PANTHEON TOUR - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)


If your imagination is fried from trying to reconstruct ancient buildings out of today’s rubble, visit the Pantheon, Rome’s best-preserved monument. Engineers still admire how the Romans built such a mathematically precise structure without computers, fossil fuel-run machinery, or electricity. (Having unlimited slave power didn’t hurt.) Stand under the Pantheon’s solemn dome to gain a new appreciation for the sophistication of these ancient people.

The Pantheon is the centerpiece of this tour, and is a must-see on any visit to Rome. The second part of this tour features several interesting churches that cluster near the Pantheon, with art by Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and connections with Galileo, St. Ignatius, and the Jesuit order.


Pantheon: Free, Mon-Sat 8:30-19:30, Sun 9:00-18:00, holidays 9:00-13:00, closed for Mass on Sat at 17:00 and Sun at 10:30. Tel. 06-6830-0230.

Church of San Luigi dei Francesi: Free, daily 10:00-12:30 & 15:00-18:45 except closed Thu afternoon, good €3 booklet. Bring coins to light the Caravaggios.

Gesù Church: Free, daily 7:00-12:30 & 16:00-19:45, interesting daily service at 17:30.

Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva: Free, Mon-Fri 7:00-19:00, Sat-Sun 8:00-12:30 & 15:30-19:00.

Church of San Ignazio: Free, Mon-Sat 7:30-19:00, Sun 9:00-19:00.

When to Go: Don’t go midday, when the Pantheon is packed and two of the churches are closed. Visit the Pantheon before 9:00, and you’ll have it all to yourself. Note that the churches have slightly varying hours—plan carefully to avoid getting shut out.

Dress Code: The Pantheon does not allow visitors with skimpy shorts or bare shoulders. Modest dress is recommended for the churches near the Pantheon.

Getting There: The Pantheon neighborhood is a 15-minute walk from Capitoline Hill. Taxis and buses stop at a chaotic square called Largo Argentina, a few blocks south of the Pantheon—from here you can walk north on either Via dei Cestari or Via di Torre Argentina to the Pantheon. Buses #40 and #64 carry tourists and pickpockets frequently between the Termini train station and Vatican City (#492 serves the same areas via a different route). Buses #85 and #87 connect to the Colosseum (stop: Corso/Minghetti). The elettrico minibus #116 runs between Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Barberini via the Pantheon.

Tours: The Pantheon has a €5 audioguide that lasts 25 minutes (€8/2 people).

Image Download my free Pantheon audio tour.

Length of This Tour: Allow a half-hour to see the Pantheon and at least another hour to visit the nearby churches. If you have less time, the essential Pantheon can be seen in a glance. The four nearby churches are far less important.

Services: The nearest WCs are at bars and cafés on the Pantheon’s square.

Photography: It’s allowed—even with flash—in the Pantheon, but no flash is allowed in the nearby churches.

Eating: Restaurants abound. Several recommended ones are listed in the Eating in Rome chapter (see here). You can picnic on the steps of the fountain or along the Pantheon’s walls. While picnicking is forbidden under the Pantheon’s portico, I enjoy discreetly munching a sandwich at the base of a column. Some of Rome’s best gelato is nearby.

Drinks: A drinking fountain spurts near the obelisk in Piazza della Rotonda. For those who prefer their liquids caffeinated, two of Rome’s most venerable (and busiest) coffee shops are just steps away: Tazza d’Oro Casa del Caffè (their icy granita di caffè con panna is heaven on a hot day; Via degli Orfani 84) and Bar Sant’Eustachio (they add sugar to their coffee drinks unless you request otherwise; Piazza di Sant’Eustachio 82).

The Tour Begins

✵ Start the tour at the top of the square called Piazza della Rotonda, with cafés and restaurants around the edges and an obelisk-topped fountain in the center. You’re looking at...

The Pantheon

(See “Pantheon” map, here.)


