The Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum, as taken from above on the Palatine Hill

What to See in the Roman Forum? The Basilica of Maxentius!

You can’t miss it. The Basilica of Maxentius dominates the labyrinthian ruins of the Roman Forum and towers over the Via dei Fori Imperiali. Countless tourists will have taken photos of this remarkable architectural wonder, that so immediately awes you with its sheer size and scale. Astonishingly, the Basilica of Maxentius only becomes more impressive when you know the story behind it.

The History of the Basilica of Maxentius

The Basilica is named after Emperor Maxentius and construction work began during his reign, in 308 AD. Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge — the beginning of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity — and it was only under his orders that the remarkable Basilica was completed, in 312 AD.

The Architecture of the Basilica of Maxentius

The Basilica’s sheer size distinguishes it as remarkable; at the time, it was the largest building in Rome. The Basilica’s vaulted ceiling stretches 130ft high and its floor spans 6561 square feet. A colossal statue of Constantine stood in the apse. An Ancient Roman who walked into the Basilica of Maxentius must have felt a lot like a modern pilgrim as he enters St. Peter’s; overwhelmed by the vast interior space and artistic flourishes.

The Basilica’s architects were clearly inspired by the grand, Imperial Roman Baths, such as the Baths of Diocletian. Other Roman Basilicas, such as the Basilica Ulpia in the Forum of Trajan, were clear influences. Cutting-edge engineering techniques were used to build the Basilica of Maxentius, that had recently been trialed on the Markets of Trajan.

What Was A Roman Basilica?

Today, we associate the word ‘Basilica’ with major Roman Catholic Churches; St. Peter’s Basilica is, of course, the one which immediately springs to mind. However, among Ancient Romans, the word ‘Basilica had a different meaning.

‘Basilica’ derives from a Greek expression, which literally means ‘Royal Walkway’. In Ancient Rome, a Basilica essentially functioned as a modern town hall — with a few ancient flourishes. The Basilica of Maxentius would have been used for commercial and administrative business. It’s likely that the offices of the Prefect of the City would have been found within.

How the Ancient Basilica Became the Christian Church

Constantine and his successors were the first to Christianize the Basilica, to make these government buildings the modern churches we know today. Constantine thought that the layout of the building — already shaped like a Crucifix — would be perfect for Christian worship.

The sheer size of the pre-existing Basilicas gave them a logistical advantage, as a logical site of Christian worship, as they could easily accommodate a large congregation. Another advantage of Basilicas is that they were free from the Temple’s pagan associations.

The Basilica of Maxentius Today

As Christianity spread, the origins of the Basilica were all but forgotten. the 9th and 14th century, earthquakes destroyed a large part of the Basilica of Maxentius, but what remains is magnificent nonetheless – it is by far the biggest building in the Roman Forum.

You can visit the Basilica of Maxentius and explore some of the other wonders of the Forum on our Roman Forum tour, which also includes the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of basilicas of Rome, we also recommend our Papal Basilica tour. This unique, private tour, includes visits to three of the major Papal Basilica: San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Paolo Fuori le mure.

The ultimate Basilica is, of course, St Peter’s Basilica, which is best experienced on a Vatican Museums tour. Enter St. Peter’s directly, after visiting The Sistine Chapel. Allow wonder to wash over you as you marvel at the spectacular architecture, in what is arguably the most beautiful building in the Eternal City. The connection between the evocative ruins of the Roman Empire and St. Peter’s should only enrich your experience of Rome — and allow you to appreciate this wondrous city all the more.

Temple of Peace in the Roman Forum

Rome’s Lost Treasures: The Temple of Peace

Could it be? One of the most beautiful creations the world had ever seen? Both Pliny and Herodian pondered this; the latter called The Temple of Peace “the largest and most beautiful of all the buildings in the city”.

In Rome — a city already renowned for its architectural splendor — the Temple of Peace stood out. The Temple of Peace was built in AD 71, to commemorate Vespasian’s defeat of the Jewish revolt. The Temple was one of Rome’s most important monuments, for a short, glimmering century. Josephus, Roman historian, described it thus:

When the triumphal ceremonies were over, as the Roman empire was now firmly established, Vespasian made up his mind to build a temple of Peace. This was completed with remarkable speed and surpassed all human imagination. Not only did he have unlimited wealth at his disposal; he also adorned it with paintings and statues by the greatest of the old masters. In fact, in that temple were collected and deposited all those works that men had hitherto traveled over the whole world to see, longing to set eyes on them even when scattered in different lands. There too he laid up the golden vessels from the Temple of the Jews, for he prided himself on them; but their Law and the crimson curtains of the Inner Sanctuary he ordered to be deposited in the Palace for safe keeping.”

