Italian Art Cities: Historic monuments, places, churches, museums of Italian Art Cities



Roman forum

Baths of Caracalla

Piazza di Spagna

Piazza Navona

Castel Sant'Angelo

Arco di Costantino

Via Appia

Domus Aurea

Imperial Forum

Capitoline Hill and Square

Basilica of St. John Lateran

Palatine Hill

The Catacombs

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Basilica of St Paul Outside the wall

Mausoleum of Augustus

Chiesa del Gesu'



Construction on the Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheater began in 72 A.D under the Emperor Vespasian on the site near the Domus Aurea, Nero’s House. In 80 A.D., this immense amphitheater, considered the most important monument of ancient Rome, was inaugurated by Titus with a 3-month long Roman-style celebration. With a seating capacity of more than 50,000 spectators around a central elliptical arena, the amphitheater was used for games, ceremonies and spectacles such as gladiatorial combats, wild animal hunts, executions, and reenactments of famous battles until 405 A.D. when Emperor Honorius banned such amusements. The arena was badly damaged by an earthquake in the middle of the 5th century, abandoned and then converted into a fortress for the medieval clans of the city, a marble quarry by the Popes, picturesque scenery for painters, and a place of Christian worship. Today the Colosseum with its grandeur and monumental size still reflects its former splendor. The amphitheater is a vast ellipse with three tiers of arcades faced by three-quarter columns and entablatures. The columns are Doric in the first tier, Ionic in the second, and Corinthian in the third.  A special box was provided at the north end for the Emperor. At the same level was a podium for senators, government officials, and vestal virgins. Knights and tribunes sat in the first tier of seats, citizens in the second, while the third tier and gallery were reserved for the lower classes and slaves.



Built by Agrippa in 27 B.C. as a temple to the Gods of ancient Rome, the Pantheon with its majestic dome was later restored by Domi­tian after the fire 80 A.D. and rebuilt with its current look between 117 and 125 during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. In 609 Pope Boniface IV consecrated the building as a Christian church, and during the Middle Ages the Pantheon was used as a fortress. Later popes despoiled the building, especially Pope Urban VIII, who in the 17th century ordered the bronze ceiling of the portico melted down to manufacture 80 cannons for the fortifications at Castel Sant’Angelo and, allegedly, for Bernini's baldachin above the high altar in Saint Peter's Basilica. The Pantheon is the oldest standing domed structure in Rome. The generic term pantheon has come to signify a monument in which illustrious people are buried and the Pantheon is the final resting place for seven kings of Italy as well as painters Raphael and Annibale Carracci.



