Visitors to Trastevere usually approach the neighborhood from the Ponte Sisto footbridge. It’s a natural thing to do after a walk through Rome’s centro storico. The area is full of people and bustling with life within its many shops, bars and restaurants. And yet if you head just a bit further along the lungotevere to the Tiber Island you’ll reach a very different and thoroughly charming part of Trastevere.
Here you’ll find one of Rome’s often overlooked jewels: the 5th century Santa Cecilia Basilica in Trastevere. The splendid basilica is steeped in layers of history! Although not generally open to the public the basilica has a spectacular underground area including an exquisite crypt and an ancient baptismal area.
Our visit to Santa Cecilia Basilica took us down to visit the excavated area under the church, parts of which date back to the second century. Here we saw the ancient baptismal, the remains of thermal baths and the excavations of Roman houses, one of which belonged to Cecilia and her family.
From the underground baptismal area a long, narrow tunnel leads into the exquisite crypt decorated in cosmatesque style. Frescoes and mosaics intricately decorate the walls, ceilings and columns of the crypt. It’s also noteworthy as it contains the relics of Santa Cecilia and her husband San Valeriano. In the apse of the crypt you see the remains of an altar with an inscription by Pope Gregory VII and his June 1080 dedication…nearly a thousand years ago!
The Santa Cecilia Basilica is located in Trastevere, near the Tiber Island. The basilica is enclosed with a wall that opens up to a lovely courtyard. It’s decorated with ancient mosaics and beautiful columns, and a central cantharus, or water vessel.
The church façade was built in 1725 by Ferdinando Fuga. Its decoration includes the coat of arms and dedication to the titular cardinal who paid for the facade, Francesco Cardinal Acquaviva d’Aragona.
The church’s impressive medieval bell tower is from the 1100’s.
The church facade is lovely, and particularly the intricate decor on the portico columns.
The basilica interior is breathtaking and the most outstanding feature is its 9th century mosaic in the apse above the choir. The mosaic shows Christ as the central figure. In his left hand he holds a scroll, symbolic of knowledge. His right hand, with three fingers pointing upwards, signifies the Holy Trinity. Above Christ’s head you see a phoenix, the symbol of everlasting life. To Christ’s left are Saint Paul and Saint Agatha. To Christ’s right are Saint Peter holding his keys, along with Santa Cecilia and her husband San Valeriano.
The gorgeous ciborium or baldachin is by the late 13th century sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio. He is also responsible for the exquisite ciborium found in San Paolo Fuori le Mura.
The nave ceiling vault shows the Coronation of Santa Cecilia, painted by Sebastiano Conca around 1727.
Santa Cecilia was a 3rd century noblewoman from a wealthy senatorial family. From a very young age she took a vow of virginity and pledged herself to God. Despite this her parents married her off, and shortly thereafter Santa Cecilia converted her husband San Valeriano to Christianity. Both became martyrs for refusing to worship Roman gods. An attempt to put Santa Cecilia to death by suffocation in the caldarium was unsuccessful and after several days she was still alive. At this point an executioner was sent to decapitate Cecilia yet even after three strikes of the axe she remained alive. She finally died several days later from the axe wounds.
On Santa Cecilia’s wedding day she supposedly sang heavenly music in her heart as a vow to God. Because of this Cecilia became the patron saint of musicians. The Santa Cecilia feast day is November 22nd. Artistic representations of Santa Cecilia often depict her holding an organ or organ-pipes. A Guido Reni painting in the Bril Chapel of the basilica shows her holding a violin. Many musical compositions are dedicated to Santa Cecilia and Rome’s major concert hall is named after her.
Just in front of the choir is a moving marble sculpture of Santa Cecilia, sculpted by Carlo Maderno. This is Maderno’s master work and it portrays Cecilia just as she was found in 1599 after her exhumation from the Catacombs of San Callisto. Her body lays on its side and her head faces downwards. Santa Cecilia is extending two fingers on her right hand and one on her left symbolizing the Holy Trinity.
There are a number of beautiful side chapels within the Santa Cecilia Basilica that are also generally not open to the public. This sculpture panel is located in a lateral chapel of the Basilica di Santa Cecilia.
This fresco by neapolitan painter Luigi Vanvitelli (1700/73) is one of the only surviving paintings he produced.
In the Cappella Ponziani you’ll find Roman Renaissance jewels like this fresco by Pinturicchio, representing the Holy Father and the evangelists. It was painted between 1485 and 1490.
The Santa Cecilia Basilica’s Bril Chapel was frescoed by Flemish painter Paul Bril in 1512 and 1513. The chapel is just above the ancient Domus that contained the frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium. There are also two Guido Reni paintings in this chapel.
After your visit to the basilica you may feel like a meal! There are many bars and restaurants right near the Santa Cecilia Basilica and one I would suggest is Antica Trattoria da Carlone. Da Carlone is just a four minutes walk from the basilica to Via della Luce, 5. (Tel. 580-0039). Here you can enjoy genuine Roman cuisine at reasonable prices. Be careful: the portions are enormous! Whichever pasta dish you choose (I highly recommend the Carbonara or Cacio e Pepe) only get one order for two to three people. If artichokes are in season be sure to order either the Carciofi all Giulia or Carciofi all Romana. Very few tourists eat at Da Carlone which makes it all the more enjoyable!
If you don’t mind straying further afield then it’s worth your while to take a 22 minute walk to family-owned and operated La Tavernaccia. You can’t go wrong with anything you order here: delicious pizza, pasta, main courses and deserts. The wine list is great as is the atmosphere! It’s a simple walk: Make your way to Via di San Michele and turn left when you reach Piazza di Porta Portese. Turn right onto Via Portuense and after a kilometer continue onto Via Ettore Rolli. At Via Panfilo Castaldi go left, then right onto Via Giovanni da Castel Bolognese until you reach the restaurant at #63.