Rome – Churches & Churches & Churches Oh My!

Hi friends, welcome back to my Italy series! When planning our itineraries, I always try to leave our first day in a city flexible to account for any possible delays or issues. So for our first day in Rome, I planned for us to see as many of Rome’s 900 churches as we could squeeze in. While we didn’t make it to all ten or so of the churches on my list, we were always amazed by how relatively modern they looked on the outside compared to how exquisite they were inside. A lot of the churches also have art by famous artists such as Michelangelo and Carravaggio, and the churches are all free to visit. (We threw our coins in the Trevi so I’ll save the other churches for our return trip 😊 )

San Luigi Dei Francesi was the first church we entered and was built in the mid to late 1500s. It is the national church of France in Rome and while the exterior is rather modest, the interior is full of beautiful symbols of French royalty. This includes the fleur-de-lis throughout the church and the ceiling depicts King Louis IX, also known as Saint Louis, going to heaven. There is also a chapel for Saint Louis and Joan of Arc.

The real highlight of this church is the chapel in the far-left corner painted by Caravaggio. Hopefully someone around you has some coins because you have to pay a small donation to have the chapel lit up. It is worth it to see Caravaggio’s masterpieces starting with The Calling of St. Matthew on the left. It is unique because it depicts a holy scene in a down to earth location. This was Caravaggio’s first large scale painting and he completed it when he was 29 years old.

The Inspiration of St. Matthew depicts Matthew writing the Gospel according to Matthew.

It’s hard to see in my picture, but in The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, the bearded face to left of executioner’s shoulder is a self-portrait of Caravaggio.

We then made our way to Piazza Navona, a lively and colorful square near the Pantheon. It was originally a Roman stadium called the Stadium of Domitian (81-96 AD), but most of the buildings are from the 1600s when Pope Innocent X was trying to atone for the church’s prior scandals. There are three fountains in the piazza each depicting a different scene. In the smaller one Neptune is slaying an octopus.


The center fountain, Four Rivers Fountain, was created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and features a giant obelisk surrounded by four statues. The four statues represent the four quarters of the world at the time: Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. There is a joke that Bernini made this man shudder at the Church of Sant’Agnese because it was designed by his former student and rival, but the fountain was created before the church so this isn’t true.

We went Sant’Agnese and perhaps much to Bernini’s dismay, it was beautiful inside. The interior of the church is actually smaller than the exterior. It was built in the mid-1600s for Pope Innocent X to be a family chapel because his palace was located next door. Pope Innocent X’s tomb is inside this church but his old palace is now home of the Brazilian Embassy. Inside there is also the skull of Saint Agnes, who the church was named after. She was martyred on the site of this church.

On our way to another church, we walked by Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Valle, and we saw a lot of people walking in so we figured we should too. This church wasn’t on my original list, but I’m so glad we wandered in, it was gorgeous! Work began in 1590 and was completed in 1650.

The dome was at one point the third largest in Rome and it was painted by Giovanni Lanfranco and Domenichino.

Santa Maria in Aracoeli Church is located on top of Capitoline Hill and where Emperor Augustus allegedly had a premonition of the coming of Mary and Christ standing on an alter in the sky (ara coeli). You can climb up the 125 steep steps to reach the church, but we found our way in through a side entrance. The church dates back to the 500s, but was expanded in the 1200s.

 I loved all of the chandeliers illuminating the nave.

The Church of Sant’Ignazio of Loyola was the last church we saw for the day and was named after Saint Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. It was built in the 1600s and had one of the prettiest ceilings we saw. There is a long line to use the mirror so you don’t have to crane your neck, but we didn’t feel like waiting in a line. The ceiling was painted by Andrea Pozzo and depicts Saint Ignatius (in the center) having a vision of Christ with the Cross. Pictures definitely don’t do this mural justice!

Pozzo also created a false dome on a canvas that is quite realistic until you’re near the alter. A fire destroyed the false dome and it was redone in 1823.

As you can tell, there are so many beautiful churches to see in Rome, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Some of the other churches on my list that we didn’t make it into include the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Church of Gesu, Church of Santa Prassede, and the Church of San Giovanni in Laterno. I’d suggest reading a little about each church you visit beforehand so you don’t miss any of the famous art pieces.

