Sitting atop its 124 steps—"the grandest loafing place of mankind," as Henry James put it, and the spot on which Gibbon was inspired to write his great history of the decline and fall of the Roman empire—Santa Maria di Aracoeli perches on the north slope of the Capitoline Hill. You can also access the church using a less challenging staircase from Michelangelo's piazza. The church rests on the site of the temple of Juno Moneta (Admonishing Juno), which also housed the Roman mint (hence the origin of the word "money"). According to legend, it was here that the Sibyl, a prophetess, predicted to Augustus the coming of a Redeemer. The emperor supposedly responded by erecting an altar, the Ara Coeli (Altar of Heaven). This was eventually replaced by a Benedictine monastery then church, which passed in 1250 to the Franciscans, who restored and enlarged it in Romanesque-Gothic style. Today, the Aracoeli is best known for the Santa Bambino, a much-revered olive-wood figure of the
Christ Child (today a copy of the 15th-century original stolen in 1994 and as yet unfound). At Christmas, everyone pays homage to the Bambi Gesù as children recite poems from a miniature pulpit. In true Roman style, the church interior is a historical hodgepodge—classical columns and large marble fragments from pagan buildings, as well as a 13th-century Cosmatesque pavement. The richly gilded Renaissance ceiling commemorates the naval victory at Lepanto in 1571 over the Turks. The first chapel on the right is noteworthy for Pinturicchio's frescoes of San Bernardino of Siena (1486).