Duane McLaughlin

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore: Everything You Need to Know

Immerse yourself in the grandeur and religious heritage of Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore dominating the piazza


Did you know that Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore is home to one of the oldest and most beautiful churches in Rome? The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, also known as Santa Maria delle Nevi (Saint Mary of the Snows), is a stunning example of early Christian art and architecture, with dazzling mosaics, frescoes, and relics. In this article, we will explore the origins, historical significance, lesser-known stories, intriguing facts, and dark histories of this fascinating piazza and its basilica.

Historical Context

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore is located on the Esquiline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome. The name of the piazza comes from the basilica that dominates it, which was built in the 5th century by Pope Sixtus III. According to a legend, the basilica was founded after a miraculous snowfall on August 5th, 352, when the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to a wealthy couple and to Pope Liberius, asking them to build a church on the spot where they would find snow. The next morning, they found a patch of snow on the Esquiline Hill, despite the summer heat, and marked the outline of the church with it. The basilica was then dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, and later became known as Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major) to distinguish it from other churches dedicated to Mary in Rome.

The basilica has been renovated and expanded over the centuries, but it still preserves its original structure and some of its ancient mosaics. The basilica is one of the four papal basilicas in Rome, along with Saint Peter's, Saint John Lateran, and Saint Paul Outside the Walls. It is also one of the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome, where pilgrims can obtain a plenary indulgence during the Holy Year. The basilica is also the seat of the archpriesthood of Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko, who is appointed by the Pope.

The piazza in front of the basilica has also witnessed many historical events and changes. In 1613, Pope Paul V erected a column with a statue of the Virgin Mary on top, which was taken from the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum. The column is known as the Colonna della Pace (Column of Peace), because it was erected after a peace treaty between Spain and Savoy. The column is also decorated with bronze reliefs depicting scenes from the life of Mary. In 1675, Pope Clement X commissioned Carlo Fontana to design a fountain for the piazza, which is still functioning today. The fountain has four basins and four lions spouting water from their mouths. The piazza also hosts several palaces and buildings that date back to different periods, such as Palazzo Colonna Barberini (17th century), Palazzo del Viminale (19th century), and Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (20th century).

Architectural Features

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the most impressive examples of Roman architecture, blending different styles and periods. The basilica was founded in the 4th century, but underwent several renovations and additions over the centuries. The façade facing the piazza was designed by Ferdinando Fuga in the 18th century, in a Baroque style. The bell tower, on the other hand, is the tallest and oldest in Rome, dating back to the 12th century, and has a Romanesque style. The interior of the basilica is richly decorated with mosaics, frescoes, sculptures, and paintings, some of which are masterpieces of early Christian and Renaissance art.

The most striking feature of the basilica is the mosaic floor, which covers the entire nave and transept. The floor was made in the 12th century, using a technique called cosmatesque, which involves inlaying marble and glass pieces in geometric patterns. The floor is a stunning example of medieval craftsmanship and symbolism, as it incorporates motifs such as crosses, stars, flowers, animals, and scenes from the Old Testament.

The apse of the basilica is dominated by a large mosaic depicting the Coronation of the Virgin Mary by Christ, surrounded by angels and saints. This mosaic was commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV in the 13th century, and is one of the earliest representations of this theme in art. The apse also contains a relic of great importance for Christians: the Holy Crib, which is said to be part of the manger where Jesus was born. The relic is kept in a crystal urn under the altar, where a statue of Pope Pius IX kneels in reverence.

The triumphal arch that separates the nave from the apse is adorned with another series of mosaics, dating back to the 5th century. These mosaics depict scenes from the life of Christ and Mary, such as the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Presentation at the Temple. The mosaics are remarkable for their vivid colors, expressive figures, and narrative details.

On the right side of the nave, there is a chapel dedicated to Pope Sixtus IV, also known as the Sistine Chapel. This chapel was built in the 15th century, and contains some of the finest frescoes of the Renaissance period. The frescoes were painted by artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, Perugino, and Pinturicchio, and depict scenes from the life of Moses and Christ.

Iconic Buildings

The piazza in front of the basilica is also home to some iconic buildings that add to its charm and history. One of them is the Column of Peace, which stands in the center of the square. The column was erected in 1614 by Pope Paul V Borghese, to celebrate the end of a plague that had afflicted Rome. The column is made of red granite, and is topped by a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary holding a dove.

Another notable building is the Palazzo delle Colonne (Palace of Columns), which is located on the right side of the façade. The palace was built in the 16th century by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who later became Pope Paul III. The palace owes its name to its distinctive portico with six columns, which was added in 1643 by Pope Urban VIII Barberini. The palace was used as a residence for popes and cardinals until 1929, when it became part of Italian territory under the Lateran Treaty.

On the left side of the façade, there is another palace that belongs to Italian territory: Palazzo del Vicariato (Palace of Vicariate). This palace was built in 1931 by architect Cesare Bazzani, who incorporated elements from different historical periods to create a harmonious ensemble. The palace houses offices of various ministries and agencies of Italy.

Tips and Recommendations

If you want to visit Santa Maria Maggiore and enjoy its beauty and history, here are some tips and recommendations:


Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the most beautiful and important churches in Rome, as well as one of the four major basilicas of the Catholic Church. It is a treasure trove of art and architecture, spanning from the ancient to the modern times. It is also a place of devotion and worship, where you can admire the venerated image of Salus Populi Romani and the relic of the Holy Crib. Whether you are interested in religion, culture, or history, Santa Maria Maggiore is a must-see attraction in Rome.