Seven Must-See Spots in Rome Where You’ll Want to Tilt Your Head Back. From Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to the Temples of the 21st Century.
The ancient city, built on seven hills, requires careful attention to your feet — on the remnants of Emperor Augustus’ Rome and the forums, the legendary sewer covers ‘Senatus Populusque Romanus’ (S.P.Q.R. – ‘The Senate and People of Rome’ in Latin) and the uncleaned traces of local residents’ beloved pets. Meanwhile, a significant part of Rome’s attractions are located above: the frescoes of Raphael and Michelangelo, the vaults of Richard Meier, and the paintings of Andrea Pozzo.
We tell you about the ceilings, vaults, and domes that are definitely worth including in your walking tour of Rome!
The Encouraging Sistine Chapel
Even though Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican are shown to all tourists in every guidebook, our selection would be incomplete without them. Moreover, this is an extra opportunity to remind you of the importance of planning your visit in advance. To avoid the queues, we recommend purchasing tickets to the Vatican Museums online and arriving at opening time. By the way, there will be fewer visitors on weekdays. This allows you to save a couple of hours in line, which can be better spent, for example, strolling through the Papal Gardens. An online ticket to the Sistine Chapel costs 22 euros, while buying on-site costs 17 euros.
The Sistine Chapel is part of the Vatican’s internal structures, a former and now inactive house church, built in the last third of the 15th century by order of Pope Sixtus IV. From an architectural point of view, it’s all quite straightforward: a small rectangular building made of smooth stone resembles a defensive tower. However, the patron did not skimp on decoration. The chapel was painted by the most famous artists of that time: Sandro Botticelli and Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, as well as their team of assistants.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was brought in to paint the chapel’s frescoes in the 1510s, when the original vault decorations needed restoration. In the interpretation of the 16th century and Pope Julius II, this meant painting over and redoing them. According to an unconfirmed legend, it was the architect Donato Bramante, a longtime rival of Buonarroti, who persuaded the Pope to engage Michelangelo, hoping to prove his incompetence.
Despite Michelangelo’s attempts to decline the papal commission (at that time, he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter), he was compelled to paint the chapel — first the ceiling, and then one of the walls. The grandiose cycle of the Creation of the World on the vaults and the dramatic ‘Last Judgment’ on the altar wall became among the most important works of Italian Renaissance art. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel illustrates stories from the Book of Genesis, related to the creation of man and his subsequent sin. God creates the sun, the planets, Adam and Eve, and then punishes the latter for their weakness to temptation.
It sounds beautiful, but unclear? Let’s look at it specifically. The study of the chapel should start with identifying the figure of God: look for the elder in pink, who sometimes holds the clouds, sometimes conjures the sun. All according to the text of the book: ‘And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.’ Agree, not the easiest scenario to depict! Once you find the sun, you will easily move on to the most famous fragment (as specific to this ceiling, and perhaps of all world culture) – the creation of man. A semi-naked Adam stretches out his hand to his creator, whose touch will give him life and meaning. The figure of God is surrounded by numerous witnesses of the miracle. According to one version, under the elder’s left arm, Eve and her unborn children are peeking out. Some researchers among the divine ‘extras’ recognize the Virgin Mary, Sophia the Wisdom of God, and sometimes – the human soul.
The fresco ‘The Last Judgment’ on the altar wall was painted by the artist almost 30 years later. Equally genius, it is, however, noticeably less optimistic. It reflects the experience, age, life’s blows, and shattered hopes of the artist. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, created by the then-young master, bears the imprint of humanistic faith in the possibility of redemption and that man is made in the image of God. The wall, however, speaks of the inevitability of retribution for sins.
On the 12-meter-high wall, Christ judges humanity. The most fortunate souls ascend to heaven, while sinners are destined for hell. According to one legend, the artist even included himself in the scene — if one can say so about the human skin in the hands of Saint Bartholomew, in which some see Michelangelo’s self-portrait. ‘The Last Judgment’ provoked mixed reactions from contemporaries even before its full completion. The nudity of the figures particularly outraged theologians, which, by the demand of Pope Pius IV, was later painted over by Michelangelo’s student Daniele da Volterra. The creator of ‘The Judgment’ himself did not surrender without a fight — thus, one particularly active opponent of the nude sinners was included in the composition by Michelangelo, complementing the portrait with donkey ears.