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37 thoughts on “Rome – Churches & Churches & Churches Oh My!

  1. We always thought the French churches and cathedrals were the best, until we went to Italy. The work of the stone masons and artists is superb, even in the smeller lesser known churches. Thanks for sharing Lyssy. Allan

    1. It is amazing how many beautiful churches there are and that even the smaller ones are so detailed. They sure don’t make them like they used to!

      1. So many beautiful photos.
        San Luigi Dei Frances seemed to be more of an art gallery than a church. Do you know if it’s still in use? We’ve never been to Rome but hopefully we’ll get there eventually.

  2. Every church in Italy is beautiful. There are so many to see. The first time we toured Italy I saw so many that by the time we got to the Duomo in Milan, I decided not to go in. But I’m glad we went in on our second trip.

    1. They are so beautiful, but after a while it’s easy to feel “churched” out. I’d love to visit the Duomo in Milan one day, I’m glad you went back and got to see it.

    1. So glad you’re enjoying this series! They are all so beautiful. I’m amazed how they can create the vision in their head on such a large scale.

  3. Sant’Andrea della Valle was literally around the corner from the little hotel where I spent my college year, so you were close! Then a little further on you would’ve found the quaint Campo dei Fiori (where we Americans played Frisbee much to the Italians’ fascination). One of my architecture projects was an analysis of the Church of Santa Maria della Pace, just a few blocks from San Luigi dei Francesi. I still have my presentation drawings. Glad you saw a few Caravaggios; I find his paintings so dramatic. And my fellow students and I spent a lot of time in Piazza Navona because there always seemed to be something going on there, like street markets or live music. Your second photo of the piazza shows Tre Scalini to the right of the church, a place made famous by its scrumptious “tartufo” gelato dessert. Thanks to your coins in the Trevi you’ll have another chance to give it a try 🙂

    1. The Church of Santa Maria della Pace is pretty, I can see how that would make for a good analysis, especially the cloisters. Caravaggio paintings are so dramatic! Piazza Navona is pretty, I like all of the colored buildings and the liveliness. Next time I’ll have to try the tartufo! I’ll have it early in the day so I can still have my Giolitti 🙂

  4. I have few words, but WOW! I’ve never seen these churches presented as beautifully, Lyssy. The first one, San Luigi Dei Francesi, certainly proves that you can’t judge a book by its cover. You did an amazing job of photographing all of the churches. I’m very impressed.

    1. It was always fun going inside because you never knew what to expect. I tried my best to do the churches justice, but they are even more stunning in person!

  5. Gorgeous! I don’t recall having visited those churches while in Rome, but I check out the main basilicas and it’s true the Italians go all-out with the design inside! Truly stunning sites that’d make even the non-believers believe!

    1. I totally agree! The churches are all so amazing from the smaller ones to the main basilicas. I wish they still made churches like that, but they would be outrageously expensive.

  6. One of my favourite things to do when I’m in Italy is to visit the churches because you’re never quite sure what you’ll find. Even the most non-descript looking church down a tiny alley can be home to some jaw-dropping masterpieces. These churches are spectacularly beautiful.

    1. I totally agree, it’s fun stepping inside and not knowing what you’ll see. I can’t believe how many there are either.

  7. I am so impressed with the paintings and gorgeous art on these historic churches in Rome. After reading your series on Italy, I definitely want to visit someday!

    1. They are so stunning! I thought St. Patricks was pretty impressive, but compared to Rome and especially St. Peters it seems rather small.

  8. Thank you for sharing your wonderful trip via lots of beautiful pictures and lovely prose. Yes, the churches are numerous and gorgeous in detail and beauty. We have been to Italy (Rome, Florence and Venice) 3 times in the last decade. It is my favorite country to visit. Everyone should visit Venice! Thank you so much.

  9. The catholic churches across Europe are just so amazing aren’t they. They are undoubtedly beautiful but I do struggle with the opulence created by the wealth of the church at a time when most of the population lived in poverty. That said, they are utterly gorgeous and I’m so glad survived and are preserved. The Piazza Navona brings back happy memories for me….I fell in love with a waiter at a pizza restaurant on the left hand side, and that was a fun holiday romance for me in my younger days hahaha!

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