From approximately 502 to 27 B.C., the period known as the Republican era, the Roman Forum was the hub for religious, civil, social and commercial activity in Rome. Located between the Palatine Hill and the Capitoline Hill, the forum was abandoned following the barbarian invasions of the 5th cen­tury A.D. Although the memory of the past splendor of the Roman Forum persisted, during the Middle Ages through the Renaissance the area was known as Campo Vaccino—cattle field. Preliminary excavations started at the beginning of the 19th century. In the 20th century, the full excavation of the Forum unearthed monuments, buildings, and ancient ruins from several centuries. On Via dei Fori Imperiali, just inside the entrance to the Forum, are the ruins of the Basilica Emilia, erected in 179 B.C. and used as a place for conducting business. Adjacent to the basilica, is the Curia rebuilt first by Julius Caesar and then again by Diocletian in the 4th century. During the last empire, the senate convened in the great meeting hall of the Curia. Just in front of the Curia lies the Lapis Niger. According to tradition, this black marble platform was used to cover the grave of Rome’s founder, Romulus. Another important monument nearby is the imposing Triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus, built in 203 A.D. to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the emperor's reign and his defeat of the Parthians. Moving down to the actual square, there lay ruins of the Temple of Saturn - erected in 497 B.C. and rebuilt first in 42 B.C. and again in the 3rd cen­tury A.D. The temple hosted Saturnalia, an early version of what would become our modern day carnivals. Also on the main square the most recent monument of the Forum: the Column of Phocas, erected in A.D. 608. The Via Sacra was the route along which the triumphal processions and parades were held. Basilica Julia, a court house and exchange bureau built by Julius Caesar in 54 B.C. is along Via Sacra. In its vicinity are the remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, erected in 484 B.C. to commemo­rate the twins, known as the Dioscuri or “twins of Gemini”, the sons of Zeus (Jupiter) and Leda - in gratitude for aiding the Romans in defeating the Tarquins and Latins at the Battle of Lake Regillus. According to tradition, the nearby Pool of Juturna is where the Dioscuri watered their horses on their way to the Forum to announce their victory. The Church of Santa Maria Antiqua is probably the most important Christian structure on the Forum and was the first pagan temple in Rome consecrated as a church. The Tem­ple of Vesta with its circular footprint housed a sacred flame tended by maidens who re­sided in the House of the Vestal Virgins, erected in the early years of the republic. In Roman times, the population tied its fortune to the Sacred fire of Vesta and feared its extinction as an omen of disaster. Other temples in the same area include the Temple of Julius Caesar, built in 42 B.C. by Octavian on the site of Julius Caesar’s cremation; the ruins of the Arch of Augus­tus, erected in 19 B.C.; the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina from the 2nd century A.D. and the Arch of Titus, built in 81 A.D. to celebrate the victories of Vespasian and Titus in Jerusalem. The Portico of the Dei Consentes – a colonnade dating back to 367 A.D. and devoted to the cult of the 12 Roman Gods – is located just outside the Forum. Other ruins nearby include the Temple of Vespasian, built in 81 A.D. and the Temple of Concord, initially erected as early as the 6th Century B.C. (although this date is disputed), dedicated in 370 B.C. to commemorate the reconciliation of the patricians and the plebeians, rebuilt in 121 B.C. by Opimius after the death of Gracchus and restored by Tiberius in 10 A.D. using the spoils of his German campaigns. Beneath the Church of San Giuseppe lies the subterranean Tullianum or Mamertine Prison. Its upper level was used as state prison of ancient Rome and it held at different times, Jugurtha King of Numidia, and Vercingetorix, chief of the Gauls. According to Catholic tradition, in its lower level, built in 300 B.C., Saint Peter baptized his jailers with water from a spring that miraculously burst forth there.


The Baths of Caracalla – the Roman public baths also knows as thermae - were built around 217 A.D. by Emperor Caracalla, one of the empire’s most dissolute rulers. More than simply baths, this monumental complex was considered a center for leisure and its gardens, libraries and majestic buildings, adorned with statues, stuccoes, and marbles, perfectly reflect the high degree of refinement of ancient Romans. The baths included the standard Calidarium, Tepidarium and Frigidarium. The Calidarium, the hottest room, served as a modern day sauna. From there one would pass through the Tepidarium with milder temperatures and continue into the Frigidarium, or cold room, which opened on one side to the outdoor swimming-pool. The complex also included two gyms. The thermae were used until the sixth century, when they were damaged by the Goths. With its ability to house about 1,600 bathers, the Baths of Caracalla were second in size only to the Baths of Diocletian, which could accommodate 3,000. In 1561 the Baths of Diocletian were converted into the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli by Michelangelo. Today the Baths of Caracalla are used for music, plays and operatic performances.



Piazza di Spagna is one of Rome’s most beautiful and characteristic squares. Built on the site of the Spanish Em­bassy to the Holy See the square showcases the world renowned Spanish Steps - Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti - Europe’s longest and widest staircase with its 137 steps, built between 1723–1725. In the center of the Piazza stands the Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Old Boat), built in 1627-29 and often credited to Pietro Bernini, father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini to commemorate the great flood of 1598. On top of the Spanish Steps, in Piazza Trinità dei Monti, sits the majestic Church of Trinità dei Monti, built between 1495 and 1585 for the French residents of Rome. Facing the piazza is the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide) erected in 1627, which was renamed Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and serves as the world headquarters of Catholic missions and activities. English poet John Keats lived in a house in Piazza di Spagna until his death in 1821. The house is now a museum dedicated to his memory. Furthermore, many artists and intellectuals resided on the Via Sistina and around Piazza di Spagna during the 19th century.




Piazza Navona is the pride of Baroque Roman art history. Built on the site of the 1st century A.D. Stadium of Domitian, at the end of the 15th century the square became a public space and the site of the city market. During the middle ages, the Popes flooded the square and floated small boats for elaborate celebrations and aquatic festivals. Piazza Navona features sculptural and architectural creations: the most famous among them, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) erected in 1651 stands in the center. Another majestic monument is the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone designed by Francesco Borromini and Girolamo Rainaldo. According to legend, the church stands on the site where Saint Agnes was publicly ex­posed before her martyrdom.