Earthly and Heavenly Love in the Frescoes for the Villa Farnesina
Equally significant but for some unknown reason slightly less popular, the ceiling impresses with frescoes based on sketches by Raphael.
The Villa Farnesina, now functioning as a public museum, was built in the early 16th century by order of the banker Agostino Chigi. It is located on the west bank of the Tiber in the center of Rome. It’s much easier to get there than to the Vatican, although it’s still better to come in the morning and buy a ticket online.
The most famous space of the villa, the Loggia of Psyche, was painted in the 1510s based on Raphael’s designs by a group of his students. The basis for the fresco cycle was chosen to be the romantic story of the love between the god Cupid and the human woman Psyche. According to the myth, which has come down to us in the 2nd century text ‘Metamorphoses’ by Lucius Apuleius, the extraordinary beauty of the princess Psyche aroused the envy of Aphrodite. To punish the girl for her audacity, the goddess orders her son Cupid, who commands passion and attraction on Earth, to make the girl fall in love with the most lowly of men. However, the hero himself falls in love with Psyche. Forgetting his fear of his mother, he steals the beauty and makes her his wife, but appears in the chambers of his chosen one only in complete darkness, not allowing her to look at him. Psyche, unable to control her curiosity and wishing to gaze upon her husband, leans over the sleeping Cupid with a lamp, from which hot oil spills. Burned and offended, the god disappears, and the girl is doomed to long wanderings and trials until Zeus consents to her reunion with her beloved.
For the decoration of the villa, Raphael chose a life-affirming theme associated with the happy ending of the story of Cupid and Psyche. In two of the ceiling frescoes, the wedding feast among the gods is depicted, as well as the solemn reception of Psyche on Olympus.
By the way, if you are slightly disappointed by the fact that Raphael only devised the painting program and the actual work was carried out by his students, don’t rush to return your tickets! In the adjacent room, the modest fresco ‘Triumph of Galatea,’ whose main character — the nymph Galatea — is painted by Raphael himself, quietly awaits your attention.
The 16th-Century 3D Effect in the Church of Il Gesù
The cathedral church on Piazza del Gesù is known as the burial place of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus of the Roman Catholic Church. For the modern visitor, it is noteworthy as one of the first structures built according to the canons of the Council of Trent and became a model for other Roman churches. According to the 16th-century instruction issued by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, church architecture was to be unified and serve as one of the tools of religious propaganda. All churches were to be built on an elevation and with strict symmetry, where the main altar is placed directly opposite the main entrance (necessarily with rectangular, not arched doors). The interior space of the building should be spacious enough to freely accommodate all believers.
Il Gesù, built by Giacomo della Porta and Giacomo da Vignola, is characterized by strict symmetry, a wide dome space, and a recognizable (very Italian) facade with a triangular pediment. The most important accent in Jesuit church architecture is the space in front of the altar (the crossing — the part of the cross where the two lines intersect).
The central nave of the church is adorned with the painting ‘The Triumph of the Name of Jesus’ by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, creating the illusion of soaring clouds. The trompe-l’œil effect, much beloved in the Baroque era, is highly valued for its mastery of optical illusion. It allowed the artist to mask the engineering structure of the building, the supporting columns and vaults, and instead fill the ceiling with clouds exceeding the boundaries of the dome, flying saints, and rays of the sun.
A pleasant innovation in Italian churches that will delight fans of original selfies: right in the center of the main nave, there is a mirror that not only makes it easy to see all the details of the decoration but also allows for several impressive shots. For a complete aesthetic ecstasy, you can throw a couple of euros into the nearest donation box and turn on the dome’s lighting for a few seconds.
The Fake Dome in Sant’Ignazio
Another optical illusion is hidden inside Sant’Ignazio, a later Jesuit church. Let’s skip the description of the facade — it is very similar to the Church of Il Gesù, which again proves the thesis about how the Council of Trent set a certain pattern in church architecture.
The ceiling painting ‘The Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius’ represents not only the triumph of Saint Ignatius but also the Baroque deception of trompe-l’œil. Upon entering the church, the viewer is confronted with arches and colonnades receding into the sky, floating figures of saints, and angels resting on clouds. Real and painted architecture intertwine with each other, transitioning from one to the other, and completely depriving the ability to distinguish truth from illusion.