Most of this amazing structure is completely lost. You’ll struggle to find a trace of the temple on a visit to Trajan’s Market. Most of what we know about the Temple of Peace comes from written accounts and the Forma Urbis, a detailed marble map. The surviving documents help us to picture the size and splendor of the temple.

The Temple of Peace was, by all accounts, an enormous complex of richly decorated rooms. Internal courtyards were full to the brim with artistic masterpieces, including a sculpture by Praxiteles, the famous Greek sculptor. Treasures taken from Jerusalem and artworks taken from Nero’s pleasure palace, the Domus Aurea were other highlights of The Temple of Peace’s Collection. The Temple of Peace was a triumphal monument, a place of worship, and a public art gallery — all in one.

Ancient writers were clearly in awe of the Temple of Peace and its astonishing art collection. Today, its easy for a modern reader to find their reactions frustrating — what happened? How is it possible that such a culturally important, sacred place, disappeared completely and left behind nothing, but a fragment of marble floor?

According to Herodian, the Temple of Peace was destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 191 AD. The destruction of the Temple was a calamity not only for culture but brought ruin to many wealthy Romans, who used the temple as a kind of safety deposit box. “It was also the richest temple in the city,” Herodian tells us, “since it is decorated with numerous gold and silver items that people deposited there to keep them safe — a caution which the fire rendered futile, sending many wealthy people into poverty.”

What had once been the Temple of Peace was, by the 6th century, known as the Forum of Peace. This once great art collection was now just an open space, not a building, and cattle grazed among its ruins. Fire, time and, perhaps most destructive of all, indifference, meant the temple, essentially, no longer existed.

The Temple of Peace is one of many amazing Ancient Roman monuments that have disappeared. The Colossus of Nero – a gigantic bronze statue of the emperor that gave its name to the Colosseum – is another, as is a multi-story monument on the Palatine, known as the Septizodium. Don’t only imagine the ruins that present themselves before your eyes, restored to glory, on your next walk through Rome. Strain your imagination and try to picture the countless temples and monuments that have vanished without a trace.

There is not one Rome, but a multi-layered Eternal City, which can only be understood and properly explored with the help of an expert. To learn more about Rome – both past and present – join our Rome tours and explore the city in the company of an expert local guide.

Leonardo da Vinci Experience, Leonardo da Vinci, Via della Conciliazione, exhibition, art, Renaissance art, museum

The First of Its Kind: “Leonardo da Vinci Experience” Museum

The “Leonardo da Vinci Experience” exhibition is the first of its kind–and the only one of its kind in the world–hosting a collection of da Vinci’s work.

The “Leonardo da Vinci Experience” museum is just steps away from the Vatican, on Via della Conciliazione. The exhibition is permanent, meaning that it is open year-round. It is the first of its kind–and the only one of its kind in the world–hosting a collection of da Vinci’s work from painted masterpieces to inventions, faithfully reproduced full-scale and according to techniques used in his time, some five hundred years ago. 

The museum provided a perfect refuge on one rainy Sunday in Rome. Upon entering, I found myself on the ground floor, which displays da Vinci’s grand flying machines. Lute music played in the background. It felt much like walking into a workshop or an attic. The setting is intimate, with its floor of wooden panels, soft recessed lighting overhead and illuminating each exhibit individually. The room is a play of light and shadows. Inventions sit side by side with some of the Renaissance master’s most iconic pieces: the Vitruvian Man juxtaposed by the Study for a Fly Wheel; Lady with an Ermine adjacent to the Anemoscope. At the far end of the entrance is an arched colonnade, behind which is projected a tranquil, Tuscan scene: da Vinci’s glider in motion across rolling green hills, white billowing clouds, and a bright blue sky. The Renaissance man par excellence, da Vinci is credited with anticipating a number of inventions that would only be realised centuries after his death, like his ‘self-propelled cart,’ forerunner to the automobile, which would make its debut some three centuries later.

