Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore ☆☆☆

The facade, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy (Photo by Martin Falbisoner)
The facade

The grand basilica of St. Mary Major is a wonderland of mosaics in a crummy neighborhood

This is the greatest—and by far best preserved—of Rome's four ancient basilican churches.

It marks the city skyline with Rome's tallest bell tower, a graceful 14th-century addition.

The facade mosaics

The main facade is a baroque mask that uses arcades and loggias to partially hide the fantastically mosaicked earlier facade from 1294–1308. Often, you can climb a set of stairs inside the atrium to view these incredible mosaics from up close.

The most interesting of these mosaic scenes recounts the legend that this basilica was founded in the 350s by Pope Liberius, who had a vision of the Madonna one night in August telling him to raise the church on the spot and along the outlines that would be demarcated by a miraculous snowfall the next morning.

Every August 15 they hold a special Mass here with the snowfall beautifully reenacted using pale flower petals that drift down from several removed ceiling panels.

For €5 ($6) you can take a 30-minute tour that gets you up close to the mosaics.

Inside Santa Maria Maggiore

Entering the basilica itself is like stepping back in time, so well is its basic design and decor preserved from the 6th century.

The gargantuan space is some 284 feet long, a dark echoey environment suited to religious pilgrimages.

The glowing coffered ceiling was the work of Renaissance architect Giuliano da Sangallo. The brilliant gold leaf adorning it is said to be made from very first gold brought back from the Americas by Christopher Columbus (a gift from Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to the pope).

The floor was inlaid with marble chips in geometric patterns by the the great Cosmati clan around 1150, while the mosaics lining the nave and covering the triumphal arch before the altar are glittering testaments to the skill of 5th-century craftsmen.

The apse's Coronation of the Virgin mosaics were designed by Iacopo Torriti in the 1290s.

The most striking later additions are the two magnificent and enormous late Renaissance and baroque chapels that flank the altar to form a transept.

The Sistina Chapel on the left, designed by Domenico Fontana, is particularly sumptuous. Just outside it in the pavement is the simple tombstone of the Bernini family, under which is buried famed baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Photo gallery
  • The facade, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Martin Falbisoner)
  • Rear facade and obelisk, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Giorgio Galeotti)
  • The nave, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Tango7174)
  • Apse mosaics, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
  • The Cappella Sistina, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Pierre Selim Huard)
  • Mosaics in the nave, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by MM)
  • The cupola above the high altar, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Matthias Kabel)
  • The baldacchino, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Xosema)
  • Presepio of Arnolfo di Cambio, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Stefano Bolognini)
  • Detail from the Presepio of Arnolfo di Cambio, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Stefano Bolognini)
  • Spiral staircase, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Jakub Hałun)
  • Statue of Pope Pius IX, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Karelj)
  • Tomb of Pope Sixtus V, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Dguendel)
  • Triumphal Arch Mosaics, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by MM)
  • Grave of artist Gianlorenzo Bernini, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Mosaics in the entry atrium, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Matthias Kabel)
  • The Cosmati floor, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italy (Photo by Ben Skála, Benfoto)
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Tips

How long does Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore take?

You can wander the church in a quick 20–30 minutes.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).