Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza ☆☆

The courtyard and facade, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome, Italy (Photo by Mstyslav Chernov)
The courtyard and facade

The swirling, curling lanterns atop the dome of this baroque church plays peek-a-boo with pedestrians on the surrounding streets—good thing, as the church itself is hidden in a courtyard

The facade, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome, Italy. (Photo by Fb78)
Borromini's cupola, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome, Italy. (Photo by Tokyorama)
The interior, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome, Italy. (Photo by MM)

Beyond a nondescript doorway halfway along the boulevard that parallels Piazza Navona to the east is a courtyard hiding one of the loveliest baroque churches in Rome, with a soft-serve ice cream cone of a swirling lantern perched atop an oval dome over the concave facade.

Borromini redesigned the courtyard of Giacomo della Porta's Palazzo della Sapienza between 1632 and 1667, surrounding three sides with porticoes and the back with the magnificent curved facade and glowing white drum, dome, and lantern of Sant'Ivo church.

(Palazzo della Sapienza means "palace of knowledge" and this was the seat of Rome's university from the 15th century until the school moved in 1935, originally dedicated to the schools of theology and law during the papal era, home to the philosophy department in the early 1900s, then the school of jursiprudence again until the university decamped to Castro Pretorio in the 30s.)

It's the church you came to see, a geometrically complex and highly influential baroque playground of concave and convex curves is topped by a remarkable spiraling oval latern (atop a shallow dome) that looks an awful lot like soft-serve ice cream and subsequently inspired similar toppers on baroque churches throughout northern Europe.

The interior is nice as well, a lovely, light-filled baroque space with a fine geometric interplay of a triangle and six small circles—the exterior walls follow the concave curve of the circles where they intersect at the triangle's points, but the convex curves of the circles that intersect walfway along each of the three sides. This creates an interior pentagram of alternating curves, leading to an intriguing geometry where the floor plan melds into the equally complex oval of the drum above.

Sadly, the interior of Sant'Ivo is rarely open (just Sunday mornings, and in high summer not at all). However, do not let the church's scandalously brief open hours put you off visiting at all. The best part really is that facade and its unique dome lantern, and it's well-worth popping into the courtyard just for a minute to marvel at it.

If even the courtyard is closed—which, this being part of a government building now, it sometimes is—you can still get peeks of the dome and lantern from some parts of the surrounding neighborhood; see the tip below.

Photo gallery
  • The courtyard and facade, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Italy (Photo by Mstyslav Chernov)
  • The facade, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Italy (Photo by Fb78)
  • Borromini
  • The interior, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Italy (Photo by MM)
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How long does Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza take?

It's really all about seeing the dome and lantern, which takes all of 30 seconds. It's really just a "see it in passing" sort of sight—though worth going out of your way a bit to pass by.

The church itself is rarely open, and not worth bothering, so budget a grand 5–10 minutes for this one—most of which you will spend simply finding it.

How to see it when it's closed

If the building's courtyard is closed, you can still see at least the cool dome lantern, peeking above the Roman rooftops, if you go to the west side of nearby Piazza Sant'Eustachio (home to the famous Caffé Sant'Eustachio coffee shop with fab cappuccino) and look up to the east.

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.).