The Pantheon was a Roman temple dedicated to all (pan) of the gods (theos). The original temple was built in 27 B.C. by Augustus’ son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa. In fact, the inscription below the triangular pediment proclaims in Latin, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucio, three times consul made this.” But after a couple of fires, the structure we see today was completely rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian around A.D. 120. Some say that Hadrian, an amateur architect (and voracious traveler), helped design it.


The Pantheon looks like a pretty typical temple from the outside, but this is perhaps the most influential building in art history. Its dome was the model for the Florence cathedral dome, which launched the Renaissance, and for Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s, which capped it all off. Even the US Capitol in Washington, DC, was inspired by this dome.

The portico is Greek in style, which is logical, because Hadrian was a Grecophile. (He grew a beard to look like a Greek philosopher, bucking the beardless tradition of Rome’s 13 previous emperors.) This fine porch is a visual reminder of the great debt Roman culture owed to the Greeks. Fittingly, you cross this Greek space to enter a purely Roman space, the rotunda. The columns are huge and unadorned, made from 40-foot-high single pieces of red-gray granite rather than the standard stacks of cylindrical pieces. They were quarried in Egypt, then shipped down the Nile and across the Mediterranean to Rome. They were then fitted with leafy Corinthian capitals, the Greek order that was most popular among Romans. They are sequoia-huge—it takes the outstretched arms of four large tourists to encircle one column.


The enormous scale of the portico was meant to display power and intimidate common citizens. Sit facing the entry on the corner of a column base (as picnickers have done for 1,800 years). Notice the two huge, empty niches flanking the door—once filled with towering statues of emperors. Look up at the porch roof and imagine the ceiling covered in its original bronze plating. The metal was removed in the 17th century by a scavenging pope from the Barberini family, inspiring the well-known quip, “What the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did.” Melted down, some of the bronze was used to build the huge canopy over the altar at St. Peter’s.

✵ Now pass through the giant bronze door—a copy of the original. Take a seat and take it all in.

Inside the Pantheon

The dome, which was the largest made until the Renaissance, is set on a circular base. The mathematical perfection of this dome-on-a-base design is a testament to Roman engineering. The dome is as high as it is wide—142 feet from floor to rooftop and from side to side. To picture it, imagine a basketball wedged inside a wastebasket so that it just touches bottom.


The dome—clean and feeling loftier than ever—is made from concrete (a Roman invention) that gets lighter and thinner as it reaches the top. The base of the dome is 23 feet thick and made from heavy concrete mixed with travertine, while near the top, it’s less than five feet thick and made with a lighter volcanic rock (pumice) mixed in. Note the square indentations in the surface of the dome. This coffered ceiling reduces the weight of the dome without compromising strength. The walls are strengthened by brick relieving arches (“blind” arches)—visible in the exposed brickwork in a few of the interior niches and easy to see from outside.


Both Brunelleschi and Michelangelo studied this dome before building their own (in Florence and the Vatican, respectively). Remember, the grandiose vision for St. Peter’s Basilica was to place the dome of the Pantheon atop the Forum’s Basilica of Constantine.

At the top, the oculus, or eye-in-the-sky, is the building’s only light source. It’s completely open and almost 30 feet across. The 1,800-year-old floor—with 80 percent of its original stones surviving—has holes in it and slants toward the edges to let the rainwater drain. Though some of the floor’s marble has been replaced, the design—alternating circles and squares—is original.


In ancient times, this was a one-stop-shopping temple where you could worship any of the major gods whose statues decorated the niches. Entering the temple, Romans came face-to-face with a larger-than-life statue of Jupiter, the King of the Gods, where the altar stands today. After the fall of Rome, the Pantheon became a Christian church (from “all the gods” to “all the martyrs”), which saved it from architectural cannibalism and ensured its upkeep through the Dark Ages. (The year 2009 was the building’s 1,400th anniversary as a church.) In the seventh century, a Byzantine emperor stripped the dome’s interior of its original golden-tile ceiling. The twin grilled windows just right of the altar (at 2 o’clock) are a modern re-creation of the original and, along with the inlaid marble floor, give you a sense of the colorful ancient decor.



