About Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major) is one of Rome’s four patriarchal or ‘Papal’ basilicas. Originally built in the 5th century – from which time it still uniquely retains its structure – this ecclesiastical giant bears the works of many centuries. Whether it’s the baroque 18th century façade of Ferdinand Fuga, the Cosmatesque pavement gifted to the church in the 13th century or the 5th century triumphal arch and mosaics that still adorn it, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore offers the visitor a chance to see works of art and architecture from throughout its history.
History of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Legend has it that in mid-August 352, snow fell atop the Esquiline Hill – a sign from the Virgin Mary for a Roman patrician and his wife. In her honour, they began building a basilica on the same spot. This story only appeared around 1000AD, but it’s clear there was a basilica on this site from the 5th century AD, and its core structure remains relatively intact to this day, including the original Old Testament mosaics in the nave and triumphal arch.
The confusingly named Capella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) is not the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo fame, but one commissioned by Pope Sixtus V and decorated by Domenico Fontana. Sixtus V is also buried here, alongside several other popes.
The basilica also lays claim to Rome’s tallest campanile (bell tower) at 75m. A rich hybrid of Romanesque, Baroque, Renaissance and original architecture, it’s well worth visiting.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore today
The basilica is open daily, free of charge, although make sure you’re dressed appropriately. If you want to visit the next-door museum, Museo del Tresoro, there’s a small fee – it holds a rich array of precious church artefacts. Be prepared for papal bling.
If you can get on one of the loggia tours, make sure to go. They offer an unparalleled opportunity to look at the mosaics in greater depth.
Getting to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
The basilica is in central Rome, close to the main train station (and metro), Termini – it’s a 5 minute walk. The piazzas front and back are a good place to soak up some of the atmosphere and appreciate the basilica in all its glory. Buses stop on the surrounding streets.