Basilica Santa Maria in Cosmedin - History and Facts | History Hit

Basilica Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Rome, Lazio, Italy

Santa Maria in Cosmedin is a charming 8th century church in Rome and home to an unusual ancient artefact.

Peta Stamper

08 Jun 2021

About Basilica Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Santa Maria in Cosmedin is a charming 8th century basilica church in Rome commissioned by Pope Hadrian I. Whilst it was restored in the 9th century and suffered during the Norman invasion, today’s Santa Maria in Cosmedin owes much of its appearance to a 19th century refurbishment.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin history

The site of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, within the locality of the Forum Boarium, was already home to a charitable food distribution centre and an ancient temple dedicated to Hercules Invictus, which was itself reconstructed in the 2nd century BC.

Yet it was not until the 8th century AD that Santa Maria in Cosmedin was built under the Byzantine Papacy. Because the church was nestled in an area full of Byzantine structures it was called de Schola Graeca. The building was decorated by Greek monks escaping persecution around 782 AD. As a result of its beauty, the church was given the name ‘cosmedin’ meaning ornate.

While the church was damaged during the 1084 Sack of Rome by Norman troops, a substantial restoration was undertook by Alfanus under Pope Callixtus II. After a period of decay, the church was refurbished in the Baroque style (later removed).

Santa Maria in Cosmedin today

Today, the church’s 12th century belfry is the tallest medieval bell-tower in Rome and an easily identifiable landmark in the modern city. While inside the church looks bare, interesting features include the floor mosaics, medieval choir stands and a glass shrine holding the skull of St Valentine. Entry is free.

The unlikely star of the show at Santa Maria in Cosmedin is an ancient plaque known as the Bocca della Verità or ‘Mouth of Truth’. The origins of this ancient Roman block with its lion’s face is unclear – it is usually thought to have been a sewer drain cover or part of a fountain – but it is said that the lion’s mouth will close on anyone’s hand who lies. Line up to test the theory!

Getting to Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Located at the Piazza della Bocca della Verita, the easiest way of reaching Santa Maria in Cosmedin is on buses 23, 44, 81, 95, 160, 280, 628, 715 and 716.