Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
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Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore information
One of Rome's four patriarchal basilicas, Santa Maria was built on the summit of the Esquiline Hill in the 5th century. In front of the church, the 18.78m-high column came from the Basilica di Massenzio in the Roman Forum. The church exterior is decorated with glimmering 13th-century mosaics, protected by a baroque loggia designed by Ferdinando Fuga, which may be visited for a small charge.
The great interior retains its original 5th-century structure, despite the basilica having been much altered over the centuries. The nave floor is a fine example of 12th-century Cosmati paving. The 75m belfry, the highest in Rome, is 14th-century Romanesque; Ferdinand Fuga's 1741 facade is baroque, as is much of the sumptuous interior. Particularly spectacular are the 5th-century mosaics in the triumphal arch and nave, depicting Old Testament scenes. Binoculars will come in handy. The central image in the apse, signed by Jacopo Torriti, dates from the 13th century and represents the coronation of the Virgin Mary.
The baldachin over the high altar seethes with gilt cherubs; the altar itself is a porphyry sarcophagus, which is said to contain the relics of St Matthew and other martyrs. A plaque to the right of the altar marks the spot where Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his father Pietro are buried. Steps lead down to the confessio (a crypt in which relics are placed), where a statue of Pope Pius IX kneels before a reliquary containing a fragment of Jesus' manger.
The sumptuously decorated Cappella Sistina, last on the right, was built by Domenico Fontana in the 16th century and contains the tombs of Popes Sixtus V and Pius V.
Through the souvenir shop on the right-hand side of the church is a museum with a glittering collection of religious artefacts. Most interesting, however, is the upper loggia, where you'll get a close look at the facade's iridescent 13th-century mosaics; en route you'll also see Bernini's helical staircase.