It is not difficult to rattle off pages about the Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The church has a long history and it is chock-full of beautiful art. Although there are a lot of Baroque ornaments, the Santa Maria in Aracoeli is an interesting mix of medieval and more modern elements. The church is located on the Capitoline Hill and is in fact the only church on the hill. It is hemmed in between the monument to Victor Emmanuel to the north and the Palazzo Nuovo, part of the Capitoline Museums, to the south.
The Santa Maria in Aracoeli is the church of the Senate and People of Rome. Also on the Capitoline Hill is the Palazzo Senatorio, where the medieval Roman Senate used to meet (it is still the city hall). This explains the centuries old link between the church and the city government.
The Capitoline Hill has two summits. On the larger of the two stood the all-important Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, roughly at the site of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, the right side of the Capitoline Museums. The smaller summit was known as the arx (citadel) and here a temple of Juno Moneta was built in 345 or 344 BCE, possibly replacing an older edifice. “Moneta” is from Latin “monere”, which means “to warn”. A later tradition connects the name to the siege of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BCE, when Juno’s geese warned the Roman commander Marcus Manlius of enemy troops climbing the hill. But there is a better explanation. The original mint of the city was attached to the temple, and the goddess warned the mint workers not to forge the coins or clip off bits of the silver. The modern English words “money” and “mint” derive from the word “moneta”, as does the Dutch word “munt” which means “coin”.
There seem to have been a church and monastery on this part of the hill since the seventh century. The complex was administrated by Greek-speaking monks from the east, who were later replaced by Latin-speaking monks following the Benedictine rule. The Benedictines arrived in the early tenth century and completely rebuilt the complex. The church became known as the Santa (or Sancta) Maria in Capitolio. Ultimately the Benedictines in Rome became so corrupt that their convents had to be suppressed. In 1249, Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254) granted the complex to the mendicant Order of the Franciscans. The Franciscans had previously been granted the San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere, but this was a much better location for their headquarters. The Franciscans built the church that we can see today and added a large monastery to it that was unfortunately demolished in the nineteenth century to make room for the Vittoriano, the monument to Italy’s first king Victor Emmanuel II. Although the new church was consecrated in 1268, work on the church interior was not completed until 1300.
The name Santa Maria in Aracoeli was first recorded in 1323. “Ara” means “altar” and “coeli” is Latin for “of heaven” (genitive). The name is related to a legend regarding the Roman emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE). When the Roman Senate wanted to declare Augustus a living god, the emperor consulted the Tiburtine Sibyl. The Sibyls were prophetesses who were able to foretell the future. Christians consider them to be part of the Christian world as well, as they supposedly prophesised the Coming of Christ. In this case, the Sibyl spoke of a future ruler, and then Augustus had a vision of a woman descending from heaven with a child on her arm, the future Saviour of the world. The emperor subsequently had an altar erected on the spot where he had the vision, the Altar of Heaven. The story can be considered unhistorical, but there is a slight possibility that there was an auguraculum or house of the augurs on the Capitoline Hill in Antiquity. The remains of the augur’s altar are reportedly in the Chapel of Saint Helena inside the church, but whether this theory is correct is very much disputed.
In the early Middle Ages, the way to approach the church was from the Forum Romanum. The famous stairs on the other side, known as the Scalinata dell’Ara Coeli, were only constructed in 1348 in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for having saved the city from the Plague of that year. Driving force behind this project was the self-declared Roman ‘tribune’ Cola di Rienzo (1313-1354). The steps were taken from ancient buildings, and some sources mention the Temple of Serapis or the Temple of Sol Invictus erected by Aurelianus. Cola di Rienzo fell out of favour and had to flee the city before the stairs were completed, and to add insult to injury, this is also the location where he was killed in 1354. There is a small statue of him in the garden between the Scalinata dell’Ara Coeli and the Cordonata, the stairs to the Piazza del Campidoglio built by Michelangelo for Pope Paulus III (1534-1549).