While its ancient statuary is long gone, the interior holds decorative statues and the tombs of famous people from more recent centuries. The artist Raphael lies to the left of the main altar in a lighted glass niche (pictured here). Above him is a statue of the Madonna and Child that Raphael himself commissioned for his tomb. The Latin inscription on his tomb reads: “In life, Nature feared to be outdone by him. In death, she feared she too would die.”


Facing each other across the base of the dome are the tombs of modern Italy’s first two kings. To the right is Victor Emmanuel II (“Padre della Patria,” father of his country); to the left is Umberto I (son of the father). These tombs are a hit with royalists. In fact, a guard often stands by a guestbook in which visitors can register their support for these two kings’ now-controversial family, the Savoys (see sidebar on the next page). And finally, under Umberto lies his queen, Margherita...for whom the classic pizza Margherita (mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil—representing the colors of the Italian flag) was named in 1889.

The Italian Royal Family... in Switzerland

From Italy’s unification in 1870 to the end of World War II, the country had four kings, all members of the Savoy family. One of Europe’s oldest royal families (from the 10th century), the Savoia had long ruled the kingdom of Piedmont (in present-day northern Italy).

In 1946, the Italians voted for a republic and sent the Savoia into exile. Until 2002, a law proclaimed that no male Savoia could set foot on Italian soil. That’s why only the first two kings are buried in the Pantheon (the last two died in exile).


The Savoia lost favor with their Italian subjects for several good reasons: When Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922, King Victor Emmanuel III actually asked him to form a government. When the Mussolini government issued anti-Semitic laws, the king signed them. And in 1943, instead of standing by his people, the king abandoned Rome to the Germans and fled south to Allied protection.

Today, this would-be royal family of Italy is back in the country but known more for appearances on TV game shows than for any serious political or national relevance.

Think of all the history this place has seen. At Rome’s peak it was a temple to pagan gods. As Christianity took over the empire, the pagan priests became persona non grata and the building crumbled along with the empire. When barbarians looted the city, they carried off some exterior marble, but the structure remained intact. In 609 it was saved from architectural cannibalism when it became a Christian church, and the Virgin Mary replaced Jupiter at the altar. It later became the final resting spot of the great Raphael as well as Italian royalty. And these days, visitors from around the world pack the place to remember the greatness of classical Rome.

The Pantheon is the only ancient building in Rome continuously used since its construction. (When you leave, notice that the building is sunken below current street level, showing how the rest of the city has risen on 20 centuries of rubble.) The Pantheon also contains the world’s greatest Roman column. There it is, spanning the entire 142 feet from heaven to earth—the pillar of light from the oculus.

✵ Leaving the Pantheon, take a moment to enjoy the square facing it. Piazza della Rotonda has been a gathering place for 2,000 years. Its slope illustrates the literal “rise of Rome.” Imagine in past centuries when there was a fish and chicken market in the portico. In an 18th-century urban beautification project, the fountain and obelisk were added. Feel the vibrancy of the piazza culture, which goes back to ancient Rome.

Churches near the Pantheon

Many visitors just see the Pantheon and leave. But consider visiting one or more of these four unique churches, all less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Pantheon (see map for locations). If you’re budgeting your energy, here’s a quick rundown on what each has to offer: San Luigi houses several stunning Caravaggio paintings. The Gesù is packed with ornate art and Jesuit history. Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church, has a Michelangelo sculpture and St. Catherine’s tomb. Finally, San Ignazio is full of Baroque perspective illusions that will leave your head spinning.



This is the French (dei francesi) national church in Rome. You’ll find French motifs throughout. Outside, check out the salamander, symbol of François I, the French king who brought Leonardo (and the Renaissance) north, from Italy to France. Step inside and stand on the marble inlaid fleur-de-lis in the center rear of the nave.

