Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

The basilica where medieval Rome unfolded its violent, messy drama

On my first few visits to Rome, the first port of call was always the Campidoglio, Michelangelo’s urban masterpiece on the Capitoline Hill. It epitomised the rich, multi-layered history which drew me to Italy’s capital in the first place: three harmonious, complementary Renaissance palaces, two of them museums crammed with antique statuary, in a trapezoid piazza at the centre of which stands the ancient equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (for centuries misidentified as Constantine). The philosopher Emperor and his horse sit upon an oval pedestal facing the Vatican. Beneath him, in the pavement, is an elaborate twelve-pointed star, identifying the site as the Caput Mundi – the head of the world.  

The church hiding behind the palace on the left of the piazza, Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, was a mere curiosity. In comparison to the elegant harmony of the Campidoglio, the plain façade of Ara Coeli held no charisma. The Campidoglio was the ceremonial summit of the ancient city, the endpoint of all triumphal processions. It had the riches of the Capitoline Museums and a panoramic view of the Forum – humanism, antiquity and intellectual vigour embodied in the open expanse of the space and the graceful, well-proportioned buildings within it. Ara Coeli was a gigantic bulk: medieval and monolithic, and representative of the brutal, introspective and intensely religious spirit of its era. These neighbouring sites were for me more welcome evidence of the evolution of style from the Romanesque to the Renaissance. Besides, Ara Coeli was only reached by climbing a foreboding staircase of 124 steps. As set against the expansive slope of Michelangelo’s Cordonata, it was no contest.

The long climb to Ara Coeli, with its twentieth-century neighbour, the Vittoriano, impinging on it from the left.

Looking back at my callow assessment, I recognise the validity of the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The Campidoglio does indeed represent all of those glorious things, and it is true that Ara Coeli, when compared with such a location, cannot match its grandeur or provoke the equivalent elevation of the senses as Michelangelo’s piazza. And, yes, Ara Coeli is indeed a medieval, religious building (what a keenly insightful mind I possessed). But how could I consider Ara Coeli monolithic when the very epitome of such a description – the Vittoriano – was squatting vaingloriously next door? As I read more about Rome’s history, I found that Ara Coeli had stories of its own to rival its newer neighbours on the Capitoline. Linking antiquity and pagan Rome to its Papal and Republican antecedents, the church had witnessed some of the most colourful events in the city’s long history. On top of this, it had (and still has) a strong connection with the civic life of Rome and remains today the official church of the Senate and the Roman People (SPQR). Earlier this year, I paid it an overdue visit and completed my reassessment.

The counter-façade. Like many Roman basilicas, each decorative element is vigorously competing for your attention.

The current church is a basilica, built in the thirteenth century by the Franciscans. A Benedictine abbey had previously occupied the site as Sanctae Mariae in Capitolio from the early tenth century, moving into what had been a Greek monastery. Elements of the Benedictine church were incorporated into the new basilica along with other spolia, including the 22 columns inside that vary in form, some adorned with frescos (below). The church’s name Ara Coeli (Altar of Heaven) is said to derive from a vision revealed to the Emperor Augustus of the Madonna and Child emerging from Heaven, a story taken from a twelfth-century guidebook to Rome, Mirabilia Urbis Romae, though it is possibly older.

The first thing one does upon entering is look up. On the coffered ceiling are magnificent gilded wooden beams built in celebration of the victory over the Ottoman Empire by the Papal States and its allies at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The admiral of the Papal forces was Marcantonio Colonna, who had captured the Turkish flagship during what was the biggest naval battle since antiquity; Colonna’s conduct at Lepanto was marked in Rome with a triumphal procession that culminated in the church. When Colonna entered Ara Coeli during the celebrations, he would have been greeted immediately to the right of the main entrance by one of the masterpieces of the church, the Bufalini chapel, completed nearly a century earlier. It contains frescos of the life of St. Bernardine of Siena by Pinturicchio (who was in Rome having worked on the Sistine Chapel) on the chapel’s walls. On the vault are depicted the Evangelists, foreshortened to great effect, hovering above the Cosmatesque floor.

Bufalini Chapel
The Bufalini Chapel, one of the most beautiful in the church with its Cosmatesque floor and cycle of frescos by Pinturicchio, completed in the late-fifteenth century.

These elaborate Cosmatesque patterns are found throughout the church, interspersed in the nave with marble tombs; other tombs are built into the walls, including the Florentine Cecchino dei Bracci, the teenage pupil of Michelangelo with whom the great artist was besotted. Michelangelo wrote forty-two epigrams upon Cecchino’s death and designed the boy’s elegant tomb (Cecchino is interred near the side entrance to Ara Coeli accessed from the Campidoglio). A small room to the left of the altar holds the Bambino of Ara Coeli, a replica of a wooden statue of the boy Jesus, carved from olive wood taken from the Garden of Gethsemane. The original inspired widespread devotion for its alleged healing powers before it was pointlessly stolen in 1994. It had been under threat before, when during the short-lived Roman Republic of 1798–1799 it was nearly thrown on a fire, before the statuette was saved from destruction by Serafin Petracha. Ara Coeli at this juncture was serving as a stables, having been deconsecrated by the invading French forces. The church’s Baroque altar was built earlier that century. At its centre is a tenth century Byzantine icon of the Madonna, which was carried through Rome’s streets in gratitude to the city being relatively unafflicted by the Black Death that struck Europe in 1348; a more practical commemoration of Rome’s gratitude for this good fortune is the monumental staircase outside.