There is a legend that people who climb the 124 steps on their knees will win the lottery. However, this apparently only works if they continuously say Hail Marys and invoke the Three Magi. I must add that I have been to this church many times and have never seen anyone climbing the Scalinata on his or her knees. People do seem to enjoy sitting here and admiring the view.
The church facade lacks decorations. All we see is brickwork. This was not what the Franciscans had intended, and the last plans to add a proper facade were only axed in the nineteenth century. There were some half-hearted attempts at decoration: the lunette above the main entrance still has a few traces of a fifteenth century fresco, while the cornice of the top part of the facade used to have a mosaic, now all gone.
The facade is certainly massive and impressive, but if you want to see some decorations, make sure you go and see the side entrance of the Santa Maria in Aracoeli as well. Here we can find a lunette with a mosaic of the Madonna and Child and two angels. It was either executed by Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1259-1330) or by Jacopo Torriti (or by their respective schools). This is not the original location of the side entrance. It was moved here in 1564 by one Alexander Mattaeius, whose name can be found above the left angel (the date MDLXIIII is above the other angel).
The church has a nice and largely original floor, which is a mix of Cosmatesque inlaid marble and tomb slabs. The decorations on the arches and walls above the columns all date from the eighteenth century. The high altar is eighteenth century as well. It features an icon of a childless Madonna, which was once certainly part of a larger work, perhaps a polyptych. This Madonna d’Aracoeli dates from the tenth century. It was carried through the streets of Rome during the 1348 Plague and was credited with having ended the disease. The apse of the church used to be directly behind the sanctuary, but the Franciscans wanted a choir there. As a consequence, the apse was demolished in 1565, which regretfully involved the loss of a mosaic by Cavallini.
One of the treasures of the church is its gilded and coffered ceiling. In 1571, a combined Christian fleet met the fleet of the Ottoman Empire near Lepanto in the Gulf of Patras. It was one of the largest naval battles in history, which saw 212 vessels of the Holy League pitted against 251 ships of the Ottoman Navy. After hours of fierce fighting, the forces of the Holy League won a decisive victory over their opponents. The Turkish admiral Sufi Ali Pasha was killed, as where thousands of his soldiers and sailors. Casualties on the Christian side were considerable as well, but no one could doubt that it was a victory for the Christian maritime powers. One of the Holy League commanders was Marcantonio Colonna (1535-1584), who led the Papal fleet contingent. Upon his return to Rome he was given a triumph like a victorious Roman commander, which ended at the Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Four years later, in 1575, the church was given its splendid ceiling, which commemorates the battle.
Before discussing some of the most interesting art in the chapels, I will take stock of some interesting tombs that are not in chapels. To the right of the main entrance, against the counter-facade, is a very worn tomb slab for the archdeacon Giovanni Crivelli of Milan, who died in 1432. The slab is the work of none other than Donatello (1386-1466). It used to be part of the floor, which explains why it is so worn. The slab was put up against the counter-facade in 1881. The Latin text on the slab can be hard to make out, but it reads:
“HIC JACET VENERABILIS D(OMI)NUS JOH(ANN)ES DE CRIVELLIS DE MEDIOLANO, ARCHIDIACONUS AQUILEGEN(SIS) ET C(ANONICUS) MEDIOLANEN(SIS) AC LITERAR(UM) APOSTOLICARUM SCRIPTOR ET ABBREVIATOR, QUI OBIIT A(NNO) D(OMINI) MCCCCXXXII DIE XXVIII JULII PONT(IFICATUS) S(ANCTISSIMI) D(OMINI) EUGENII P(A)P(E) IIII. A(NNO) II. CUJUS ANI(M)A REQUIESCAT IN PACE. AMEN. OPUS DONATELLI FLORENTINI.”
It is probably not necessary to provide a complete translation of the text. Suffice to say that it mentions the name of the deceased and his many positions in the Church, the year of his death and the man who was pope at the time, Eugenius IV (1431-1447). Finally, the text indicates that the slab is the work – opus – of Donatello from Florence.
