National Catholic Register


The Register’s Jubilee Guide to Rome Resonant Cecilia

The church of music's patron is an oasis of solitude amid the tumult of Trastevere

BY Barbara Coeyman Hults

February 20-26, 2000 Issue | Posted 2/20/00 at 1:00 PM


One of Rome's most evocative pilgrimage routes meanders south from the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere to the church of Santa Cecilia, passing some of the spots where early Christian martyrs lived, prayed and faced death. The neighborhood itself is fascinating, since to this day they resist gentrification and maintain their own rough exuberance. In other words, they are true Romans.

If you leave Piazza Santa Maria (See Jan. 23-29's Catholic Traveler) and walk along Via della Lungaretta, you'll soon see a parish church, Sant'Agata's.

Though guidebooks rarely mention this church, local residents know it well, for it houses the Madonna dei Noialtri (“we others”), patroness of a very lively neighborhood festival in July. Agata (Agatha), patroness of Sicily, suffered a bloody martyrdom, depicted on one of the altars.

Across from Sant'Agata, San Crisogono's 12th-century facade and campanile (restored in the 17th and 19th centuries) are more imposing. Crisogono (Cris-OGG-o-no) himself was arrested in Rome for his Christianity and later beheaded during Diocletian's reign. The early church on this site was mentioned at the council held by Pope Symmachus during the early sixth century and in the letters of Gregory the Great.

Inside you'll see Crisogono's story on the ceiling and in apse frescoes, perhaps encouraging you to offer a prayer for this rarely remembered martyr.

Although the church is not lacking in the dragon-and-eagle symbols of Borghese power (Cardinal Scipione Borghese sponsored the 17th-century restoration), its eighth-century form is recalled in the nave with 22 columns. Cosmati-inlaid floors of colored stones and glass, familiar in 12th-century Roman churches, were added in that later restoration. The Cosmati were a family of marble workers whose genius sparkles on floors and columns throughout the city. From the sacristy you can descend to excavations of the early church, including a wall with eighth-century representations of Gregory III.

The church is located on a major avenue, the Viale di Trastevere, where Romans huddle precariously on traffic-island bus stops while cars, trucks, buses and trams whiz by on either side. A day in Rome's traffic is sometimes like being in Ben Hur.

Francis Was Here

If you cross the Viale di Trastevere (it does have traffic lights) following Via Francesco a Ripa you'll find a church of that name, built over a Benedictine monastery where St. Francis of Assisi stayed when he came to Rome. This Franciscan parish is very active today and services or festivals are apt to be announced on a bulletin board or banners when you get there. Most visitors come to see the fine Bernini sculpture of the Death of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, in what at first seems to be a position of mystic ecstasy similar to that of his famous statue of Santa Teresa of Avila in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. However, the Franciscan Ludovica died of a fever after a life of good works.

Cecilia, a third-century virgin martyr, told her bridegroom of her vow of virginity on their wedding night. Whatever his initial reaction, he was soon converted to Christianity.

According to the noted Bernini scholar Howard Hibbard, it “combines the recumbent tradition of the Santa Cecilia (see above) with Bernini's interest in transitory states: the dying woman revealed above the altar seems to exemplify faith, hope and love of God.”

From here the church of the Madonna dell'Orto (garden) is nearby, along Via Anicia. Built from 1492 to 1577, the church is decorated with Baroque stucco fruits and garlands donated by local guilds during the 18th century. The Madonna dell'Orto on the main altar is an object of veneration; you might want to pray before it. From here follow the Via Madonna dell'Orto till Via San Michele; turn left until you reach the garden in front of Santa Cecilia. Local women are often sitting about here watching over baby carriages and strollers.

Santa Cecilia is patroness of music, an honor inspired by the legend of her listening to a heavenly choir while her wedding march was being played on an organ, and singing during her martyrdom. This building was constructed over the house where she lived with her husband, Valerian. Cecilia, a third-century virgin martyr, told her bridegroom of her vow of virginity on their wedding night.

Whatever his initial reaction, he was soon converted to Christianity. Refusing to offer sacrifices to pagan gods and continuing to use their home for evangelization (more than 400 were baptized there by Pope Urban, according to one account), the couple were killed.

