Santa Maria in Aracoeli ☆☆☆

Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome, Italy (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)

The sad story of the Santo Bambino at the Capitoline church

Santa Maria in Aracoeli is an ancient church. It was already old when it was first mentioned in the 7th century, but its current incarnation dates back to the Franciscans and AD 1250, with the thigh-burning 124-step staircase completed in 1348.

Legend holds that the Tiburtine Sibyl told Emperor Augustus that on this lofty spot—today wedged between the Vittoriano and the Capitoline Museums atop the Capitoline Hill—would be an "altar to the first among gods," whereupon the emperor had a vision of the heavens opening up and a woman bearing a child in her arms alight on the hilltop.

Augustus dutifully built an aracoeli, or "Altar in the Sky" up here, but Christians later interpreted the prophecy as a reference to their God and replaced it with a church.

Inside the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli

Up the incredibly steep and seemingly unending staircase—sort of a medieval Stairmaster workout—and past the unfinished facade of rough brick is a Romanesque interior hung with crystal chandeliers and slightly baroqued.

It does, however, retain a Cosmatesque pavement and 22 mismatched antique columns recycled from pagan buildings. The elegant wood ceiling is carved with naval emblems and motifs to commemorate the great naval victory at Lepanto (1571).

The worn tomb of Giovanni Crivelli to the right of the door was cast by Donatello, and the first chapel on the right was frescoed with the Life of St. Bernardino of Siena by Umbrian Renaissance master Pinturicchio, one of his greatest masterpieces. There's also a scrap of a Madonna and Child fresco by Roman medieval master Pietro Cavallini, one of his few surviving works.

The Santo Bambino

To the left of the altar with its 10th-century Madonna d'Aracoeli painting, is the chapel that once housed a highly venerated statue of the baby Jesus called the Santo Bambino.

It was supposedly carved from an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane and imbued with miraculous powers to heal the sick (he spent half his time making the rounds of Rome's hospitals to visit the sickbeds of the terminally ill), and answer the prayers of children. 

The Bambino received thousands of letters from around the world every year—most addressed simply "Santo Bambino, Roma"—which were left in his chapel, unopened, until they were burned so the prayers in them could waft heavenward. Roman children came to recite little speeches or sing poetry in front of the holy little statue, especially at Christmastime. 

The Santo Bambino was stolen in 1994. It has since been replaced by a copy.

Photo gallery
  • , Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)
  • The nave, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by leeherrera_ca)
  • The ceiling, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)
  • The Cosmatesque floor of the Cappella Bufalini, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by Peter1936F)
  • The Cappella Bufalini, frescoed by Pinturicchio in 1486, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by Matthias Kabel)
  • The Cappella Pasquale Baylon, with frescoes by Pietro Cavallini, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by Peter1936F)
  • Donatello
  • The Cappella San Antonio, frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by Peter1936F)
  • The replica of the Santo Bambino, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by Peter1936F)
  • The Madonna Aracoeii, a Byzantine icon from the 10C or 11C, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by Virgendelosremedios)
  • The facade (and Il Vittoriano), Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by Jori Avlis)
  • The chandelier-ringed high altar, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Italy (Photo by sarahtarno)
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How long does Santa Maria in Aracoeli take?

You can wander the church in a quick 20 minutes—plus another 10 just to get up the stairs!

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).