Another interesting tomb can be found on a pier near the sanctuary. This is the tomb of Eugenio Ruspoli, an Italian explorer who died in Somalia in 1893 aged 27. Ruspoli had been on a hunting trip when he was attacked by a rampaging elephant (‘UN ELEFANTE INFURIATO’ according to the text on the monument). His nephew Marescotti Ruspoli brought his remains back from Somalia in 1928 and had them interred in the Santa Maria in Aracoeli. On the tomb is a map of Ethiopia and Somalia that shows Ruspoli’s explorations.
More work by Pietro Cavallini can be found on the magnificent tomb of cardinal Matteo d’Acquasparta (1240-1302), Minister General of the Order of the Franciscans. The tomb itself is attributed to Giovanni di Cosma, but Cavallini presumably executed the fresco. It features the Madonna and Child flanked by Saint Matthew (i.e. San Matteo, the namesake of the cardinal) and Saint Franciscus. The cardinal himself can be seen kneeling before the Madonna. On the sarcophagus is an effigy of the deceased who is watched over by two angels.
Not far from Matteo d’Acquasparta’s tomb is a larger than life statue of Pope Leo X (1513-1521). It seems to match perfectly with what historian John Julius Norwich wrote about him in his history of the Popes, i.e. that he had an enormous head and a red and puffy face. Norwich also describes him as an insatiable gourmet and certainly the statue shows a man who is a serious candidate for the fattest pope in history. Leo was the son of Lorenzo il Magnifico, ruler of Florence, and his real name was Giovanni de’ Medici. Although his most famous phrase – “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it” – may be apocryphal, he certainly enjoyed the position that he held for some eight years.
As pope, Leo was best known for selling thousands of indulgences to whoever was willing to pay for them. This was necessary to finance the construction of New Saint Peter’s Basilica, but it was widely criticised and certainly contributed to the Reformation. The statue was made by Domenico Aimo (1460/70-1539).
The most interesting chapel in the church is the first one on the right. It is dedicated to Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), a Franciscan preacher who was canonised in 1450. The saint was known for his tireless preaching and lengthy sermons, which were immortalised by the Sienese painter Sano di Pietro. The chapel is alternatively known as the Cappella Bufalini, after the Niccolò dei Bufalini (died 1506) who commissioned it. The chapel is deservedly famous for its frescoes by Pinturicchio (ca. 1452-1513), which were executed ca. 1484-1486. Pinturicchio shared his name with the saint of the chapel – he was born Bernardino di Betto – so he obviously gave his utmost while painting the frescoes.
The central wall shows Saint Bernardino between Saints Augustinus and Antonius of Padua (1195-1231), another Franciscan saint, canonised in 1232. Bernardino is depicted as an old man and he looks very pale. In his left hand, he has a book with the Latin words PATER, MANIFESTAVI NOMEN TUUM OMNIBUS (“Father, I have made your name known to everyone”). This refers to the fact that the saint focussed on praising the Name of Christ, demonstrated by his symbol which comprised the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek – IHS – surrounded by a blazing sun. This symbol seems to be absent in the chapel. Perhaps it was more popular in Siena? What we do see on the central wall is two angels holding a crown above the saint’s head, and Jesus Christ and more angels in the sky above.
The left side wall shows Saint Bernardino’s funeral. The man in the orange robes on the left is actually Niccolò dei Bufalini himself. It is a pity that the gates of the chapel are always locked, so you cannot get close to the frescoes. This makes it hard to appreciate some of the more subtle details, such as the bullfight which seems to be going on in the background (a bull is trampling a man). The right wall features scenes from the life of the saint. There is a large window here, which makes taking photos somewhat difficult because of the back light. Good pictures of the right wall seem to be scarce.
