A musical basilica: St Cecilia in Trastevere

Hello everyone!

We are in the very heart of Trastevere, today I am going to show you one of the most famous churches in Rome: the basilica of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere.

Cecilia is one of the most famous Roman martyrs and her name automatically recalls the idea of music and her choir: she is in fact the patron saint of music, that is why she is always depicted together with a musical instrument.

The church was built on top of her house in Trastevere, which was also the location where she was killed.

Cecilia turned her house into a church in 220.. the church was built in 800 by the Pope Pasquale I, then restored a few times in the 11th century, 1600s and 1700s.. so here we find a mix of everything, from Ancient Rome to almost our modern days!

For example, as we enter the outer portico, on our right we find a boundary stone from Ancient Rome, telling us this is the limit of the city. This stone is from the time of Vespasian (the emperor that started the construction of the Colosseum).

So the stone is telling us that we are at the very border of the city!

As you continue walking in we can see the facade of the church, together with its bell tower. Don’t you notice something strange? The tower is leaning!

In fact the bell tower has suffered some instability of the ground below, due to the Tiber river nearby, and eventually it settled like this. Therefore leaning towers are in Rome too (not just in Pisa eheheh)If we get closer to the church itself we see on the facade another medieval part: the mosaics on the trabeation.. and then the columns which are all different, do you know why?

Because during the Middle Ages (when this church was built on top of Cecilia’s house) the city of Rome was quite poor and there was no workforce to produce new pieces like those (unlike in Ancient Rome!); so they just took columns from ancient Roman buildings that were abandoned or damaged and reused them. This is something you see very often in medieval churches in general.

When you go inside you notice a mix of styles belonging to different eras: the apse covered in mosaics, the wonderful ciborium of Arnolfo di Cambio which are medieval; the rest of the nave has been modified in the 1700s due to the instability of the ground, so the “reused columns that we would expect to find in the central nave, in the 1700s were incorporated and reinforced with the pillars we see today. The general look of the nave is the one of a theatre interior of the 1700s.But my favourite thing about this church is below the altar: the statue of St Cecilia.

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The statue of St Cecilia by Stefano Maderno

I am going to give you a super short version of the legend of Cecilia: Cecilia got married, converted her husband, brother in law, his wife too. She dedicates herself in converting as many people as possible to Christianism.

She was then arrested by the pagan Roman soldiers and condemned to death: she was put in the balnea of her house (which is like our modern saunas) and left there for three days!

When the Roman soldiers three days later went to pick up her dead body.. they found she was still alive.. could you survive for three days in a sauna?? That can only be a miracle!

The Romans did not give up, so they decided to behead her with a sword. You need to know there was a rule about beheading executions: the executioner can give a maximum of 7 hits with his sword to cut a head, no more than 7.

Unfortunately after the 7th hit of the sword, the head of the poor Cecilia was still partially attached to her neck.. so they had to leave her in agony for days.

According to the legend, during her agony she sang and converted more people, she died listening to a pipe organ (I know, it sounds unreal), hence why she is considered the patron saint of the music.

This statue depicts the last moments when she is about to pass away, she turns her head to show us the cut. She has a veil to cover her hair (that is what the first Christian women used to do).

The cleaning and restorations of this statue always took place without removing the statue from this hollow.. but for the last restoration a few years ago the statue was removed from there and the restorers found something incredible..

Even though we are not meant to see it, the face of Cecilia is fully sculpted!

Why? Because behind the statue he placed a super shiny black stone, which was meant to reflect her face when the church is well illuminated.

Centuries later the Pope Pasquale I (who built the church in the 800s) committed to find Cecilia’s body. He eventually found it in the catacombs of St Callisto. With great surprise, the Pope discovered Cecilia’s body, centuries later, was still intact! (another miracle)

Today on the sides of the church there are two seclusion convents (one of the Benedectine nun order, the other of the Franciscan nun order).The nuns here all play in a choir, the famous choir of St Cecilia.

But as they are secluded nuns, they cannot be seen, so they sing behind the metal grids which run all around the upper floor of the nave. They sing up from up there, from where they can see the whole church, but without being seen.

The visit at this fantastic place does not finish here. There are two extras that you can visit for a super cheap 2.50€ ticket each!

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Detail of the Cavallini fresco in the choir balcony

One of them is upstairs, where the choir of the nuns sings without being seen (obviously can only be visited when the nuns are not there!). Here you can admire the medieval frescoes of Cavallini, belonging to the first church, which had been covered with stucco during the later restorations/modernization of the church (how could they??). And it is breathtaking and kind of romantic to imagine how old this is and how lucky we are that it didn’t go lost forever!

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The crypt underneath the basilica

The second extra you get for another 2.50€ ticket is the crypt and the archaeological excavations of the ancient Roman domus (house) of Cecilia. Once you go downstairs (you literally go underground!) you suddenly jump into “Indiana Jones” mode and you are free to explore the cubicles, the corridors, where you find ancient mosaic floors, pools, the atrium of the house of Cecilia and.. the balnea (sauna) in which she was imprisoned for three days! Which is just incredible.

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Ancient Roman house building, where Cecilia lived
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Mosaics of the ancient Roman house where Cecilia lived

This is it from me, now you only need to go and visit this wonderful place!

Did you already know the church of St Cecilia and her story? Did you like it?

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

If you liked this article, share it!

Written by Federica

Creative director of Live Virtual Guide. Her favorite things are gelato, pizza and the hidden gems of Rome.

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