A great place to visit in Rome is the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs (Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri).
Located in Rome’s Piazza della Repubblica, it is just a short distance from Rome’s main train station, Roma Termini. Owing to its unusual history as well as the unique artworks and artifacts housed there within, it is one of the best churches to visit in Rome.
The Basilica was built in the 1560s where once stood the Baths of Diocletian – a Roman cold bathhouse which was appropriately known as a Frigidarium. Building the Basilica in the baths also served as a symbol of Christian triumph over paganism.
Even Michelangelo lent a hand in the reconstruction, working to enclose a section of the baths to form a unique series of spaces within the church.
Three centuries later, upon the unification of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli was declared the official state church. This means that important services, such as the funerals of Italian soldiers who lost their lives in battles abroad are often held here. Indeed, the commanders said to have won World War I for Italy are even entombed here.
What you may not expect to find in an Italian catholic church is a dedication to Galileo Galilei, in the form of a tall bronze statue having been placed there in 2010 (well, technically it is housed in the courtyard… but still…), in a design by 1957 Nobel laureate Tsung-Dao Lee.
This is not the only homage to science. There is also the gnomon of Bianchini.
(For those few readers who do not spend much time talking about sundials and meridians, a gnomons is the sticky-outy piece whose shadow indicates the time.)
The southern exposition of the Roman baths now ensures the Basilica has excellent sun exposure. This was put to good use when in the early 1700s Pope Clement XI commissioned Francesco Bianchini to build a meridian line – similar to, but way more impressive than a sundial.
45-meters long and made of bronze set in off-white marble, it runs along the meridian line that traverses Rome.
Given the height of the walls, there was space to permit a long line of sun exposure for this purpose, the calibration of which would also not be disrupted by any settling of the building given the age of the original structure.
Pope Clement XI’s motivation was to create a meridian line to rival (and hopefully even better) that recently built in Bologna. He also wanted a clock that was in alignment with the recently imposed Gregorian calendar that could also be used to determine the date of Easter each year.
Sunlight comes in through a hole high up on the wall of the cathedral, falling on the meridian line. But as if that weren’t clever enough, there are also holes in the roof that allow one to read the moving of the Sirius, Polaris and Arcturus stars above.
The sun, stars and science all housed within the walls of a Roman bath-cum-Catholic basilica, this is certainly a must-see site in Rome, Italy.
When in Rome, Italy….
We have a great sightseeing Rome Walk Tour including a visit to the Coliseum and the must-see sights of Rome.
On our small-group Vatican tour, our groups are amongst the very first to enter the Vatican, whilst our expert Vatican guides bring the history of the Vatican to life!
There is also our Rome in One Glorious Day discount tour package.