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Rome's Top 10 : Churches

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  1. St Peter’s Basilica

    Should the opportunity arise, don’t miss seeing the basilica’s cavernous interior when all the lights are on – only then can you fully appreciate this giant jewel-box of colour .

  2. Santa Maria del Popolo

    Legend recounts that on this spot, where a magnificent oak grew, Nero died and was buried. The site was thought cursed, but in 1099, in a vision, the Virgin told Pope Paschal II to fell the oak, dig up the evil emperor’s bones and build a chapel .

  3. San Clemente

    This modest yet compelling church provides a concise Roman history lesson in one concentrated location.

    Sarcophagus, San Clemente
  4. Santa Maria Maggiore

    One of Rome’s greatest basilicas, this richly decorated church dates from the 5th century, as do its earliest mosaics, full of Byzantine splendour. The 16th-century Cappella Sistina’s rare marbles were “quarried”, in typical papal fashion, by destroying an ancient wonder – the Palatine’s Septizonium, a tower erected by Septimius Severus in AD 203 .

    Santa Maria Maggiore
  5. Santa Maria sopra Minerva

    Raised over an ancient temple of wisdom, this is Rome’s only Florentine Gothic church, built around 1280. In the 16th century it was the stronghold of the Inquisition in Rome. Among its great art is Michelangelo’s Risen Christ, created nude but now sporting a skewed, gilt-bronze loincloth. The body of St Catherine of Siena, who convinced the papacy to return from France in 1377, reclines under the altar .

    Santa Maria sopra Minerva
  6. San Giovanni in Laterano

    The “Mother of All Churches”, the cathedral of Rome’s bishopric was founded by Constantine in the 4th century. It was the chief papal residence until 1309, and popes were crowned here up until the 19th century. Its most recent renovation was ordered in 1650, explaining its present-day heavy Baroque grandeur, containing mammoth depictions of saints. The remarkable cloisters are 13th-century Cosmatesque .

    San Giovanni in Laterano
  7. Santa Maria in Trastevere

    This is probably Rome’s oldest church and certainly one of the most intimate and charming. Dating from the time of Pope Calixtus I (AD 217– 222), it was an early centre of Marian devotion and is Rome’s only medieval church that has not been transmogrified by either decay or enthusiastic Baroque renovators. Legend claims it was founded on a spot where olive oil miraculously sprang forth on the day of Christ’s birth.

  8. San Luigi dei Francesi

    The priceless attraction in the national church of France in Italy is Caravaggio’s famous trio of enormous paintings in the Chapel of St Matthew . These were his first great religious works. The central oil on canvas, St Matthew and the Angel, is the second version. The first was rejected by the church because the saint was shown with dirty feet – and, some say, because his relationship with the young angel seemed inappropriately intimate .

    San Luigi dei Francesi statue
  9. San Paolo fuori le Mura

    Despite its rather soulless 19th-century reconstruction following a fire, the grandeur of this 4th-century basilica can still impress. Some restored 5th-, 12th- and 13th-century mosaics survive, along with the original 11th-century bronze door and a grand Paschal candlestick. Fortunately, the cloisters of inlaid double columns (1214), considered the most beautiful in Rome, escaped the flames .

  10. Sant’Andrea della Valle

    Most visitors seek out this church as the setting of the first act of Puccini’s opera Tosca, but the Counter-Reformation giant is also important in its own right. It has the city’s second-largest dome, a flamboyant Baroque façade and some wonderful frescoes by Domenichino inside .

    Sant’Andrea della Valle
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