Guide To the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, a Hidden Gem in Rome
Here's my guide to visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome Italy.
The church is just one block from the Pantheon, so you shouldn't miss an opportunity to peak in. The plain facade belies the treasures inside. The Minerva is a mini-museum, a hidden gem in Rome that's definitely worth a visit.
History of Sant Maria Sopra Minerva
The basilica was founded in the 7th century and built over a Roman temple presumably dedicated to Minerva.
At the end of the 13th century, the Minerva was rebuilt in a Gothic style by a Dominican order. They added the classic blue-sky-with-gold-stars vaulted ceiling. The pointy arched ribs are richly decorated to look like gold rope along the curved edges.The architects had previously built the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, a must see site in Florence.
In 1600, the architect Carlo Maderno gave the church a modest Renaissance facade. It's undecorated because it was never finished.
The church was given the usual Baroque facelift with excess ornamentation in the 17th and 18th centuries. But, in the 19th century, this was removed and the church was returned to its Gothic splendor. The church is still considered the only Gothic church in Rome.
Inside, you'll find frescos and sculptures by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and Baroque. And a splendid collection of medieval and Renaissance tombs of famous saints, popes, artists, and influential figures.
What To See At Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Here are best things to see at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva:
1. Bernini Elephant
Before you enter the church, check out the "Bernini Elephant" in the center of Piazza della Minerva. It's an eccentric piece, cleaned and restored in 2014.
The sculpture consists of a 6th century Egyptian obelisk (one of 11 in Rome) on the back of a pudgy elephant. Bernini designed the oddity in 1667. It was sculpted by one of his students, Ercole Ferrata. It's nicknamed the "little pig."
Legend holds that Bernini took liberties with the elephant's position. He deliberately sculpted the elephant smiling with its tail held to the side. The elephant appears about to leave a "gift" behind it, pointed at the house of a Bernini rival. Baroque Rome ... you have to love it.
The Egyptian obelisk is much older. It was found in the ruins of a temple of Isis that once stood nearby. Nothing visible remains of the temple over which the present church was built, but some Roman remains are visible in the crypt.
The arches in the nave are actually pointed and not rounded. This marks the basilica as Gothic. The Minerva has beautiful stained glass windows, which are from a 19th century Dominican restoration.
The vaulted ceiling is both beautiful and impressive. It's a beautiful blue with gold stars symbolizing heaven and an array of saints.
2. Bernini Sculptures
Aside from the elephant on the piazza, the church has another Bernini sculpture, the Memorial to Maria Raggi. She was a nun who performed miracles. The sculpture faces the altar and looks directly at Michelangelo's Christ.
It's a very unique sculpture with wavy flowing drapes of gold marble and bronze. The sculpture is attached to a pillar along the nave, in a then revolutionary sepulchral style.
3. Michelangelo Sculpture of Christ Bearing the Cross
To the left of the apse is a muscular Christ Bearing the Cross, carved by Michelangelo in 1521. The sculpture depicts Jesus carrying a cross while wearing some rather jarring bronze drapery.
Michelangelo wasn't thrilled with it. Despite his perfectionism and because he was busy in Florence, he let the artist Pietro Urbino put on the finishing touches.
As with the underpants in Michelangelo's Last Judgment, the drapery wasn't part of the original composition. It was added after the Council of Trent to preserve Christ's modesty.
This Christ was Michelangelo's second attempt. He abandoned work on his first statue after finding a black vein cutting through the left cheek. Though "dying of anguish," Michelangelo started carving the Minerva's version, which he completed in 1521.
4. Tomb of St. Catherine of Siena
Catherine is known for her constant ecstatic visions, which may have been the product of excessive flagellation, fasting, and chastity. Influential in her time, Saint Catherine's rhetoric reputedly help move the popes back to Rome from Avignon France during the great schism.
You can see the gleaming marble sarcophagus under the high altar. The Minerva is missing her head, which is in the Church of St. Dominic in Sienna.
The head was stolen by Sienese. Legend holds that they placed her head in a bag. When stopped by soldiers for inspection her head turned into rose petals. After arriving in Siena, the petals miraculously transformed back into her head. The rose is now Catherine's symbol.