Castel Sant’Angelo – or Mausoleum of Hadrian - was commissioned and built between 135 and 139 A.D. by Hadrian for himself, his family and his successors. For 80 years until the reign of Septimius Severus, Castel Sant’Angelo was a funerary monument. In later years the building - in the form of a circular tower upon a square foundation - served as a fortress, a palace for popes and princes, a prison, and military barracks. The last recorded burial at Castel Sant’Angelo was that of Caracalla in 217. From its position, the castle dominates the Tiber River and, according to legend, the building got its name in 590 when Gregory the Great – trying to put a stop to the plague – was visited in a vision by Archangel Michael brandishing a sword to signal the end of the Plague.  In 1084 Pope Gregory VII was imprisoned here during his quarrel with Emperor Henry IV over investiture. From the 14th century, the building was converted into a castle and Pope Nicolas III connected it to the Vatican Palace via the Passetto di Borgo, a covered corridor. During the Renaissance, victims of the Borgia family were incarcerated here. Castel Sant’Angelo was often used as a sanctuary for various popes. This was particularly true during the period known as The Sack of Rome – in 1527 – when Pope Clement VII sought refuge here from the siege by the troops of Charles V. Today the fortress is a museum and it also contains the cell of Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.







The Arch of Constantine was erected in Rome in 315 A.D. to commemorate Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the bridge of Milvio in 312. Rome’s best-preserved and biggest arch was built by the senate and the Roman people. The relief panels on the arch tell the story of Constantine’s life and the lives of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius.








The Domus Aurea - golden house – was a majestic palace built by Emperor Nero following the fire that devasted Rome in 64 A.D. Its rooms were sheathed in white marble and lavishly decorated with frescoes, mosaics and stucco in the Pompeian style. Following Nero’s death, the palace was quickly stripped of all its marble and precious furnishings. Soon after his death, the grounds were filled and built over. The Domus Aurea was accidentally found again at the end of the 15th century, when a youngster fell through a cleft and found himself in a painted cave. Soon young artists and painters from the early Renaissance were being hoisted down in the grotto to gather inspiration for their works. Among them Pinturicchio, Raphael, Michelangelo and Domenico Ghirlandaio.  Unfortunately, its discovery let to an inevitable process of decay. The Domus Aurea has been undergoing restorations and it is currently close to the public.





 The Appian Way was one of the Roman Republic’s earliest and most celebrated roads. Connecting Rome to southern Italy, Greece, and the east­ern territories of the empire, the Appian Way was strategically crucial to the ancient republic. Construction of the road began in 312 B.C. at the hand of Censor Appius Claudius Caecus. Starting at Porta San Sebastiano - the gate of the Appia in the Aurelian Walls - important monuments line this Roman thoroughfare: the Church of Domine Quo Vadis, erected on the site where, according to legend, Christ appeared in a vision to Saint Peter and advised him to return to Rome and face martyrdom; the Catacombs; the 4th century Church of San Sebastiano; the cemetery where the Apostles Peter and Paul were originally buried; the Circus of Maxentius, erected in 309 A.D. by the emperor in honor of his son Romulus; and the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, a cylindrical tower erected in the last years of the republic. The original old Roman pavement still covers the thoroughfare portion in the Roman countryside, in the area known as the Old Appian Way.



Not to be confused with the Roman Forum, the Imperial Forum is a series of public squares built when the Roman Forum could no longer accommodate the needs of a fast-growing population.  The Imperial Forum quickly became the center of Roman life. The first to be erected was the Forum of Julius Caesar, for which construction began in 54 B.C. Consisting of a piazza lined with porticos enclosing religious and secular structures, the forum centered around the 46 B.C. Temple of Venus Genetrix, built to honor the goddess who aided Caesar in his victory at the Battle of Pharsalus, Greece, in 48 B.C. Only 3 Corinthian columns are left of the Temple. The Forum of Augustus is the second of the Imperial Forum. Erected to rival the Forum of Julius Caesar, this and the Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) were vowed by Augustus on the occasion of his victory at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. through which he avenged the assassination of Julius Caesar, his adoptive father. Construction did not start until 20 B.C. and a series of land issues and architectural problems delayed its completion. The still incomplete forum and temple were inaugurated in 2 B.C. Trajan’s Forum, erected in 114 A.D., was the last and most monumental forum of the imperial age. Carved from Carrara white marble, the 100-foot-high Tra­jan's Column was inaugurated in 113 featuring spiral reliefs that commemorate victory in the Dacian Wars. The design of the Trajan’s Column was adopted for various victory columns, in ancient and modern times. Underneath it are Trajan's sepulchral room – which was sacked during the Middle Ages - and Trajan's Market, an impressive series of commercial build­ings, offices and shops. Adjacent to the Imperial Forum, facing the Colosseum are the ruins of the imposing Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, which served a courthouse and exchange office, for which construction began in 306 A.D.



