Santa Cecilia in Trastevere ☆☆

A detail from Pietro Cavallini's amazing late 13C frescoes, hidden in the nun's cloistered loft, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
A detail from Pietro Cavallini's amazing late 13C frescoes, hidden in the nun's cloistered loft

This Trastevere church looks like nothing much... until you pay the nuns to sneak downstairs to see remnants of ancient Rome, or upstairs to see precious frescoes by medieval master Pietro Cavallini

The rather bland, 18th-century interior of this convent church hides the fact that it dates from 820, and contains not only one of the greatest frescoes from late medieval Rome, but also the ruins of a Roman patrician house underneath.

The house —parts which you can still visit underneath the church—was, supposedly, once the home of Saint Cecilia.

The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia
Cecilia was a powerful Roman patrician who was killed in AD 230 for complicated political reasons—most of which had to do with the fact that she was (a) influential, (b) vocal in her politics, and (c) a woman.

Since the Roman prosecutors used her devotion to the then-illegal cult of Christianity as the chief accusation against her, she also became an early martyr of the church.

After locking Cecilia in her own steam room for three days failed to do her in—indeed, Cecilia came out singing, for which she later was declared the patron saint of music—the executioners tried decapitating her.

The three allowed strokes of the axe failed to finish the job however, and Cecilia held on for another three days, slowly bleeding to death and converting hundreds in the process with her show of piety (and this obvious evidence of the power of the God protecting her). 

The bulk of the interior is a yawning dull take on baroque style, but the lovely mosaic in the apse dates from the ninth century, when Pope Paschal I rebuilt the church and brought Cecilia’s body from the catacombs to rebury her beneath the altar.

Under the present altar, with its Guido Reni painting and beautiful Arnolfo di Cambio baldacchino of 1283, lies Stefano Maderno’s touching 17th-century statue of St. Cecilia. She is lying on her side in repose with her face turned from us, a slit across her neck the only sign of her violent death.

Maderno was on hand to make sketches when Cardinal Sfondrati opened the saint's tomb in 1599, and they found Cecilia perfectly preserved under a gold funeral shroud.

The Roman ruins beneath the church

From a door on the left aisle, you can pay a few euro to descend to the basement and wander around those Roman ruins beneath the church (as well as see the odd, riotously decorated crypt under the altar).

This closes half an hour before the church itself.

Be sure afterward to ask the nun on duty if you can please see the “affreschi di Cavallini”—traditionally viewable only during the morngin open hours. (If no one is on duty, ring the bell at the door on the left aisle; you’ll have to pay the nun a few euro to walk you up to the frescoes.)

The Cavallini frescoes hidden upstairs

The 18th-century interior redecorators slapped plaster over most of the bottom half of ★ Pietro Cavallini's masterful Last Judgment on the entrance wall, but had to leave room for a large built-in balcony so that the cloistered nuns could attend Mass unseen.

In doing so, they unintentionally preserved the fresco’s top half, and what remains here of Christ, the angels, and apostles is stunning.

Cavallini painted this in 1293 in a magnificent break from formulaic Byzantine painting, just as his contemporary Giotto was revolutionizing art in central Italy.

For the first time, each character has a unique face and personality, and all are highly modeled with careful shading and color gradients.

Take as much of it in as possible before the nun shoos you back downstairs.

Photo gallery
  • The facade, belltower, and entry courtyard, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Christopher John SSF)
  • The nave, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Warburg)
  • The apse and Arnolfo di Cambio-carved ciborium (1283), Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Mari27454)
  • Stefano Maderno
  • Late 19C medieval-styled crypt, with Neo-Cosmatesque floor, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • A Roman carving found in the ancient Roman house in the crypt, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Lalupa)
  • A room of an ancient Roman house in the crypt, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Lalupa)
  • A room of an ancient Roman house in the crypt, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Lalupa)
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How long does Santa Cecilia take?

I'd plan to spend about 30–45 minutes here if you do the frescoes and the excavations.

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.).