5. Tomb of Fra Angelico
The great early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico is buried in the Frangipane Chapel to the left of the altar choir. His tomb is a place of pilgrimage.
Fra Angelico was beatified by Pope John II in 1984. The Florentine convent in which he lived and decorated, San Marco Monastery, is a must see site in Florence.
Fra Angelico ran the most prestigious workshop in Florence, before he became the leading painter in Rome. He was so devout that he only painted religious works, never reworked his pieces, and cried when he painted a crucifixion.
His tomb features an inset effigy of the artist in repose but with eyes open, sculpted by Isaia da Pisa. Fra Angelico's painting of the Virgin and Child hangs over the chapel altar.
In 2018, the tomb was attacked by vandals and part of the face marred. Two years earlier, a tusk of Bernini's elephant was snapped off.
6. Tombs of the Medici Popes
Two Medici popes are buried in the apse of the Minerva, Leo X and Clement VII. The tombs were carved by Raffaello da Montelupo, Baccio Bandinelli, and Nanni di Baccio Bigio.
Giovanni de Medici was the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. he was a cardinal by age 14 and became pope at 38, taking the name of Leo X. His election as pope marked the Golden Age of the Renaissance. His tomb was created by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.
The tomb of Clement VII, Giulio de Medici, is opposite Leo X. His tomb is also by Sangallo.
Clement was the illegitimate son of Giuliano de' Medici, who was murdered in Florence during the Pazzi conspiracy. Unlike Leo X, he didn't have a good reign, losing ground to the Protestant Reformation. Clement famously refused to give England's Henry VIII his requested divorce.
7. Carafa Chapel
The Carafa Chapel is the undisputed highlight of the Minerva. It's in the right transept, to the right of the altar. The patrons were Cardinal Oliviero Carafa and Pope Alexander VI.
The chapel is famous for its magnificent 15th century frescos by Filippino Lippi, created between 1488-93. Rome is less well known for Renaissance frescos than Florence, where the city is blanketed with them. So the chapel is a relatively rare treat in Rome.
Lippi was the gifted (and wayward) son of Filippo Lippi, one of Florence's most famous painters. Lippi honed his gift in the workshop of Sandro Botticelli and became his best student.
In the Carafa Chapel, Lippi used perspective architecture to create an illusion of space. His frescos are packed with loads of figures, both human and animal. When the frescos were unveiled, even the pope, Alexander VI, came to admire them. The Renaissance had come to Rome.
The Carafa Chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Thomas Aquinas. The most famous of Lippi's scenes is the wall fresco, The Assumption of Our Lady, above the altarpiece. It depicts angels carrying Mary upward to heaven.
Below The Assumption are the frescos of the life of Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, of whom Carafa was a fan. The saint is clad in a dark robe and stands out.
The frescos depict Saint Thomas debating heretics, performing the miracle of the talking crucifix, and placing his foot on a defeated devil. It's worth noting that Thomas wasn't just an anti-heretic zealot, as the fresco may suggest. He tried to marry religion and reason.
On the ceiling, you'll see the sibyls. The Cumaean sibyl who prophesied the coming of Christ is right above The Assumption. Michelangelo would use the sibyls as a major motif in his Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos.
The Carafa chapel also includes the tomb of Paul IV. He was an intense religious zealot of the Carafa family. He's known as the Great Inquisitor of the Counter Reformation.
8. Chapel of the Annunciation
The fourth chapel on the right is the Chapel of the Annunciation, designed by the architect Carlo Maderno of St. Peter's Basilica fame. The painting above the altar is by Antoniazzzo Romano.
It shows a Dominican presenting three girls to the Virgin Mary. At the same time, the angel Gabriel arrives to tell Mary the good news about her impending birth in another Annunciation scene.
Practical Information for Visiting Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Address: Piazza della Minerva, 42
Hours: 7:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:30 pm to 7:00 pm (weekends open at 8:00 am)
Entry fee: free
Pro tip: At the entrance of the church, there's a map showing photos and the placement of the different works of art.
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