For top Rome attractions, the city boasts some of the most gorgeous churches in the world. I try to visit at least one every day I’m there. On my first trip to the eternal city—many years ago—I was excited to see the Pantheon since it was on all the Rome sightseeing lists. Having read about it numerous times, I couldn’t wait to gaze upon the concrete dome of the magnificent temple to all gods. It was hard to fathom that a building nearly two-millennia old could still exist in good enough shape to be functional for church services!
Once we had visited it, Jon and I decided to roam around that historic area. The Pantheon, like many ancient structures in the city, stands among modern (by Rome standards) buildings. Old and new exist together harmoniously. Nearby are restaurants, cafes, gelaterias, and various types of stores selling everything from stationary to clothing to religious items.
Jon saw a store sporting the Ferrari logo in its window, so we decided to stop and shop. The salesman was quite the character; he spent far more time flirting with me than trying to sell Jon anything. In fact, he was so disinterested in making a sale that he left Jon to browse and took me outside to show me the sights. It was then that I first saw the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. In front of the church was a charming piazza with an Egyptian obelisk (they are found frequently throughout the city), an elephant statue surrounded the base of the tapered pillar.
What is the story behind Bernini’s elephant statue in Piazza della Minerva?
According to the salesman (and local lore), Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the elephant with a specific purpose in mind. The elephant’s rear end points toward the former Dominican headquarters where trials of the Inquisition were held. This is where inquisitors forced Galileo to recant his theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. In order to get back at the Catholic church for its persecution of a man he respected, Bernini allegedly placed the stinky end of the pachyderm towards the brotherhood. The Dominicans caught onto the slight and complained to the pope about the elephant’s position, but Bernini denied any wrongdoing. To this day, that building gets the butt end of the statue.
Why is the church called Santa Maria sopra Minerva?
There are many churches in Rome devoted to the mother of Jesus Christ—Santa Maria. Because so many churches share the name of Santa Maria, one identifies them by a longer moniker that might indicate their location, such as is the case here. Sopra Minerva means “above Minerva,” because it was believed that the church was built atop a temple to the Roman goddess. The story probably doesn’t end there though. Although a Minervium likely existed in the vicinity, archaeological finds suggest that temples to Isis and Serapis were also located in the immediate area. Regardless of whose worship site the church was built upon, it is clear that devotion to sacred women has dominated the area for quite some time—whether through Isis, Serapis, Minerva, or Mary.
What does Santa Maria sopra Minerva look like inside?
One word—stunning. Reportedly the only Gothic church in Rome, construction began in 1280 with the oversight of Father Sisto Fiorentino and Father Ristoro—two Dominicans who also designed Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. When one enters the cross-design basilica with its arched vaulting, you are struck by the stunning blue ceiling with gold stars. This is likely similar to how the Sistine Chapel would have looked before Michelangelo painted his masterpiece. Speaking of the great Renaissance man, Santa Maria sopra Minerva features a Michelangelo statue, Christ Carrying the Cross, also known as Christ the Redeemer. This 1521 marble masterpiece is as good as the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica, but has far less crowds and unlike its Vatican sister doesn’t have glass surrounding it to protect against hammer-wielding maniacs. Michelangelo carved the statue of a naked Christ (bronze sash across the genitals was added later) carrying his cross from a single block of white marble. In this portrayal, Jesus appears strong—he will die, but will resurrect. His face has a kind, loving expression. Michelangelo captured the story of salvation in this statue.
Although Michelangelo’s statue and the ceiling are definitely showstoppers, there is also a cycle of frescoes by Filippino Lippi in the Carafa chapel that shouldn’t be missed. Many notable Italians also claim Santa Maria sopra Minerva as their eternal resting place such as the two Medici popes—Leo X and Clement VII—and the talented artist Fra Angelico whose magnificent paintings can be seen in San Marco convent in Florence. One of the patron saints of Italy—Catherine of Siena—is also entombed there. Well at least her body is…her head is in Siena.
Thanks to a recent restoration, visitors to Santa Maria sopra Minerva will get to see the church’s art and architecture in its best fashion. I think the basilica is one of the best places to visit in Rome. Since it’s not a major Rome landmark, you will likely find it fairly quiet to visit. After you’ve enjoyed your time there, and presumably visited the Pantheon, I would recommend one of two local cafes for a drink—Caffe Sant’Eustachio or Caffe Tazza d’Oro—either will round out your Roman sightseeing experience nicely. Buon viaggio!
Location: Piazza della Minerva 42 (look for an Egyptian obelisk with an elephant sculpture. There will probably be someone playing guitar there, too).
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