This is a Renaissance building with Baroque icing. The stylized fleurs-de-lis—scattered throughout—are emblems of French royalty. On the ceiling of the nave is France’s King (a.k.a. Saint) Louis ascending to heaven, and there he is again in a chapel on the left. Joan of Arc stands (posing as usual) over your left shoulder, taking it all in just like you.

The church’s highlight is the chapel in the far-left front corner, which was decorated by Caravaggio. This church makes a great little detour between the Pantheon and nearby Piazza Navona.

✵ In the Caravaggio chapel, pop in a euro coin for light and look first to the left wall.

The Calling of St. Matthew

Matthew (old man with beard) and his well-dressed, tax-collecting cronies sit in a dingy Roman tavern and count the money they’ve extorted. Suddenly, two men in robes and bare feet enter from the right—Jesus and Peter. Jesus’ “Creation-of-Adam” hand emerges from the darkness to point at Matthew. A shaft of light extends the gesture, lighting up the face of Matthew, who points to himself, Last Supper-style, to ask, “You talkin’ to me?” Jesus came to convince Matthew to leave his sleazy job and preach Love. Matthew did.


In this, his first large-scale work, 29-year-old Caravaggio (1571-1610) shocked critics and clerics by showing a holy scene in a down-to-earth location. Lower-class people in everyday clothes were his models; his setting was a dive bar (which he knew well). Christ’s teeny gold halo is the only hint of the supernatural, as Caravaggio makes a bold proclamation—that miracles are natural events experienced in a profound way.

✵ Now look to the center wall.

The Inspiration of St. Matthew

Matthew followed Christ’s call, traveled with him, and (supposedly) wrote Jesus’ life story (the Gospel according to Matthew). Here, Matthew is hard at work when he’s interrupted by an angel with a few suggestions. This sets the scene in motion. Matthew kneels on a stool, which is just about to fall out of the painting and into our zone. Matthew’s bald head, wrinkled face, and grizzled beard make him an all-too-human saint. Even the teen angel lacks a holy glow—he just hangs there. Caravaggio paints a dark background, then shines a dramatic spotlight on the few things that tell the story.

✵ Finally, check out the right wall.


The Martyrdom of St. Matthew

Matthew lies prone, while a truly scary man straddles him and brandishes a sword. The bystanders shrink away from this angry executioner. Caravaggio shines his harsh third-degree spotlight on Matthew and the killer, who are the focus of the painting. The other figures swirl around them in a circle (with the executioner’s arm as the radius). Matthew, who thought he had already given up everything to follow Christ, now gives up his life as well. He is as open as a crucifix, accepting his fate, and reaching for a palm frond—symbolic of victory over death. The bearded face in the background (to the left of the executioner’s shoulder) is a self-portrait of Caravaggio, observing the violence without getting involved.


When the chapel was unveiled in 1600, Caravaggio’s ultra-realism shocked Rome. Although he died only 10 years later, his uncompromising details, emotional subjects, odd compositions, and dramatic lighting set the tone for later Baroque painters. (For a bit more on Caravaggio, see here.)


(See “Gesù Chruch” map, here.)

The center of the Jesuit order (of which Pope Francis is a member) and the best symbol of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Gesù (jay-zoo) is packed with overblown art and underappreciated history. Consider seeing this church en route to Capitoline Hill.



The facade looks ho-hum, like a thousand no-name Catholic churches scattered from Europe to Southern California... until you realize that this was the first, the model for all of the others. Its scroll-like shoulders were revolutionary, breaking up the rigid rectangles of Renaissance architecture and signaling the coming of Baroque. The travertine stone facade has been cleaned but—with its sponge-like properties and Rome’s pollution—it will be black again soon enough.

The adjacent building, to the right of the church—called Camere of St. Ignatius—is where Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, lived, worked, and died (free, Mon-Sat 16:00-18:00, Sun 10:00-12:00).


✵ Step inside the Gesù Church, grab a seat, and look up at the huge painting on the ceiling (or take advantage of the neck-saving mirror).

