The historic churches of Rome

While churches clearly have religious significance, the old churches across much of Europe hold great historic, architectural and artistic significance. Many of them are quick (and free) visits, so it’s easy to visit several during a vacation in Rome.

Here we explore some of the most interesting historic churches, basilicas and cathedrals in Rome, briefly outlining their history and cultural significance. They’re ordered alphabetically by saint name for easy reference, with both Italian and English names provided.

Sant’Agnese in Agone

Sant'Agnese in Agone church in Piazza Navona, Rome
Sant’Agnese in Agone church in Piazza Navona, Rome

Sant’Agnese in Agone (Saint Agnes at the Circus Agonalis) is a 17th-century Baroque church that forms the centerpiece building of Piazza Navona. Agone refers to the original name of Piazza Navona. Construction began in 1652 under Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi, but taken over by Borromini from 1653-1657, then again by Carlo Rainaldi, and later by Bernini. The twin towers may have been influenced by Saint Peter’s Basilica, and would influence future church design throughout Europe.

The interior features sculptural Baroque masterpieces in the various altars. A shrine for Saint Agnes contains her skull.

Sant’Andrea al Quirinale

Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (Saint Andrew of the Quirinal) is an important example of Baroque architecture by Bernini, built between 1661-1670. Bernini considered the small elliptical church one of his best works.

Over the main altar is an oil painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Andrew, lit by a hidden lantern. Saint Andrew is repeated as a white statue on a cloud, rising up into the golden dome encrusted with cherubim heads. The central dome uses. an optical illusion to increase the sense of depth. It’s all about the clever combination of painting, sculpture and architecture.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Saint Charles at the Four Fountains), is also called San Carlino owing to its small size, only 66×39 feet. It was Borromini’s first independent commission, and is an iconic masterpiece of Baroque architecture, built between 1638-1641. Four fountains refers to the four corner fountains at the intersection where the church is located. The constrained site resulted in a very non-traditional plan with heavy use of curves.

The interior feels more like a sculpture than a building. It features a unique oval dome with detailed geometric coffering.

Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (Saint Cecilia in Trastevere) is said to be built over the house of the early 13th-century saint, with a first church built during that century. The church was rebuilt in 822, with restorations (including the interior) in the 18th century. The facade dates to 1725.

Inside, the apse contains mosaics from the 9th century. The Baroque sculpture of Saint Cecilia by Maderno from 1600 supposedly depicts her body as it was found when her tomb was opened in 1599, and is surrounded by colourful rare marbles. Behind the sculpture we find the main altar topped with an ornate Gothic ciborium dates from 1293.

San Clemente al Laterano

The upper church of the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano (Basilica of Saint Clement) was begin in 1108 with the apse vault mosaics dating from this period. The choir screen from 533 CE comes from the lower church, which dates to before 392 CE.

Beneath the church are well-preserved ruins of a 1st-century palazzo, which had been used for clandestine Christian worship. The lower levels are accessible to tourists.


The sumptuous interior of the Chiesa del Gesù (Church of the Gesù), built between 1568-1580, represents one of the first truly baroque facades, introducing the baroque style into architecture. The interior is designed without a narthex, and with a single nave without aisles.

The most striking feature of the interior is the ceiling fresco Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1678-1679) by Giovanni Battista Gaulli. It achieves incredible depth by placing figures outside the fresco frame, and over the ceiling vaulting. The fresco appears to be a skylight, with figures of the damned falling out of the sky and into the church, casting shadows on the gilded vaulting.

San Giovani in Laterano

San Giovanni in Laterano (officially it goes by a much longer name) is the Papal Archbasilica of Saint John in Lateran. It serves as the seat of the bishop of Rome, the pope. It is the oldest and highest ranking of the four major papal basilicas.

The original basilica was consecrated in 324, making it the oldest public church in Rome and the oldest basilica in the Western world. The current building dates to the late 17th century with the palatial facade completed in 1735. The interior was designed by Borromini.

Some elements from the older church survive, include some Cosmatesque flooring. The ciborium over the high altar dates from 1369. The massive front doors actually date to 80 BCE and were originally located in the Curia Julia, the senate house of Ancient Rome.


The Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio (Saint Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius) was built in the Baroque style between 1626-1650 as a chapel for the Roman College. It features an amazing trompe-l’oeil “dome” painted by Andrea Pozzo on a canvas 17 metres in diameter. Since they lacked finding for an actual dome, they opted for an illusionistic ceiling painting. The ceiling of the nave is also painted with stunning trompe-l’oeil architectural details. The facade was designed by Orazio Grassi, his only architectural work (he was too busy disputing with Galileo).

Borromini's spiral cupola on Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (Saint Ivo at the Sapienza) was built in 1642–1660 by the Borromini, and is widely regarded a masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture. It features a unique corkscrew lantern on the cupola.

Santa Maria in Ara Cœli

The Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Cœli in Campidoglio (Basicalica of Saint Mary of the Altar in Heaven) stands on the top of the Capitoline hill. Details of its construction history are blurry. The church is built on the ruins of the Temple of Juno Moneta in the 6th century. It was passed to the Benedictines in the 9th century, and then the Franciscans in 1250 who gave it its current Romanesque-Gothic aspect.

The facade is unfinished brick, with the church having lost the original mosaics and frescoed that had adorned it. The Gothic window is the only original Gothic feature that remains. The interior has a stunning gilded coffered ceiling completed in 1575. The arches dividing the nave from the aisles feature 22 columns, no two alike as they were scavenged from ancient Roman ruins.

Santa Maria Maggiore

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major) is one of the four major papal basilicas and the largest church dedicated to Mary in Rome. The structure and mosaics on the triumphal arch and nave date to the 5th century, built under Pope Celestine I.

