Indies.

Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, RomeDespite all this remarkable splendor, I still hadn’t seen the best parts of the church — until I looked up at one of the most beautiful and deceptive trompe l’oeil ceilings in Rome. This alone is why Andrea Pozzo should be a household name. An unparalleled fresco that covers the entire ceiling of the nave celebrates the life of St. Ignatius and the work of the Society of Jesus that he founded. I stood on a marble disk specifically placed to fully appreciate the power of Pozzo’s genius. Painted above me, fake architectural elements such as columns and arches and an enormous cupola open to a bright sky, filled with upward floating figures and clouds spilling out of the “frame” of the barrel vault ceiling, as if the church had no roof at all. The focal point is Ignatius being welcomed into Paradise by Christ and Mary, accompanied by angels and surrounded by allegorical representations of the four continents where the society’s mission had spread. The trigram of the IHS of Christ (the society’s logo) appears on Ignatius’ shield, representing the divine recognition of his work. St. Francis Xavier is also in attendance as he guides the souls of those converted in Asia to heaven.

And if that wasn’t enough to bowl me over, a second marker on the floor at the crossing of the nave and transepts provides the perfect vantage point to view another Pozzo trompe l’oeil masterpiece. When funds to build a dome for the church proved insufficient, Pozzo was commissioned to provide the solution. The perspectival projection of a cupola of a tall, ribbed, coffered dome is a paradigm of illusory art. No matter how long I stared at it, I found it impossible to believe that is was just a painting on a flat canvas. To top it all off, Pozzo created the frescoes in the pendentives with four figures from the Old Testament: David, Jaele, Judith, and Samson.

Magnificent art, impressive architecture, perception-defying optical illusions: It’s no wonder I think St. Ignatius of Loyola is the most beautiful church in Rome.

#2 Basilica of St. Andrew of the Valley (Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Valle)

Church of Saint Andrew of the Valley, RomeWhen I arrived in Rome, my room at the first hotel I would be staying in, the Hotel Teatro di Pompeo, a nondescript building (where you can have breakfast in part of the remains of a Roman theater from 55 BC) tucked away in a small, fairly quiet plaza, wouldn’t be ready for about an hour. So I decided to go for a stroll to start absorbing the magnificence of the city. Just a block away, I came upon the Basilica of Saint Andrew of the Valley. Completed in 1650, the façade was added about 17 years later. Across the width of the lower level, five bays separated by eight Corinthian columns hold niches with statues and, above them, a pair of bas-relief angels hold the symbols of each of the four saints below them, such as arrows for St. Sebastian. The center bay is given to the entrance doors, surmounted by an arched cornice supported by highly detailed ancons and adorned with two virtues, Prayer and Hope. The narrower upper level also has eight columns, but with only three bays. A balustrade with railing protects a small balcony, and an angel with flowing wings on the left is missing its companion on the right. At the top, a choppy tympanum with dentils holds two angels carrying the coat of arms of Pope Alexander VII between a broken pediment.

I hadn’t included this church on my list of things to see, but it was early and I had time to kill, and it certainly looked wonderful on the outside, so I stepped inside and almost fell down. Grandiose would be an understatement for the Baroque interior. Named in honor of the patron saint of the duchess of Amalfi, who had bequeathed her palace and adjacent church for the construction of a new church, St. Andrew immediately made me decide to enter every church I would pass, regardless of whether it was a planned stop.

Strains of the first act of Tosca seemed to echo around me, bouncing off the countless types and colors of marble. Puccini set the beginning of his opera here, with prison escapee Angelotti hiding in a small chapel. I tried to imagine which one; there are a dozen to choose from, each more staggering than the next, filled with art by Italian masters: Angel Urges Sacred Family to Flee to Egypt, a white marble sculptural relief by Antonio Raggi; a bronze Pietà by Gregorio De Rossi in a chapel designed by Michelangelo; Death of the Saint, by Giovanni Lanfranco; Saint Sebastian, by Giovanni de’ Vecchi; and Saint Marta, a sculpture by Francesco Mochi, who also created one of the world’s best depictions of St. Veronica, in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. The chapels are also the burial sites for two popes (Pius II and Pius III), one bishop, and four cardinals.

Emerging into the nave, I followed the fluted Corinthian columns up to the golden barrel-vaulted ceiling. Abundant light flowing in through the clear windows aided in viewing the incomparable art above me. Twelve paintings, separated by frames of bucklers and stucco angels, portray scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary. I walked forward gingerly, looking upward instead of where I was headed, until I reached the sanctuary. Behind the marble altar, three massive paintings dominate the space, most prominently the center work, of St. Andrew being crucified on his X-shaped cross. Above, in the half-dome, I found more frescoes by Domenichino.

