by Judith Anne Testa
Trastevere has several churches -- like S. Crisogono -- that don't rise to the level of St. Peter's but are still worthy of note.
Despite its well-deserved reputation as Rome's playground, Trastevere also has a spiritual side. The neighborhood hosts more than a dozen churches. A couple are well-known -- Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Cecilia in Trastevere are both large, imposing edifices renowned for their age, their beautiful mosaics and sculpture, and their historical association with Rome's earliest Christian community. But Trastevere has lots of other churches, most of them smaller and not quite so venerable, but well worth visiting.
The easiest to find of all the churches in Trastevere is S. Crisogono, because it's located on the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, Viale di Trastevere, just a few hundred feet south of the Garibaldi bridge that leads across the Tiber from the city center. Like S. Maria and S. Cecilia, S. Crisogono is both a large and a very ancient foundation, but unlike its more famous neighbors, it boasts no stunning works of art. But I don't mean to warn visitors away from S. Crisogono. It's worth visiting if you want to see a working parish church rather than a tourist magnet, with a busy parish office, an outreach program for the poor, and worshipers (mostly but not exclusively older women) hurrying in and out all day, taking a few moments to say a prayer or light a candle.
The church is much older than it looks. Its foundations go back to the fifth century, when it was built over the site of a pre-existing Roman structure. The church was rebuilt in the 1220s, and then again by Giovanni Battista Soria in 1623, at the orders of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, whose name appears on the facade. Like S. Maria, the nave of S. Crisogono is supported by a set of impressive ancient Roman columns, put in place during the rebuilding of the 1220s. The ceiling is bright blue, with ornate gold decoration, and at the center is a lively painting, the Triumph of S. Crisogono, a copy of a work by the famous Baroque artist Guercino. It's sometimes possible to visit the "sotterranei," the subterranean structures beneath the present church. But the information offered in guidebooks -- that all you have to do is ask the sacristan to unlock the door and you'll be free to wander around down there -- is outdated. Due to security reasons (you might be carrying a bomb!) and also concerns for the safety of visitors in these dark places with their damp, irregular surfaces, people are only allowed into the lower levels as part of guided tour groups.
If you cross to the other side of Viale di Trastevere and continue south, you'll reach Via di S. Francesco a Ripa. At the end of that street stands another of Trastevere's lesser-known but interesting churches, from which the street takes its name. The church was built in 1231, replacing an old hospice where St. Francis of Assisi stayed in 1219. The "Ripa" part of the name comes from the church's proximity to the Tiber River and its now-vanished port -- "ripa" is an old Italian word for port. Although the church, which has been rebuilt several times, is not very distinguished in its architecture, it contains a late masterpiece of Gianlorenzo Bernini -- the greatest sculptor of the Roman Baroque. In the left transept is the Albertoni Chapel, site of Bernini's statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, executed 1671-75. Bernini used the pre-existing chapel architecture, but had a hidden window inserted into the back wall, so that a natural spotlight shines on the horizontal form of Ludovica, who writhes in a mystical ecstasy that seems decidedly physical in nature. As you're leaving the church, look into the first chapel to the left of the entrance. There, at the opposite extreme from Bernini's sumptuous memorial to Ludovica, is the simple modern tomb of the noted Italian painter Giorgio di Chirico, who died in 1978.
On the same eastern side of Trastevere, further into the maze of narrow, twisting streets, is S. Maria della Luce, a charming little 18th-century confection of a church. Located near the corner of Via della Lungaretta and Via della Luce, this tiny treasure is also built over a much earlier foundation: a church with the peculiar name S. Salvatore in Corte. Scholars were puzzled by what "court" the name might refer to. The mystery was solved in 1866, when excavations nearby uncovered the barracks of the "Settimo Coorte," or Seventh Cohort of the imperial Roman fire and police brigade! Evidently that now-subterranean structure was still functioning, or at least remembered, at the time the church was founded, probably in the 300s AD.
Maria della Luce as it appears today is the work of an architect named Valvassori, who rebuilt the ancient church in honor of a miracle said to have occurred there in 1730, when a blind man regained his sight while praying in front of a Madonna in or near the church. The man shouted "Luce! Luce!" (Light! Light!) as amazed friends and neighbors gathered around him, and the newly reconstructed church was named for the miracle-working Madonna, which now occupies a place of honor on the church's main altar. In accordance with its name, the church is full of light, and its cream-colored interior adds to its cheerful atmosphere. But despite its welcoming appearance, the church is rarely open. A plaque outside identifies it as the church of the Latin American community of Rome.
Two more notable little churches lie across Viale di Trastevere, in the neighborhood's western sector. S. Dorotea, on the street of the same name, is an often-overlooked masterwork of Giovanni Battista Nolli, an 18th-century architect better known for having produced one of the most detailed and definitive maps of Rome. Nolli rebuilt the 12th-century church around 1750. His concave, cream-colored facade stands out strikingly from the ordinary buildings on either side. The church also has a claim to fame unrelated to its architecture. In 1597, in two small rooms off the sacristy, S. Giuseppe Calasanzio founded the first free school in Europe.
The other church, S. Maria della Scala, is more prominent, as it overlooks the bustling Piazza della Scala, also the site of a primary school, several restaurants, and a famous old pharmacy still run by the Carmelite monks of the adjoining monastery. The church, built between 1592 and 1610, is exceptionally ornate inside, an ambitious and richly decorated building with an astonishing array of marble in glowing shades of orange, red, and yellow, punctuated with bits of black. It's intended to resemble the much larger and grander Il Gesù -- the mother church of the Jesuit order, located in the city center. Older monastic orders like the Carmelites envied the success of the new Jesuit order, founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, and tried to outdo the Jesuits in the decoration of their own churches. Dozens of crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and when they're lit up at night for an evening mass or concert, the effect is spectacular, although thoroughly un-monastic in its splendor.
There are many paintings adorning the altars of the church, but none are outstanding, and that's the monks' own fault. They could have owned a masterpiece. While the church was under construction they ordered a large painting of the Death of the Virgin Mary from Caravaggio, the talented but notorious painter working in Rome in the early 1600s. The painting he delivered created a scandal, because the artist was rumored to have used the swollen body of a dead whore fished out of the Tiber as the model for his figure of the Virgin Mary. As a result, the monks refused the painting. Today, Caravaggio is considered among the greatest of Italian Baroque painters, and his "Death of the Virgin" is one of the treasures of the Louvre in Paris. What the monks of S. Maria della Scala have instead is a forgettable panel of the same subject by an obscure artist named Carlo Saraceni. Talk about missed opportunities!
My brief, armchair tour doesn't include all of Trastevere's churches. There's S. Maria dell' Orto and S. Maria in Capella; S. Callisto and S. Cosimato; Sant' Agata and S. Gallicano; S. Benedetto in Piscinula and S. Giovanni della Malva. And there are no doubt still others I've never heard of, but will stumble on during my next stay in Trastevere. Even this little corner of the Eternal City is inexhaustible.