The legend of Santa Cecilia holds that she was tortured by being locked in the hot-steam room (caldarium) of their home (aristocrats, they had Roman baths beneath their home). After three days, she not only wasn't dead, but was singing to the Lord. The soldiers then struck her neck with a sword three times but she still lingered for three days before dying. From the church one can enter the steam bath excavations, where lead pipes can be seen.

The next miracle occurred during the ninth century, when she appeared to Pope Paschal in a dream and told him where she was buried: in the catacombs of San Callisto, where her tomb can still be seen. The Pope and others attested to the perfect condition of her body when exhumed and then reburied her at the church. Her sarcophagus was forgotten again for about 750 years, to be rediscovered in 1599, the saint's body still intact. This time the sculptor Maderno made a sketch of the position of her body, and to him we owe the hauntingly beautiful white statue of her under the altar. Her head, turned away from us, shows the sword marks on her neck, and her fingers symbolizing the Trinity, three extended on one hand, one on the other. The elegant ciborium around her is a masterpiece of Arnolfo di Cambio (1293).

Hitting the High Notes

The Last Judgment, the famous but damaged 13th-century fresco of Pietro Cavallini, can be seen in the convent only from 10:30 a.m. to noon on Tuesday and Friday. The artist knew Roman frescoes and those of Giotto, and his work (also in Santa Maria in Trastevere) has a vitality that comes from them, rather than from the more formal Byzantine past. I have been reading a fascinating account of it in art historian John White's Art and Architecture in Italy 1250-1400, in the Pelican series. Now I want to go back to see all I missed during earlier visits. (I was always so moved by Cecilia's statue that I saw little else.)

White describes the perfect balance of this long horizontal, achieved by turns of heads and draped fabrics coupled with subtle repetitions of color “enlivened by contrast with the outward-facing symmetry of the trumpeting angels in the zone below.” It's a symphony for him of drumbeats (the major compositional elements) and woodwinds (the individual drapery forms and figure poses). The nuns sing Mass and vespers on Sunday in Gregorian chant, and vespers on some weekdays.

The buildings on either side of the basilica are convents. Sisters of a cloistered Benedictine order have a special task. Each year, two lambs decorated with ribbons and flowers are given them from the Convent of Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura (outside the walls).

The nuns care for the lambs until the next Easter, when their delicate wool is woven into long strips that are taken to the Vatican and kept beneath St. Peter's main altar.

The Pope grants its use to archbishops and patriarchs, who only then wear this pallium, a narrow circular band of wool, with hanging strips front and back, marked with dark purple crosses.

From here, if you walk to the left along Via Vascellari (Va-SHELL-ári), at No. 61 you will find the former home of Santa Francesca Romana, now part convent, part hostel. Tours of the saint's quarters are rarely given, however, but the young men at the desk may let you see the courtyard. (A church dedicated to her is found near the Forum, at Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana.)

From here another left will take you to an enchanting sight: the slender, delicate Romanesque campanile (12th to 13th century and still standing) of the church of San Benedetto. According to tradition, St. Benedict lived in the original structure on this site, and his cell, now an altar, can be seen if someone will open it for you. On the porch a 13th-century fresco depicts Benedict, father of monasticism.

Here in the smallest Romanesque basilica in Rome, you can enjoy (usually) the sanctity of the ancients. It's a good place to remember the martyrs who have made our faith possible through the ages.

The adjoining piazza in Piscinula (Pee-sheé-NOO-la), medieval aspects, recently restored, continues the charm of the area. Now you're at the Tevere (Tiber) and can cross back into the center of Rome.

Barbara Coeyman Hults, a former resident of Rome, is based in New York.


Near Santa Maria in Trastevere, along Via San Francesco a Ripa, you'll find several pizzerias and a pastry shop whose wares would tempt a saint. Mornings there is an open-air market at Piazza San Callisto, farther along to the west. For a more substantial meal, the old reliable Mario's, who have made meals for artists and students through the years (closed Sunday, on Via del Moro 53), or the charming Il Fontanone (closed Tuesdays) in Piazza Trilussa (at the Ponte Sisto) are good and not too expensive.