Inside the Church

Image Ceiling Fresco—The Triumph of the Name of Jesus

The church’s sunroof opens, and we can see right up to heaven. A glowing cross with the initials “I.H.S.” (from the Latinized Greek, “Jesus Savior of Mankind,” adopted as the seal of the Society of Jesus) astounds the faithful and sends the infidels plunging downward. The twisted tangle of bodies—the damned—spills over the edge of the painting’s frame on the way to hell. The painted bodies mingle with 3-D stucco bodies and a riot of decoration in a classic example of Baroque multimedia (created by one of Bernini’s protégés, Giovanni Battista Gaulli, better known as Il Baciccio, in the 1670s).

During the Counter-Reformation, when Catholics fought Protestants for the hearts and minds of the world’s Christians, art was a powerful propaganda weapon. The moral here is clear—hell is the fate of Protestant heretics who dared to pervert the true teachings of Jesus.

The Spectacle of Baroque

At 17:30 every day, a 20-minute service takes place at the Tomb of St. Ignatius in the Gesù Church, and all are welcome. During this time, a statue of Ignatius, housed behind the altarpiece painting, is unveiled.

The service starts with recorded music—“Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy). Then a recorded voice (in Italian) tells the story of Ignatius and his impact, illustrated by spotlighting different parts of the tomb.

The service is squarely in the Baroque tradition—a multimedia extravaganza that combines painting, sculpture, music, words, and lighting effects. (Don’t expect Hollywood-quality SFX—this is “spectacle” on a small, semi-cheesy scale.)

The ceremony is meant to tap into the heart, not the head, encouraging an emotional response to the faith. As the service unfolds, look around the church at its glorious art and architecture. Don’t reflect. Be awed, amazed, moved.

At 17:45, church attendants turn a crank, and the altarpiece painting slowly lowers, revealing the gleaming statue of Ignatius in his ta-da pose. After a few closing words, the choir finishes with “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the highest). Amen.

Image Nave

When the church was originally built (1568), the walls were white and the decor was simple. It was designed for what the Jesuits did best—teaching. The Jesuits wanted to educate Catholics to prepare them for the onslaught of pesky, probing Protestant questions. The church’s nave is like one big lecture hall, with no traditional side aisles.

In the 1500s, the best way to keep Protestants from stealing your church members was to reason with them. By the 1600s, it was easier to kill them, and so the Thirty Years’ War raged across Europe. The church became crusted over with the colorful, bombastic, jingoistic Baroque we see today.

✵ Now look toward the left transept.

Image Tomb and Altarpiece of St. Ignatius of Loyola

A big altarpiece with towering columns and topped with statues of the Trinity marks the burial spot of the humble war veteran who founded the Jesuit order.

In the center of this altarpiece, you’ll see a painting (by Andrea Pozzo) of Ignatius receiving his call. Behind the painting rests a gleaming statue of the saint, who spreads his arms wide and gazes up, receiving a vision from on high. But you won’t be able to see it unless you come after 17:30 (see previous sidebar).


Ignatius (1491-1556) was a Spanish soldier during the era of conquistadors. Then, at age 30, he was struck down by a cannonball. While convalescing, he was seized by the burning desire to change his life. He wandered Europe and traveled to Jerusalem. He meditated with monks. He lived in a cave. At 33, he enrolled in a school for boys to fill in the knowledge he’d missed. He studied in Paris and Rome. Finally, after almost two decades of learning and seeking, he found a way to combine his military training with his spiritual aspirations.

In 1540, the pope gave approval to Ignatius and his small band of followers—the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). These monks (technically, priests or friars), organized like a military company, vowed complete obedience to their “General” and placed themselves at the service of the pope. Their mission: to be intellectual warriors doing battle with heretics. They were in the right place at the right time—Ignatius and Martin Luther were almost exact contemporaries.

The Jesuit Legacy

The Jesuits produced some great, open-minded thinkers, from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to modern mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

The great sculptor Bernini attended this church. He honored the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) with a bust, which is sometimes on display in the Gesù Church. Bellarmine, a theologian at the height of Catholic-Protestant differences, was a voice of reason in the often bitter controversy. He’s best known as the man who ordered Galileo to stop teaching the Copernican theory, although he was actually a moderating influence in the debate.

