A Roman Treasure Hidden in Plain Sight
– by Georgeta G – A visit to the Roman Forum, one of the highlights of our Ancient Rome and Colosseum Tour, will take you back in time and allow you to walk among the iconic monuments and remains sprawled in the valley that was once the centre of Roman public life. More than 4.5 million visitors come every year to take in the architectural wonders and sights of one of the world’s most important archeological sites. But few know that - hidden among the relics dating from before the 5th century BC, just a few steps away from the Colosseum - lies the medieval Basilica of Francesca Romana, one of the most fascinating churches of Rome, a city that was never short of magnificent places of worship.
Walk along Via dei Fori Imperiali and head towards the Church of Santa Francesca Romana on a March 9 afternoon and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a giant parking lot. For once though, try not to hold it against the ill-famed Roman drivers, for that’s when Saint Frances of Rome - the patron saint of motorists and of the above church - bestows her blessings for the year to come on those whose cars are parked nearby. But more importantly, don’t let all the commotion stop you in your tracks - a catholic, a driver or perhaps neither - for this majestic old church hidden between the Colosseum and the Roman Forum holds a myriad of treasures between its ancient walls.
The Church of Santa Francesca Romana was erected in the 10th century atop a small saddle hill named Velia, between the Palatine and Esquiline hills. The basilica was originally called Santa Maria Nova, the appellative “nova” (meaning “new” in Latin), being added to differentiate it from an older church, Santa Maria Antiqua, which fell into disrepair. The edifice incorporated an oratory consecrated to Sts. Peter and Paul built by St. Silvester in 4th century AD to honour a legend involving the patron saints of Rome and a Samaritan magician known as Simon Magus. The sorcerer, whom, legend goes, had charmed even Roman Emperor Nero with his tricks, ultimately tried to prove himself to be a god - and challenge Peter - by levitating up in the air above the Forum. Upon seeing him succeed, both apostles fell to their knees in prayer asking God to put a stop to it, hence causing Simon to fall to his death. The Romans cherished the legend, mentioned in the early apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, but as proof for the incredulous types amongst you, the church still preserves a dented slab of marble bearing the imprints of the two saints’ knees.
Several popes saw to the church’s restoration throughout the ages and added to it the iconic features it displays today. The approx. 100-feet-tall Romanesque style campanile featuring cornices with stone modillions which makes the church so easily recognizable was built in the 12th century, while the travertine porch and façade by Carlo Lambardi were added in the 17th century. Around that time the church was rededicated to the Roman-born Saint Frances (1384 - 1440), a noble woman who spent her life helping the poor and who was canonized in 1608. The Church of Santa Francesca Romana has since been home to her remains, which are kept in a crypt and displayed in a crystal case, her hands still clutching a prayer book. Uniquely described as a wife, mother and founder of a religious community of oblates, Saint Frances of Rome was believed to be able to see her guardian angel, who guided her through the rough and unlit streets of Rome in a time of great turmoil for the city. In fact, that is the reason why in 1925 Saint Frances was picked to guard over the city’s automobiles and drivers, something she’s been (presumably) very busy with ever since.
The Church of Santa Francesca Romana features a single nave and seven side chapels. One of the highlights of the richly decorated Baroque interior is undoubtedly the flat wooden coffered ceiling featuring figurative panels, decorated in green, red, blue and gold. Other unique features are the Cosmatesque mosaic, still visible on the floor of the nave and the confessional designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Naples-born creator of Baroque style, featuring four fluted columns of red and white Sicilian jasper. But to many the church’s most remarkable treasure is an early 5th-century Hodegetria (meaning She who shows the Way) icon, the oldest among five early cult icons of the Virgin Mary kept in Rome. The icon, which was brought from Santa Maria Antiqua, is kept in the sacristy, while another equally remarkable icon, dating from the 12th century, is displayed in the apse above the altar.
As remarkable a church as it is, Santa Francesca Romana was once in danger of being demolished. During the 19th century, several nationalists architects called for the Roman Forum to be ‘cleansed’ of post-Imperial additions. Although today that view will surprise many, it is also as good a proof as any that history tends to always repeat itself. After the 4th century, the time when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, all temples and edifices built to honour pagan gods were looted and tore down, their sites becoming materials quarries for the construction of new buildings. The majority of them were churches, such as new St. Peter and St. John in Lateran, and several were built inside the Forum. Santa Francesca Romana itself was built on a site which had previously hosted the Temple of Venere Felix and Roma Aeterna, the largest of the city and one of the biggest of the Antiquity. Owing to the enduring popularity of Saint Frances, the plan was not carried out, proving that the will of the Romans still stood for something, even for the government led by Mussolini.
Santa Francesca Romana is a very photogenic church; still, her best angles can be admired from atop the Palatine Hill and from the Via Sacra in the Forum. However, our Ancient Rome tour, one of the most popular walking tours of Rome, will bring you right at the basilica’s doorstep. We at Roma Experience Tours are in awe at the beauty of Santa Francesca Romana and value greatly its historical relevance and our guide will be able to indicate the hidden entrance of the Church as you leave our Ancient Rome itinerary or Roma Experience's top-rated visit of the underground tunnels of the Colosseum!