Church of Saint Andrew of the Valley, RomeThrowing my head back yet again, I gazed up at the outstanding pendentives, each one filled by a painting by Domenichino of one of the Four Evangelists in highly animated scenes. For instance, St Luke, an old man in a billowing blue cloak, rides the back of a bull (his symbol) and holds a scroll, surrounded by putti. Young St. John rides his symbol, the eagle, in the clouds; one angel holds the book in which John is about to write while another offers an inkwell for the prolific pen he holds.

Inside the cupola of the dome, double fluted pillars separate the windows in a simply designed space, providing a little breathing room between the drama of Domenichino’s works and the Glory of Paradise fresco, a frenetic vortex of heavenly activity by Lanfranco. The Virgin Mary is assumed into heaven, awaited by Christ. The swirl of saints like Andrew and Peter, prophets, martyrs, and cherubs amid the clouds has been cited as one of the highest moments in the history of art and the first example of Baroque illusionism.

The dome is just as impressive on the outside. Rising from an octagonal drum with Ionic columns separating the windows topped with alternating triangular or curvilinear tympanums, the dome features eight blind windows and then, above them, eight round windows with shells on top. A lantern with long, narrow windows, separated by double columns, is capped by a star and a cross. For the best view, book a room at the Antica Dimora delle Cinque Lune hotel and have your breakfast on the roof, where you can gaze at the highest dome in Rome (excluding that of St. Peter’s Basilica) at eye level.

#3 Church of Saint Mary in the Little Valley (Chiesa di Santa Maria in Vallicella)

Church of St. Mary in the Little Valley, RomeIn Rome, even the new things are old. Case in point: The church of Saint Mary in the Little Valley is also referred to as Chiesa Nuova, the New Church, despite the fact that it was built in 1606. Its moniker derives from its construction as a replacement for the old church that had stood in the same location for several centuries. The new church was erected as the principal church of the Oratorians, a religious congregation of secular priests founded by St. Philip Neri. The 17th-century façade bears a striking resemblance to that of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola: a shallow staircase leading to the same type of door, with two similar doors to the sides, with similar plaques above them; a similar band separating the top half from the bottom with a similar arch above them; a similar arched window above that, flanked by similar niches and volutes; a similar pediment topped by a cross. There are differences, of course, but I was certainly struck by a little déjà vu.

I was also struck by the exceptional interior that was exactly what St. Philip did not want for his church. Philip envisioned a simple building with white walls and without heavy ornamentation. After his death, however, things got more florid during the 1600s, and I was now looking at an astonishing Baroque fantasy. Multiple chapels flank the nave, leading to the transepts and the high altar. The chapels contain splendid altarpieces, frescos, and paintings depicting such events the Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi, and Assumption. Peter Paul Rubens contributed three paintings, one of the Virgin with child and the other two each with a trio of saints. Caravaggio also had a painting in one of the chapels, but, with his characteristically and radically naturalistic format, it didn’t exactly fit well with the rest of the artwork and was removed to the Vatican complex. One painting that did survive is a carryover from the original church. The 14th-century Madonna della Vallicella, a mural painting of the Madonna and child with two angels, earns pride of place on the high altar in the new church, thanks to the miracle it performed when, after being hit by a stone, it began to bleed.

Church of St. Mary in the Little Valley, RomeBy now I was accustomed to looking up whenever I entered a Roman church. The soaring columns and high walls of the nave and transept bear canvases portraying episodes from the Old and New testaments. An opulent gilded organ sits high up on a wall, and, above the altar, a half dome contains a fresco by Pietro da Cortona of the Assumption of the Virgin, who rises heavenward on a cloud, surrounded by a few dozen figures. Da Cortona also painted four prophets into the pendentives of the dome as well as the dome itself with his masterful Trinity, with the Holy Spirit inside the windowed lantern, and the Father and Son facing each other on clouds surrounded by chubby putti. Da Cortona further designed the vault decoration of the nave ceiling, a magnificent display of white and gilt stucco work with figures and geometrical and naturalistic elements that would frame his huge fresco of the Miracle of the Madonna della Vallicella, as she holds up the collapsing structure of the old church and keeps the endangered worshippers safe — her second miracle, following her bleeding painting a couple of centuries before.

I took a moment to stop at the chapel to the left of the choir. In a tomb decorated with mother-of-pearl lie the remains of St. Philip Neri. I wondered if he was resting in peace in the church he brought to life, or if he was doomed to eternal agitation at the unexpected grandiosity of the church he had never intended.