Because of their spiritual fervor, the Jesuits caught flack for being closed-minded. In the 1700s, several countries expelled them, and finally the pope even banned the Society (1773). Chastened, they were brought back (1814), and today they fill the staff of many a Catholic college.

The rehabilitation of this once-suspect order reached its culmination in 2013 with the ascension of Francesco I (Francis)—the first Jesuit pope.

Ignatius’ body lies in the small coffin beneath the statue (near ground level). This simple, intense man might have been embarrassed by the lavish memorial to him, with its silver, gold, green marble, and lapis lazuli columns. Above the painting of Ignatius, a statue of God stands near a lapis lazuli globe (under the sunburst, the biggest in the world) and gestures as though to say, “Go and spread the Word to every land”...which the Jesuits tried to do.

✵ Look at the marble statue group to the right of Ignatius.

Image Religion Overthrowing Heresy

This statue (and a similar one to the left of Ignatius) shows the Church as an angry nun hauling back with a whip and just spanking a bunch of miserable Protestants. The man with the serpent (Luther) is being stepped upon while the angry cherub rips pages out of a heretical book. Not too subtle.

The Jesuits earned a reputation for unfeeling dedication to truth above all else. Their weapons were words, ideas, and critical reasoning. They taught and defended the recently revamped doctrines of the Council of Trent (a reaction against—and a response to—the Reformation, 1545-1563).


✵ Now view the right transept.

Image Tomb and Altarpiece of St. Francis Xavier

This was also the Age of Discovery, when Spain and Portugal were colonizing and Christianizing the world, using force if necessary. Francis Xavier joined a Portuguese expedition and headed out to convert the heathens. His right hand, with which he baptized and healed, is encased in a glass reliquary above his tomb. Francis touched down in Africa, India, Indonesia, China, and Japan. Along the way, he learned new languages and customs, trying to communicate a strange, monotheistic religion to puzzled polytheists.

He had been on the road for more than a decade (1552) when he died on an island off the coast of China (see the dim painting over the altar). Thanks largely to the tireless evangelizing of zealous Jesuits such as Francis, Catholicism became a truly worldwide religion.


From the outside, survey the many layers of Rome: An Egyptian obelisk sits on a Baroque elephant (by Bernini) in front of a Gothic church built over (sopra) a pre-Christian, pagan Temple of Minerva.


Before stepping in, notice the high-water-mark plaques (alluvione) on the wall to the right of the door. Each time the Tiber River flooded, it left silt, which contributed to the slow and steady geological rise of Rome. Inside, you’ll see that the lower parts of some frescoes were lost to floods. After the last great flood, in 1870, Rome built the present embankments along the river, finally breaking the spirit of the mighty Tiber.


This is the only Gothic church you’ll see in Rome. The ceiling has pointed crisscross arches in a starry, luminous blue sky, and the nave is lit by rows of round stained-glass windows. When this Dominican church was built, Gothic was the rage in northern Europe, with large windows to let in the light—though churches in Italy were so colorful there was less emphasis on colored glass. During the Middle Ages, Rome was almost a ghost town, and what little was built during this time was later gussied up in the Baroque style. The lack of Baroque excess in this church (in spite of its over-the-top, 19th-century renovation) is a refreshing exception.

Main Altar

The body of St. Catherine of Siena lies under the altar (her head is in Siena). In the 1300s, this Italian nun was renowned for her righteousness and her visions of a mystical marriage with Jesus. Her impassioned letters convinced the pope to return from France to Rome, thus saving Italy from untold chaos. Behind her, two Medici popes are buried: Leo X, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the man who excommunicated Martin Luther; and his cousin Clement VII. Both men were good friends with Michelangelo, who was raised alongside them in the Medici household.