The church was one of the first built to honour Mary, after the Council of Ephesus in 431 proclaimed Mary Mother of God. The Baroque facade from 1742 conceals mosaics from the 12th-century facade.

Santa Maria ad Martyres (Pantheon)

While the Pantheon was originally built as a Roman temple around 114 CE, it has been a Catholic church since 609, known as Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres or Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs.

It is one of the best-preserved Ancient Roman buildings. The dome is a marvel of ancient engineering, and the dome’s oculus is a mesmerizing feature that seems to defy the laws of physics.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, built between 1280-1370, is one of the few examples of original Gothic architecture churches in Rome, since most were given Baroque makeovers. The simple facade is Renaissance, but the interior reveals a Gothic arch vaulted ceilings, painted blue with gilded stars in a 19th-century Neo-Gothic restoration.

Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli

Piazza del Popolo with the Egyptian obelisk and churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli

The twin churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, while not exact duplicates, are remarkably similar churches facing each other in Piazza del Popolo. They flank the Via del Corso, the main street in the historic centre of Rome, facing the northern gates of the old city walls. It was the first view of Rome for many travellers.

Santa Maria in Montesanto on the left was built between 1662-1675, and Santa Maria dei Miracoli on the right was built between 1675-1679. The Baroque facades are by Bernini and Fontana.

In the centre of Piazza del Popolo stands the Flaminio Obelisk, one of 8 ancient Egyptian obelisks taken from Egypt after the Roman conquest, this one in 10 BCE.

Santa Maria del Popolo

Also in Piazza del Popolo is the Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo (Parish Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo), built between 1472-1477 after demolishing an older medieval church, was the favourite church of many popes. It stands next to the Porta del Popolo, a city gate built in 1475 replacing an ancient Roman gate.

The church was reworked by Bernini between 1562-1656, with updates to the early Renaissance facade and the high altar. The high altar contains the painting Madonna del Popolo, from the 12th or 13th centuries.

The basilica contains important works of art by Bernini, Caravaggio, Carracci and others.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

The Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere (Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere) is one of the oldest churches in Rome. The basic floor plan and wall structure date to the 4th century, while much of the structure dates to 1140-1143. Along with Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the first churches dedicated to Mary.

The Romanesque bell tower dates to the 12th century. The facade was restored in 1702 with a balustrade featuring four popes.

Inside, a 13th-century mosaic by Cavallini depicts the Madonna surrounded by ten female figures with lamps. On a sunny morning, the interior of the basilica glows from numerous golden 12th- and 13th-century mosaics depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin. The 22 columns in the nave and the entrance door lintel come from the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Santa Maria della Vittoria (Saint Mary of Victory) was built between 1608 and 1620, with the facade completed between 1624-1626. During construction, they discovered the 2nd-century sculpture Borghese Hermaphroditus. Bernini would sculpt the hyperrealistic mattress in 1620, and both are now in the Louvre.

Santa Maria della Vittoria is home to the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini. Widely considered a masterpiece, its sexuality was controversial.

San Pietro in Montorio (and Tempietto)

San Pietro in Montorio (St. Peter on the Golden Mountain) was built starting in 1481. However, more significant than the church is the commemorative tomb in the church courtyard, called Tempietto. Designed by Bramante (around 1502?), it’s considered a masterpiece of High Renaissance Italian architecture, whose influences can be seen throughout Rome and Italy.

San Pietro in Vaticano

The Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano or simply Saint Peter’s Basilica is possibly the most famous church, and certainly largest by interior area. Constructed between 1506-1626, with main design elements by Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno and Bernini. Saint Peter’s is one of the four major papal basilicas, along with San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore.

Tradition holds it’s built over the burial site of Saint Peter, with his tomb directly below the high altar. Entire books are written about the history and architecture of Saint Peter’s Basilica, so I won’t even try to summarize it here. No visit to Rome is complete without visiting Vatican City and Saint Peter’s.

Plan ahead and reserve tickets for the Vatican Necropolis. Excavated during the 1940s with the goal of finding Saint Peter’s grave, the Necropolis descends 12 meters below Saint Peter’s Basilica. It includes an ancient Roman burial ground with mausoleums that contain artwork which show the evolution of pre-Christian to early Christian symbolism.

Santa Prassede

Basilica di Santa Prassede all’Esquilino (Basilica of Saint Praxedes) was built between 780-822 over a 4th-century Roman bath complex, the Terme di Novato. The basilica is noted for its original mosaics and ancient frescos.

Saint Praxedes and her sister Saint Pudentiana are said to be daughters of Saint Pudens. Prudens is believed to be among the first Christians converted by Saint Peter and was martyred by Nero. While there is evidence of Saint Pudens’ life, there is no direct evidence of Praxedes and Pudentiana (other than their respective churches in Rome).

Santa Pudenziana

Basilica di Santa Pudenziana (Basilica of Santa Pudenziana) is the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome. It was build over a 2nd-century house, used as the residence of the pope until 313. In the 4th century, it was transformed into a basilica. Due to the age of the church, it’s set well below modern street level.

The mosaic in the apse is late antique, from the late 4th century, heavily restored in the 16th century; they are some of the oldest Christian mosaics in Rome. The Romanesque bell tower was added in the early 13th century. The facade was renovated in 1870 with new frescos.

The Spanish Steps in Rome

Trinità dei Monti

The church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti (Most Holy Trinity on the Mounts) began construction in 1502 under Louis XII of France. Located at the top of the Spanish Steps, it began as a French Gothic church, but morphed into an Italian Renaissance church that was consecrated in 1585.

While there are many Egyptian obelisks throughout Rome, the obelisk in front of Trinità dei Monti is a Roman imitation with hieroglyphics copied from the Flaminio Obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

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