#4 Church of Jesus (Chiesa del Gesù)

Church of the Jesus, RomeI was noticing a pattern among my favorite Roman churches. Just like the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola and Saint Mary of the Little Valley, the Church of Jesus had the now familiar shallow staircase leading to a frontispiece I had seen repeated around the city. Nothing new here, I thought, looking up at the now familiar two-level façade, with Corinthian pillars and columns, door arrangements, band separating the top half from the bottom, arches, niches with and without statues, volutes, and pediment topped by a cross. I feared I was becoming somewhat jaded, a little immune to the undeniable beauty before me. Should I even bother going in? I reminded myself of the delights and surprises I had experienced every time so far, so it didn’t take long to decide to see what was behind this façade. Naturally, it didn’t disappoint.

Rome’s most important Jesuit church, the Church of Jesus was actually the archetype for all those churches I was falling in love with. It introduced the Baroque style, not only for the façade, which was so blatantly (but beautifully) copied, but also for the placement and style of paintings in the nave, crossing, and chapels that became models for Jesuit churches throughout Europe.

This church, stemming from St. Ignatius’ wish to build a mother church for the Society of Jesus, was completed in 1580. Without the presence of a narthex, I stepped directly into the body of the church. A single wide nave without aisles was designed to focus worshippers’ attention on the high altar, which it does quite effectively, especially with the outstanding artwork in the half dome above it. But there’s plenty to see on the way there in this church that is awash in rare marbles, white stucco, gilding, paintings, and sculptures.

Instead of side aisles that often separate side chapels from the nave, here the chapels are immediately accessed from the nave. Situated behind high arched openings, the spectacular chapels are fronted by decorative balustrades with gates. The Chapel of Saint Andrew (named in honor of the church dedicated to Andrew that had stood on this site and was demolished to accommodate the present one) honors some of the most famous martyred saints in Christianity in the paintings, pilasters, frescoes, lunettes, and altarpiece, with Agnes, Andrew, Lucy, and Stephen among them. Other chapels are covered in frescoes depicting such scenes as Judas’ kiss, Christ before Herod, the Coronation of the Virgin, and angels liberating souls from purgatory by the likes of Andrea Pozzo and Federico Zuccari. Another chapel pays great homage to St. Francis Xavier, with a large stucco relief of the saint being led to heaven by angels, a painting depicting him dying on a Far East island, and the image of the crucifix he lost at sea that was miraculously returned to him by a crab.

Pozzo truly outdid himself with the luxurious St. Ignatius Chapel. Although the colossal statue of the saint is by Pierre Le Gros, the rest is almost all Pozzo. He won a public competition to design the chapel and ended up not only creating this sumptuous space but also the marble and gilded bronze pedestal on which the statue stands, the altar, the canvas of Ignatius, the lapis lazuli–veneered columns, and the balustrade.

Church of the Jesus, RomeAll of this enchanted me before I even reached the high altar, with its four columns under a neo-classical pediment, the marble-covered apse, and the apse ceiling adorned by the painting Glory of the Mystical Lamb, illustrating a scene from the Book of Revelation.

From here, I looked up at the strong piers supporting the dome. The pendentives depict Old Testament characters, while the octagonal dome itself illustrates the glory of Paradise with adoring saints and angels. Elsewhere in the church, I found the bust of a cardinal by Bernini (who prayed here daily), a bronze urn containing the remains of St. Giuseppe Pignatelli, a silver reliquary conserving part of St. Francis Xavier’s right arm, and another reliquary holding the right arm of St. Andrew Bobola.

The most striking feature of the church is, as I had expected, the ceiling. Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s fresco, Triumph of the Name of Jesus, covers the nave vault in a marvelous trompe l’oeil display. Figures come tumbling out of the frame of gilded stuccos, as if they were about to descend and join me on the highly polished floor of different colors and types of marble.

St. Ignatius’ spirit remains palpable here. The last 13th-century image of the Virgin Mary venerated by Ignatius can be found in one of the chapels. He is depicted in paintings, and carved into a painted wood bust. Under the altar in his eponymous chapel, a gilded bronze urn preserves his body. It was here that I finally took a moment to stop and breathe in the grandeur all around me, and to contemplate the life of a meditative man who embraced humble service to God but whose legacy here is anything but modest.

#5 Church of St. Mary of the Soul (Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Anima)

Church of St. Mary of the Soul, RomeLate one afternoon, I was making my way to dinner at Ristorante da Pancrazio when I came across this unassuming church. I approached the extraordinarily plain-looking building, almost 100’ wide and devoid of statuary and grand flourishes; just a simple three-level (the top one is actually false), three-bay yellow-brick façade with white limestone details. Corinthian pilasters, a dentil cornice and inscribed frieze, unfussy pediments, an inscription over the main entrance that translates as “You were made beautiful,” a round window, and a pair of sculpted heraldic ornamentations are the only decorative elements.