And it is via the steps that one can make the more grandiose entrance to Ara Coeli, the imposing façade rising up before you. Much of the drama of medieval Rome took place on and around this staircase. The material for the staircase, like the columns inside the church, was repurposed from ancient buildings. In the Middle Ages the stairs were a stage upon which Roman’s held political debates and conducted speeches; one individual more than any other that is associated with this spot is Cola di Rienzo, a demagogue who seized power in Rome in 1347 in the absence of the Papacy, which had relocated to Avignon in 1309. Cola was a champion of the people, who, in his passionate public speeches, reminded them that they were the heirs of an unmatched civilisation whose monuments lay in their midst. Cola exploited the vacuum left by the Papacy, declaring himself Tribune of the people in 1347, seeking to restore honour and prestige to the once great city.

The pope’s lukewarm endorsement somehow added fuel to Cola’s messianic idea of himself as the Saviour of Rome.

He had a formidable task ahead of him, as Rome was in a dreadful state. The Lateran palace, formerly the home of the popes, had suffered major destruction in a fire in 1307. This, in combination with the constant battles between rival families in Rome vying for supremacy, meant that the city was not deemed a suitable home for the Church. The wretched state of the Lateran was embodied elsewhere, in the decaying monuments and roaming brigands. And so the Curia, under the tutelage of Phillip IV of France, settled at the enclave of Avignon. The Church had left Rome and Italy: the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ (1309–1378) had begun. In the Church’s absence, further decline set in:

Rome’s patrician families, bereft of any master, fought each other in the streets…retainers and mercenaries camped amidst dusty ruins and in the deserted houses of cardinals; and priests, many of them related to the belligerent factions, joined in the quarrels and paraded through the streets with daggers and swords. Lawlessness was unbounded.[1]    

This, to a man who had fantastic notions of what Rome should aspire to, was the first error to correct so as to restore the city to its former glory. In 1343 Cola, then 30, had left Rome and travelled to Avignon in an attempt to persuade the pope to return to the city, then at the mercy of the warring Orsini and Colonna families and their armed representatives. He apparently impressed Clement VI enough for the Pontiff to proclaim a Holy Year in 1350, and was assured that he would visit the city in due course. The pope’s lukewarm endorsement somehow added fuel to Cola’s messianic idea of himself as the saviour of Rome. On his return to the city, he told the assembled crowds that a statue should be set up of the pope, either in the Colosseum or on the Capitoline. More pressingly, he declared that he would save Romans from the misery and hardship to which aristocratic factions had subjected them.

Cola in heroic pose on the Capitoline [Source: Wikimedia Commons, Jbribeiro1]

On Whitsun 1347 Cola proved true to his word. With a swarm of admirers and followers, he left Sant Angelo in Pescheria and marched the short distance to the Capitoline whilst the church bells rang to proclaim his accession to power. From there, dressed in full armour, he informed the crowd that a parliament was to be assembled that would immediately curtail the incessant conflict amongst the Roman nobility, and measures introduced to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Romans. Cola was proclaimed dictator and ‘Illustrious Redeemer of the Holy Roman Republic’. He was initially successful in uniting the people against the noble Roman families, but in the age-old manner, the populist succumbed to his own idea of his infallibility. His behaviour became increasingly alarming, dressing sumptuously in public and proclaiming himself ‘Candidate of the Holy Spirit’, and the pope and the people lost patience with his pomposity and undelivered promises. The pope branded him a heretic and so Cola, his time running out, had no choice but to abandon power, sobbing as he descended from the Capitoline on 15 December 1347.

Within three years he was back, under the guardianship of a new, more sympathetic pope, Innocent IV. Rome had fallen into an even worse state in Cola’s absence following terrible earthquakes in September 1348 that had damaged the Colosseum and Lateran. The nobility had shed any last vestiges of respectability and established armed troops in their respective rioni. The Holy Year, 1350, was approaching. Perhaps Cola, with his energy, enthusiasm and exalted oratory, could breathe new life into the city. Though he was welcomed back warmly, Cola’s return was disastrous; bloated physically, his mind had withered to a pathetic, emaciated state. In October, a crowd gathered at Cola’s home near the Ara Coeli steps, its patience exhausted at the imposition of high taxes. After an unsuccessful attempt to quell the mob from his balcony, Cola hastily shaved his beard, put on a cloak and attempted to escape. His rings, however, which he had failed to dispose of, gave him away: he was seized and killed near the foot of the Ara Coeli steps. His head was then cut off and his body dragged to the Colonna stronghold near the Corso. His headless corpse was hung near the church of San Marcello for two days.

Cola’s association with the site of his speeches and of his execution is still apparent, thanks to political circumstances during the Risorgimento. It was during this period of tumult that Cola’s reputation underwent an unlikely resurrection. As Tribune of the city, he had attempted to bring together the Italian peninsular under the rubric of Rome in the fashion of the ancient Empire. Hence he was one of the much-needed historical figures that the Kingdom of Italy could draw upon to stress how far back the yearning for Italian unity went. In 1887, nearly two decades after unification was achieved, a bronze statue of Cola by Girolamo Masini was erected on the small plot of grass separating the Cordonata from Ara Coeli’s staircase.

Ara Coeli hemmed in by the Vittoriano, on the left, and on the right, Michelangelo’s Campidoglio.

By the time Cola’s statue was installed work had already began next door to Ara Coeli on the construction of gigantic national monument to King Victor Emmanuel II. To make room for the monstrosity, the crowded streets around the church and the hill were flattened, including Ara Coeli’s medieval friary. Despite such threats, the church still stands rooted on the Capitoline’s summit, exactly where it was handed to the Franciscans in 1249 by the pope. A year after the Franciscans took possession of the site, one of Europe’s finest churches, Notre Dame of Paris, had its spectacular north rose window installed. The misery at having to witness Notre Dame go up in flames is a reminder that such buildings are irreplaceable. We should honour and praise them with greater endeavour.


[1] Hibbert 1985: 97


Hibbert, C. 1985. Rome: The Biography of a City. London.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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