Also on the right side of the church is the Chapel of Saints Lorenzo da Brindisi (1559-1619) and Pasquale Baylón (1540-1592). The chapel was stripped of its seventeenth and eighteenth century decorations when fragments of the original frescoes were discovered at the end of the twentieth century. The largest surviving piece can be found on the central wall. We see a Madonna and Child flanked by the two Saint Johns, John the Baptist on the left and John the Evangelist on the right. The colours are quite vivid and the style is unmistakably Roman naturalism. The fresco is therefore attributed to either Pietro Cavallini or Jacopo Torriti.
Then there is the Savelli Chapel (actually the Chapel of Saint Franciscus), also on the right side. We have previously met the Savelli family (see Rome: Santa Sabina), which played an important role in medieval Roman politics. The tomb on the left in this chapel is the final resting place of the Roman senator Luca Savelli. The tomb is attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1240-1300/10), who used an ancient pagan sarcophagus as a base for Luca’s chest. Note that to the left of the tomb there is a small monument, actually just a plaque, to Fra Ginepro (Brother Juniper). Ginepro was one of Franciscus of Assisi’s original followers. He died in 1258 and his remains were translated to the Santa Maria in Aracoeli 700 years later, in 1958.
The tomb of Luca Savelli’s wife Giovanna (‘Vana’) Aldobrandeschi is on the other side of the chapel. It has the coat of arms of the Aldobrandeschi family in the centre and that of the Savelli family on either side. You might be surprised to find the effigy of a man lying on top of the sarcophagus. In fact, the effigy does not belong here at all. It represents Pope Honorius IV (1285-1287), who was born Giacomo Savelli. Luca Savelli and Vana Aldobrandeschi were his parents. His tomb, also by Arnolfo di Cambio, was originally in Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was demolished when the old basilica was dismantled to make way for a splendid new cathedral. The effigy survived, and apparently someone thought it appropriate to combine it with the tomb of the pope’s mother.
Of the chapels on the left side, I find the Chapel of Saint Antonius of Padua the most interesting. Saint Antonius has already been mentioned above. In 1453, Benozzo Gozzoli (ca. 1421-1497) was hired to fresco the chapel. He is best known for his work in Florence. Unfortunately not much of his frescoes here has survived. The altarpiece is the only piece left to admire.
It shows the saint with two donors kneeling before him. They are probably members of the Albertoni family, who leased the chapel. It is interesting to compare the appearance of Saint Antonius of this chapel to that in the Bufalini Chapel on the other side of the church. Pinturicchio painted his frescoes there some 30 years later and it seems almost impossible that he did not know Gozzoli’s work. The latter’s Saint Antonius has his “flaming heart” in his right hand and a book in his left. Pinturicchio’s saint is mirrored: he has the heart in his left hand and a book in his right. His saint also looks much younger, which is probably more realistic, as Antonius was only in his mid-thirties when he died.
The reason why religious people come here is the so-called Santo Bambino. This is a fifteenth or early sixteenth century sculpture of the Christ Child. Tradition dictates that it was carved in the Holy Land from the wood of a tree from the Garden of Gethsemane. When the wood carver, a Franciscan monk, wanted to paint it, he discovered that he had insufficient paint. But lo and behold! An angel descended from heaven and painted the face, feet and hands of the Christ Child. The sculpture is just 60 centimetres high. It is known for its power to miraculously heal people, or at least that is what many people like to believe.
Each year, the Santo Bambino – really devout people call it the Santissimo Bambinello – receives dozens of letters. The letters are placed in baskets before the Child and later burned. The priests are not allowed to read them, but they are in fact opened to check them for donations (or so I read; it makes sense). Unfortunately, the original Santo Bambino was stolen in 1994 and had to be replaced with a copy. Whether the copy is just as capable of performing miracles as the original is up for debate. If you do not believe in miracles, the answer is probably “yes”…
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 69;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 207-213;
- Santa Maria in Aracoeli on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 The Popes, chapter XIX. Franco Cesati writes that “his boundless love of good food was proverbial, with the corollary of endless banquets celebrated in the company of pleasure-seeking prelates” (The Medici. Story of a European Dynasty, p. 59).