One of the original seven hills of Rome, the Capitoline Hill or Collis Capitolinus served as an acropolis and religious center in the early days of Roman history.  By the 16th century the Roman dialect had transformed Capitolinus in Campidoglio. The current design of the piazza and the surrounding palaces was created by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1546. The project was commissioned by Pope Paul III to impress Emperor Charles V during his visit to Rome scheduled in 1538. Executing Michelangelo’s design was slow and laborious, in fact the Campidoglio was not completed until the 17th century. Visitors reach the Campidoglio by a monumental staircase known as "cordonate," also de­signed by Michelangelo. Half way up the cordonata is the statue commemorat­ing Tribune Cola di Rienzi, who led a victorious revolt against the papacy in 1354. The piazza is surrounded by majestic palaces. With its double ramps of stairs, the Senatorial Palace - which houses the Roman city hall – was built during the 13th and 14th centuries on the site of the ancient Roman senate. The Capitoline Museum was established by Pope Sixtus IV in the 15th thanks to a collection of important ancient bronzes he donated to the Roman people. The Palace of the Conservators houses a museum of ancient statues – Roman, Greek and Egyptian - including the colossal marble head of Emperor Constantine. In the center of the Campidoglio stands the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Dating back to the second century A.D. this is a unique statue and the only imperial equestrian statue ever discovered.



The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Although located outside of Vatican City in the city of Rome, the Basilica was granted extraterritorial status and is considered property of the Holy See. This is the city’s oldest church and it stands on the site of the ancient palace of the Laterani People, who served as administrators for several emperors. The palace was confiscated from the family when Plautinus Lateranus was accused of plotting against Nero in the 1st century A.D. The building eventually went to Emperor Constantine when he married his second wife Fausta, sister of Maxentius. Following his conversion, Constantine presented the buildings to the pope. Although the date is unknown, historians believe this to have taken place during the pontificate of Pope Miltiades. The church was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. From Pope Miltiades until 1309 every Pope resided in the Lateran Palace. This changed with Pope Clement V who transferred the Holy See of the Catholic Church to Avignon, during the Avignon Papacy. During this period, the basilica and the palace began to suffer. In 1307 and 1361 two fires wreaked havoc on the buildings. Following the Avignon Papacy, the Holy See was brought back to the Vatican but the Palace and Basilica were not deemed an adequate Papal residence. Eventually, after a move to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, the Palace of the Vatican was erected and the papacy was moved there, where it remains today. The Lateran Palace and Basilica were restored by Urban V in the 14th century and decorated by Francesco Borromini in the 17th century. The square in front of the basilica features a red granite obelisk commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III for a 4th century B.C. temple at Thebes, Egypt, and brought to Rome by Constantine. The basilica is surrounded by a 16th century structure that includes the Scala Sancta, or Holy Stairs, 28 steps of white marble, which, according to tradition, led to the praetorium of Pilate in Jerusalem, and were ascended by Jesus when he was brought in front of Pontius Pilate to be judged. According to historians, the Holy Stairs were brought to Rome from Jerusalem in approximately 326 by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. Additional buildings are the Lateran Baptistry or Baptistry of Saint John, erected by Constantine; and the Lateran Palace of 1586, home to a splendid art collection.



The Palatine Hill is one of Rome’s seven hills and one of the most ancient parts of the city. According to tradition and mythology, the Palatine was where Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf and where Romulus traced the boundary of the original city of Rome in 754 B.C. after killing his brother. Recent excavations prove that the first signs of humans inhabiting the area date back to 1000 B.C. Many of Rome’s noble families, including those of Cicero, Catiline, and Mark Antony, resided here during the republic. Furthermore, upon becoming emperor in 27 B.C., Augustus built his palace on the hill, as did many other emperors during the imperial period. Among the ancient remains are the House of Livia, Augustus’ wife, the Temple of Cybele, erected in 204 B.C. and restored by Emperor Augustus, and the subterranean Crypto Porticus, built during Nero’s empire to connect the palaces of Augustus and Tiberius. The Flavian Palace nearby extends across the Palatine Hill and overlooks the Circus Maximus. It is where the emperors used to hold their audiences. In the vicinity are also the House of Augustus, the Hippodrome of Domitian and the Palace of Septimius Severus.