The creator and executor of the painting was the artist Andrea Pozzo, who was also the architect of the church and the author of the treatise ‘Perspectiva Pictorum et Architectorum’, one of the first self-teaching guides on the theory of perspective in images.
Characteristically, when the funds for a dome at the Sant’Ignazio church ran short during its construction, Pozzo simply painted it. And we’re not talking about modest decorations, but a full-fledged deception that many mistake for a real dome. To best experience the illusion, one should stand on the marble circle on the church floor. This spot is marked as the point from which the most breathtaking view unfolds.
The Heavenly Rotation in Sant’Andrea della Valle
- Address: Piazza Vidoni, 6
- Entrance: Free
- Website: Not available
At this stage of Roman walks, a tourist already feels so seasoned that they hardly expect a miracle from yet another church. Nonetheless, the dome with frescoes by Giovanni Lanfranco, a student of the legendary Carracci brothers, usually surprises. Especially since it is this less-known church that chronologically begins the story of the Italian trompe-l’oeil frescoes of the 17th century.
The composition ‘The Glorification of Paradise’ was executed in the 1620s, making it an example of early Baroque illusionism. The frescoes in Il Gesù and Sant’Ignazio were completed in the 1670s and 1690s, respectively. Under the dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle, countless figures are depicted, arranged in concentric circles, leading the viewer’s gaze to an illusory point beyond the church. Bodies transforming into a mass of light move endlessly in a spiral, illustrating not so much a specific story as an emotional experience — ecstasy in the face of eternity.
Alongside Lanfranco, Domenichino also worked on the decoration of Sant’Andrea della Valle, to whom the painting of the cornices with images of the Evangelists (four figures under the dome) is attributed. After admiring the rotations of ‘paradise’, compare the approaches of the two artists to depiction. In this juxtaposition, there is everything — the conflict between tradition and innovation, classical form and Baroque expression, clarity and effect. The two poles, represented by the measured Domenichino and the decorative Lanfranco, provide a concise yet poignant commentary on the question of the history of Italian art in general, which moved towards liberating feeling from the strict confines of ideal classical form.
Contemporary Church Architecture on the Outskirts of the City
Together with American architect Richard Meier, we make a sharp leap into the 21st century and move from the center of Rome to the outskirts of the city. This is the destiny of a city with a thousand-year history — to find modernity, one must travel with two transfers and walk across a football field.
But such difficulties are worth it. Especially since the Dio Padre Misericordioso church was built by a Pritzker Prize laureate, a successor to the ideas of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The architect, known for his adherence to white color, built a single-naved church in the 2000s on the outskirts of Rome, the main space of which is ’embraced’ by sails of reinforced concrete. The entire building is permeated with natural light, interrupted only by a wooden crucifix — the only element of the church’s interior decoration.
Captivated by purist ideals, Richard Meier balances between succinct, even ascetic design, and original formal solutions. The church lacks dramatic frescoes, but in their place are impressive forms of curved walls, whose shadows slice the space into even geometric figures. Here, one must look upward — despite being completely at odds with the canons of the Council of Trent. Meier leads the visitor to God through light, shadows, and reflections of sunlight on the white roof panels.
And a must-see for the world capital by Zaha Hadid
In 2010, Rome opened its first independent museum of contemporary art in the Italian capital, MAXXI. The project astonishes with its figures — 27,000 square meters accommodating exhibitions, a lecture hall, workshop areas; 150 million euros for implementation; the largest project to date by architect Zaha Hadid at the time of its opening.
The architect had several important tasks. The building had to integrate into the surrounding historic urban fabric of the Flaminio district, offer curators freedom in creating exhibition projects, and make maximum use of natural light. As a result, the architect presented an L-shaped structure, consisting of several independent forms. It seems as if the building grew organically, gradually solidifying under the scorching sun. Inside, there is minimal division into halls and rooms: the absence of obvious walls allows galleries, ramps, and glass panels to create architectural patterns reminiscent of a kaleidoscope, in which each turn offers a new visual effect.
You can always look sideways, through, from bottom to top, and top to bottom. The eye catches on black winding staircases or thin supporting beams. Wherever the eye falls, inside MAXXI, one cannot escape the sensation of a living, independent space that refreshes the pompous Italian air and captivates with a thorough view through all three floors of contemporary art.