Santa Maria in Trastevere ☆☆

Apse, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, Italy (Photo by kraen)

The oldest church in Rome preserves some its most glorious medieval mosaics

Rome's oldest church dedicated to the Virgin was established before AD 337 on the site of an inn where a well of olive oil sprang from the floor at the precise moment Christ was born (look for this detail in the mosaics of the apse inside).

The current structure was raised in 1140, with a Romanesque bell tower (when I lived a few blocks away in the early 1990s, this was how I measured time, by the quarter-hourly tolling of its bells) and a 12th– to 13th-century mosaic on the facade (lit up at night) of the Madonna and ten women.

Inside Santa Maria in Trastevere

The interior preserves a gorgeous Cosmatesque-like opus sectile floor (which is a fancy way of saying "bits of colored stone pieced together in pleasing patterns"), 21 columns pilfered from nearby ancient buildings, and a 1617 wood ceiling by Domenichino.

Filling the apse are some of Rome's most beautiful mosaics, the half dome picturing Christ and the Madonna (1140) and below that, six scenes from the Life of the Virgin by Pietro Cavallini (1291).

These show the artist's remarkable use of color tones and foreshortening to create depth and facility with expressing character psychology and story line.

The scene of the Gifts of the Magi shows, in the background, the miraculous founding moment of this church with a spring of olive oil gushing from a hillside (note the olive tree for context).

Cavallini was really the only artist in Rome who, as a slightly earlier contemporary of Florence's Giotto, was helping break art from its static Byzantine traditions to plunge it into a vibrant, proto-Renaissance mode. Sadly, few of his large-scale works survive, though you can see some marvelous frescoes in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere and in Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere

The piazza out front is Trastevere's open-air living room, with an ongoing soccer game on the south edge and an ancient Roman fountain at the center (scallop shells added by Carlo Fontana in 1692). The fountain steps are usually occupied by latter-day vagabond minstrels, a bit scruffy but freely sharing their guitar renditions of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Guns and Roses with the crowds.

Photo gallery
  • Apse, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by kraen)
  • The facade and belltower, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
  • The nave, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Philippos)
  • The Cosmatesque floor, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Daryl Mitchell)
  • The nave and 17C ceiling designed by Domenichino, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by
  • The altar end of the church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Ben Skála)
  • The apse and ciborium, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Italy (Photo by Luca Volpi)
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How long does Santa Maria in Trastevere take?

You can wander the church in a quick 20–30 minutes.

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.).