After a week in Rome, I knew better than to let a fairly unremarkable frontispiece shade my expectations of what awaited inside, and it was no surprise that the interior was as breathtaking as I had come to suspect.

Founded by Dutch merchants and completed in 1522, St. Mary of the Soul is now the national church of German-speaking people in Rome. Santa Maria’s origins go back to a Dutch couple who converted three houses into a private hospice for pilgrims arriving in Rome for the Jubilee of 1350 and named it Guest House of Blessed Mary of Souls (said souls being those cooling their jets in purgatory). Greatly favored by popes over a couple of centuries, it was elevated in distinction until the decision was made to build a church on the same grounds. Funded by German subscriptions, the church was completed in 1522. Since then, it has seen its shares of ups and downs, including the serious damage cause by the flood of the Tiber River in 1598 and the occupation of French troops in 1795, who sacked and desecrated the church, turning it into barracks for members of the calvary — and their horses. The church was restored after each insult, getting grander all the time, including a 20-year refitting in the second half of the 1800s in a nod toward the newly unified and strong German nation.

Unlike the Italianate churches of the Rome at that time, St. Mary was built in the style of a Northern European hall church. The church’s height was the first thing to wow me. Side aisles the same height as the nave boldly emphasize the verticality of the church, with ribbed cross-vaults supported by towering square piers. The interior surfaces are richly decorated, including the piers, with the sides of those facing each other across the nave clad in gray marble, the other sides in pink marble. The nave vault is a complex architectural marvel: Transverse archivolts springing from the piers divide the ceiling into bays, which are double-cross vaulted with the ribs in alternative bays forming hexagons or cross. Background colors switch from bay to bay between blue and a light brown with gold geometric decorations.

Church of St. Mary of the SoulThe high side aisles grant the eight side chapels equally impressive height, usually so much shorter in other churches with lower ceilings in the aisles. Vault conchs top the apsidal chapels, which hold magnificent treasures, including frescoes above the altars, stained glass, monuments, and a noteworthy legend or two. One chapel is dedicated to St. Benno of Meissen, a bishop who threw the keys of his church into a river to prevent the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV from visiting it. The keys were miraculously returned when a fisherman caught a fish that had swallowed them. Other chapels house a wooden crucifix, a fresco of the Holy Family and St. Anne, and a slightly modified reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pieta, by Lorenzetto.

The sanctuary is a beguiling explosion of ornate elements. Above it all, an elaborate gilded stucco ceiling vault is patterned geometrically in gold and white, centered by the double-headed eagle of the Habsburg Empire. The more dome-like ceiling behind it, in the apse, sports an oculus with Mary’s monogram, two lunettes with playful putti, and a stained-glass window, in the shape of a headache-relieving caplet, depicting the Trinity. The high altar is flanked by a pair of pink and gray marble Corinthian columns that support a triangular pediment topped with the double-headed eagle and sculptural allegories of Charity and Fortitude. The altarpiece, The Holy Family and Saints, a masterpiece by Giulio Romano, depicts the Holy Family in the company of the child St. John the Baptist, St. James the Great, St. Mark…and a hen with chicks pecking around in the ruins of a Classical building in the background.

On the right side of the sanctuary stands the church’s most important monument — the last surviving example of a papal tomb in Rome. The only Dutch pope, and the last non-Italian to be elected pope until John Paul II 456 years later, Adrian VI is possibly best known for his failures: to unite Christian princes against invading Turks, to reform the Catholic church in the face of rising Lutheranism, and to beatify anyone. One of only two popes in the modern era to retain his baptismal name following his election, Adrian VI is buried here, in a grand tomb with his effigy in a recumbent position on a sarcophagus decorated with putti and the pope’s coat of arms. Bas-reliefs adorn the space below the sarcophagus and in a lunette above it, and four statues of allegorical virtues stand in niches on either side, separated by red and gray, and black and gray, marble columns. It’s a stupendous display for an easily forgotten pope whom the Romans referred to as a barbarian: He died in 1523 after only one year and 248 days as pope, one of the shortest papacies ever.

Five Runners-up

  • Pantheon, or the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs (Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres, 125)
  • Church of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims (Chiesa della Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini; 1616)
  • Church of St. James in Augusta (Chiesa di San Giacomo in Augusta, 1600)
  • Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles (Basilica dei Santi Dodici Apostoli, 1475 / 1714)
  • Church of St. Mary Magdalene (Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena, 1735)

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