“The Renaissance man par excellence, da Vinci is credited with anticipating a number of inventions that would only be realised centuries after his death.”

A true-to-life reproduction of the Last Supper occupies an entire wall on the left side facing away from the entrance. The painting, with its enigmatic subjects and their dynamic hand movements, continues to capture the imagination, even after centuries. It served as inspiration for American author Dan Brown, who scoured all its symbolic richness and depth and weaved the epic, fast-paced, thrilling tale for modern audiences, The Da Vinci Code. Within a single work of art from the Tuscan genius was enough material to intrigue spectators the world over, distant in both time and space from da Vinci himself.

“A true-to-life reproduction of the Last Supper occupies an entire wall on the left side facing away from the entrance.”

The flying machines, like the glider and ornithopter, are emblematic of the Renaissance humanism that characterises much of Leonardo da Vinci’s work–the belief in the inherent value of humans as individuals, and the efforts to realise human potential through education and emancipation. The Vitruvian Man places the individual–perfect in proportion–at the centre of the universe. Da Vinci believed that humans could eventually conquer the skies, and devised plans inspired by his study of bats and birds to achieve just that. His ambitions extended also to water–he designed webbed gloves, floats for walking on water, a life buoy.

Leonardo da Vinci Experience, Leonardo da Vinci, Via della Conciliazione, exhibition, art, Renaissance art, museum
“His ambitions extended also to water–he designed webbed gloves, floats for walking on water, a life buoy.”

Though a pacifist, da Vinci was nevertheless at the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and designed a number of war machines that were veritable predecessors to those of today, such as the armoured car, forerunner to the tank, and a weapon resembling a machine gun–a twelve barrelled gun carriage in the shape of a fan, which would maximise effectiveness in the battlefield. The room containing the war machines also features a room of mirrors–eight mirrored walls, which produce a real mise-en-abyme for the viewer, infinitely replicating reflections.

“Da Vinci…designed a number of war machines that were veritable predecessors to those of today, [including] a weapon resembling a machine gun–a twelve barrelled gun carriage in the shape of a fan.”

That a museum dedicated to da Vinci–a man whose sexuality is often speculated upon, who deviated from classic iconography, frequently butting heads with the very authorities who commissioned his pieces, and whose work elevated evidence and reason over dogma–should be mere steps away from the capital of one of the world’s major faiths was an observation I made with an amused sense of irony. It was testament to the triumph of those very ideals da Vinci and other humanists strived to convey in their work. 

Via della Conciliazione, with the Vatican in the distance.

Leonardo da Vinci’s works are scattered throughout the world today, in Krakow, Paris, London, Washington, DC, Munich, and Saint Petersburg. But to be able to behold his masterpieces, paintings and inventions alike, in one place, in such proximity to where he was active at the Vatican’s Cortile del Belvedere alongside contemporaries like Michelangelo and Raphael, is a unique experience. Visiting a museum in Rome is a mise-en-abyme of the sort in literary and film theory, a story within a story, an art gallery within another, larger open-air art gallery.

You can reach the Leonardo da Vinci Experience museum from Termini by taking Line A of the Rome Metro towards Battistini and getting off at the sixth stop, Ottaviano. From there, it is less than a fifteen minute walk. The second option is to take bus number 40 from Termini, which leaves every five minutes, and stop at Traspontina/Conciliazione. The area where the museum is located is dense with places to see. From the Vatican Museums to Castel Sant’Angelo and its famed gardens (Giardini di Castel Sant’Angelo/Parco della Mole Adriana), one could easily spend an entire day in this quarter of the city and still not exhaust its possibilities. Private and group tours of the Vatican and Sistine Chapel are available, and offer a perfect occasion to enjoy multiple experiences in the same vicinity. From March to June, the Scuderie del Quirinale–on Via Ventiquattro Maggio, not too far from the Vittoriano–will be hosting a similar exhibition entitled “Leonardo da Vinci: La scienza prima della scienza.” The exhibition aims to situate Leonardo da Vinci within the broader context of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, covering da Vinci’s contemporaries in order to paint a more complete picture of the scene and time period that led artists, engineers, and thinkers to flourish. This is surely another experience that is not to be missed.