In 1633, a frail 70-year-old Galileo knelt at this altar on the way to his trial before the Inquisition in the church’s monastery. Facing the fierce Dominican lawyers, he renounced his heretical belief that the earth moved around the sun. (Legend has it that as he walked out, he whispered, “But it does move.”)

✵ Left of the altar stands a little-known Michelangelo statue...

Christ Bearing the Cross (1519-1520)

Note Jesus’ athletic body, a striking contrast to the docile Jesus of medieval art. This sculpture shares the same bulging biceps as the Christ in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Christ’s pose is slightly twisted, with one leg forward in typical contrapposto style, leaning on a large cross along with the symbols of the Crucifixion. Originally, Christ was buck naked, but later prudish Counter-Reformation censors gave him his bronze girdle.

This statue was Michelangelo’s second attempt—he was forced to abandon a first effort due to a flaw in the block of Carrara marble. In this version, he left parts—including the face—to be finished by an apprentice, who took the liberty of working on and botching the feet and hands. This ineptitude led him to be replaced by yet another sculptor who finally finished the job. Michelangelo, disturbed that anyone would mess up his work, offered to redo the sculpture, but apparently the patrons were pleased. One contemporary said, “The knees alone are worth more than all of Rome together.”


The tomb of the great early Renaissance painter (and Dominican brother) Fra Angelico (“Beato Angelico 1387-1455”) is farther to the left, just up the three stairs.

Over in the right (south) transept, pop in a coin for light, and enjoy a Filippino Lippi fresco showing scenes of the life of the great Dominican scholar St. Thomas Aquinas (big man in blue and white). In the central scene, Thomas—seeming to interrupt the Annunciation—presents the chapel’s patron to Mary. Above, circling an ascended Mary, is a frolicking carousel of heavenly musicians—notice the delightful instruments. Meanwhile, on the right wall, Thomas displays a book to show everyone the true dogma, causing a heretic to slump defeated at his feet.

✵ Exit the church via its rear door (behind the Michelangelo statue), walk down tiny Fra Angelico lane, turn left, and walk to the next square. On your right, you’ll find the last church on our tour.


This church is a riot of Baroque illusions. Stand in the middle of the nave and look up at the large, colorful ceiling fresco (or use the big mirror). Image St. Ignatius, whom we met in the Gesù Church, was the founder of the Jesuits, a disciplined Catholic teaching order charged with spreading the word of God around a world that was rapidly being “discovered.” Here you see him (a small figure perched on a cloud in the center) having a Image vision of Christ with the Cross. Heavenly light from the vision bounces off his chest, and the rays beam to the four corners of the earth (including Image America, to the left, depicted as a bare-breasted Native American maiden spearing naked men). This fresco epitomizes pure Baroque drama, with perspective illusions that fool the eye into thinking the fresco is an extension of the church architecture. Note how the actual columns of the church are extended into the two-dimensional fresco. Now fix your eyes on the Image arch at the far end of the painting. Walk up the nave, and watch the arch grow and tower over you.

Before you reach the center of the church, stop at the small yellow disc (near the last row of pews) on the floor, and look up into the central (black) dome. Keeping your eye on the dome, walk under and past it. Building project runs out of money? Hire an artist to paint a fake, flat dome.

Now take a moment to survey the art in general, appreciating the tricks of the trade. For example, explore deep inside the right transept, where you’ll find an explosive scene. The curtain is pulled back for the theatrical tomb of Pope Gregory XV—textbook bombastic Baroque. With trumpet fanfare and the stony curtain flapping in the spiritual wind, the pope springs with jubilation into eternal life.


Back outside, the church faces a headquarters of the Carabinieri police force (this station deals with art theft—a major problem in a country with so much to protect), forming Piazza San Ignazio, a square with several converging streets that has been compared to a stage set. Sit on the church steps, admire the theatrical yellow backdrop, and watch the “actors” enter one way and exit another, in the human opera that is modern Rome.


✵ From here it’s a short walk to the left down Via del Seminario back to the Pantheon. Or go right, cross busy Via del Corso, and follow the crowds to the Trevi Fountain.