Santa Maria in Trastevere

The oldest church in Rome preserves some its most glorious medieval mosaics

The church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome.
The church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome.
Rome's oldest church dedicated to the Virgin was established before AD 337 on the site of an inn where a well of olive oil sprang from the floor at the precise moment Christ was born (look for this detail in the mosaics of the apse inside).

The current structure was raised in 1140, with a Romanesque bell tower (when I lived a few blocks away in the early 1990s, this was how I measured time, by the quarter-hourly tolling of its bells) and a 12th– to 13th-century mosaic on the facade (lit up at night) of the Madonna and ten women.

Inside Santa Maria in Trastevere

The altar and apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere. (Photo by antmoose)

The interior preserves a gorgeous Cosmatesque-like opus sectile floor (which is a fancy way of saying "bits of colored stone pieced together in pleasing patterns"), 21 columns pilfered from nearby ancient buildings, and a 1617 wood ceiling by Domenichino.

Filling the apse are some of Rome's most beautiful mosaics, the half dome picturing Christ and the Madonna (1140) and below that, six scenes from the Life of the Virgin by Pietro Cavallini (1291).

These show the artist's remarkable use of color tones and foreshortening to create depth and facility with expressing character psychology and story line.

Pietro Cavallini's Gifts of the Magi in Rome's church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Pietro Cavallini's Gifts of the Magi.
The scene of the Gifts of the Magi (pictured to the left) shows, in the background, the miraculous founding moment of this church with a spring of olive oil gushing from a hillside (note the olive tree for context).

Cavallini was really the only artist in Rome who, as a slightly earlier contemporary of Florence's Giotto, was helping break art from its static Byzantine traditions to plunge it into a vibrant, proto-Renaissance mode. Sadly, few of his large-scale works survive, though you can see some marvelous frescoes in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere and in Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere

The piazza out front is Trastevere's open-air living room, with an ongoing soccer game on the south edge and an ancient Roman fountain at the center (scallop shells added by Carlo Fontana in 1692). The fountain steps are usually occupied by latter-day vagabond minstrels, a bit scruffy but freely sharing their guitar renditions of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Guns and Roses with the crowds.

Tips & links

How long does Santa Maria in Trastevere take?

Planning your day: You can wander the church in a quick 20-30 minutes. » Rome itineraries

Santa Maria in Trastevere tours

You can attend services at Santa Maria in Trastevere Monday to Saturday at 9am and 5:30pm (plus Vepser at 8:30pm Mon-Fri and at 8pm Sat); Sundays at 8:30am, 10:30am, 11:30am, 5:30pm, and 6:45pm.

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Santa Maria in Trastevere

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