THE CATACOMBS          The catacombs, ancient underground tunnels that form a labyrinth, were one of the first places of worship and burial grounds of early Christians. In the 1st century, Rome’s Christians did not have designated cemeteries but rather buried dead relatives in land they owned. Those who were not landowners resorted to common cemeteries open to pagans as well. Through donations, in the 1st half of the 2nd century, Christians started the practice of burying the dead underground. The Catacombs of Saint Callistus were built on the site of a Roman necropolis, and were used as a place of worship and refuge from persecution by 2nd century Christians. The complex occupies an area of about 90 acres and reaches 12 miles in length. These catacombs include the Crypt of the Popes, the Crypt of mar­tyred Saint Cecilia - discovered by Pope Paschal I in 812 – and the Cubicles of the Sacraments. The Cata­combs of Saint Sebastian are located underneath the Church of St. Sebastian and include the tomb of Saint Sebastian as well as several inscriptions from early Christianity. Ease of access to these catacombs caused them to be the worst preserved of all the catacombs in Rome. Spanning approximately 10 miles in length on four levels, the Catacombs of Domitilla were built at the end of the 1st century on land donated by Flavia Domitilla, granddaughter of Emperor Vespasian. The Catacombs of Domitilla - among the best preserved and most extensive in Rome - contain an underground Basilica open to the public as well as tombs of the holy Martyrs Nereus and Achilleus; the subterranean chamber of the Flavians; and the cell of Saint Petronilla. Located directly below the Church of St. Agnes and built between the 2nd and 4th centuries, the well-preserved Catacombs of Saint Agnes contain numerous interesting epigraphic monuments.



Santa Maria Maggiore is one of Rome’s four patriarchal or ancient basilicas together with St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. Peter’s Basilica. Its name implies that this is the major church in Rome among all the ones dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  Legend tells us that the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to Pope Liberius and John, a Roman patrician, on August 5, 352 A.D., and ordered them to build a church in her honor on the site outlined by a miraculous snowfall that would occur the following day. According to evidence, construction of the church was initiated by Pope Sixtus III in 431. The church was subsequently restored and remodeled in the 13th and 18th centuries. The church’s Romanesque bell tower was erected in 1277 and it is the tallest in Rome. The Miracle of the Snow is still celebrated every year on August 5.







 One of Rome’s four patriarchal basilicas, St. Paul Outside the Walls is Rome’s largest church after Saint Peter. Erected by Emperor Constantine in 314 on the site of the burial grounds of Saint Paul the Apostle, between 384 and 395 under the emperors Theodosius, Valentinian II and Arcadius, the Basilica was restored and expanded with a design of five naves opening into an atrium or courtyard and a total of 150 columns on four rows. From an inscription located on the triumphal arch, the basilica was consecrated in 390 by Siricius and completed in 395 by Emperor Honorius. The idea of the fabulous mosaic decorations installed in the nave was his sister’s Galla Placida. St. Paul Outside the Walls was nearly destroyed by a devastating fire in 1823, restored and consecrated by Pope Pius IX in 1854.











The monument was a large tomb erected by Emperor Augustus in 27 B.C. to serve as a mausoleum for himself and the imperial family. During the Middle Ages the structure was used as a fortress. The monument is no longer open to the public as time and lack of care have wreaked havoc. Erected in 13 B.C., the nearby Ara Pacis was built to commemorate the era of peace brought about by Emperor Augustus.





The Church of the Gesù as it is also known in English is the mother church of the Jesuit order. Built in 1568 by archi­tect Giacomo da Vignola, the structure itself was clearly designed to implement Counter Reforma­tion and its aim to make Catholicism more accessible and appeal­ing to the people. This was achieved with the construction of a single nave to facilitate preaching as well as several chapels, altars, tribunes, and wide bays. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the order is buried underneath the elaborate altar in a chapel in the left transept. A solid silver statue of the saint that originally stood in the chapel was ordered melted down by Pope Pius VI to repay a war debt to Napoleon.




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