© Zach Nelson / Fodors Travel
Originally built sometime before the 4th century, this is certainly one of Rome's oldest, and grandest, churches. With a nave framed by a processional of two rows of gigantic columns (22 in total) taken from ancient Roman temples and an altar studded with gilded mosaics, the interior conjures up the splendor of ancient Rome better than any other in the city. Larger Roman naves exist, but none seem as majestic as this one, bathed in a sublime glow from the 12th- and 13th-century mosaics and Domenichino's gilded ceiling (1617). Supposedly Rome's first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it was rebuilt in the 12th century by Pope Innocent II (who hailed from Trastevere). The 19th-century portico draws attention to the facade's 800-year-old mosaics, which represent the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. They enhance the whole piazza, especially at night, when the church front and bell tower are illuminated. Back inside, the church's most important mosaics, Pietro Cavallini's six panels
of the Life of the Virgin, cover the semicircular apse. Their new sense of realism is said to have inspired the great Giotto. Note the little building labeled "Taberna Meritoria" just under the figure of the Virgin in the Nativity scene, with a stream of oil flowing from it. It recalls the legend that on the day Christ was born, a stream of pure oil flowed from the earth on the site of the piazza, signifying the coming of the grace of God. Off the piazza's northern side lies a little street called Via delle Fonte dell'Olio in honor of this miracle.
Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, Latium, 00153, Italy