Santa Maria Maggiore

Address: Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, 00185, Italy
Telephone: 06 69886880

- Free


You'll find a Mary theme and American gold in this magnificent basilica.

How old this massive basilica is is unclear: there's documentary evidence that a church has stood on this commanding spot from the 5th century, but local tradition says it was around about 100 years before. What you see nowadays is the result of an 18th-century makeover, overseen by architect Ferdinando Fuga who tacked on the impressive Baroque facade and spruced up the interior too.

Legend relates that the gold which adorns the magnificent ceiling of the main nave came from the first ever shipment of gold from the Americas, given to Pope Alexander VI, a Spaniard whose pre-papal name was Borgia and who was father to Lucrezia and Cesare. His emblem – a bull – can be seen all over.

Fittingly, there's a Mary theme running through Santa Maria Maggiore's decorations. In the apse, 13th-century mosaics show the Madonna crowned as Queen of Heaven. She features again in the mosaics in the triumphal arch above the apse, which date from the 5th century. The tremendously gaudy Paolina chapel – the last on the left of the nave – was built in the 17th century to hold a 9th-century icon of the Virgin.

Up in the loggia (you have to book tours in the sacristy), Mary appears to the pope and the founder of the church in stunning 13th-century mosaics which also show the groundplan for the original church. Mary told them to build their church where snow fell in summer: it did on this spot, legend says, on 5 August 352, a 'fact' celebrated with a shower of rose petals on that day each year.

Value for money

Expert tips

Visit on August 5 for the annual "snow fall".

Recommended for

  • Backpackers / Students
  • Culture vultures
  • Families with teenagers
  • Mature travellers
  • Seasoned travellers
  • Education