The Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere: a tour surrounded by legends, underground passages, and frescoes

The Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere was born and inspired by the legend of the martyrdom of women and has developed over the centuries. From new discoveries to modifications and extensions: what is there to see in this spectacular church?

The legend of martyrdom and the discovery of the saint’s body

The Basilica of Santa Cecilia is located in the homonymous square in the Trastevere district of Rome. Legend has it that the church was built on the family home of Cecilia. The Golden Legend recounts that Pope Urban I, who had converted her husband, Valerian, and had witnessed the martyrdom, buried the body of Cecilia among those of the bishops and consecrated her house, transforming it into a church. At the beginning of the ninth century, Pope Paschal I had, in a dream, the vision of Cecilia who revealed her burial to him. He had the church built on the site of the previous one and moved the body there.

During the renovations carried out in 1599, the marble tomb was opened and in the further cypress chest that it contained, the almost intact body of the saint was found, dressed in white and with the mark of the wounds on the neck. The event was considered miraculous, and the sculptor, Stefano Maderno, was commissioned to reproduce the figure as it was found and which is located on the main altar of the building.

The Carolingian structure and Cavallini’s frescoes

The architectural structure of Santa Cecilia dates back to the pontificate of Pasquale I, which works according to the canons of Carolingian architecture: all brick masonry, double-ring windows, three-nave layout. The portico, the bell tower, the right wing of the convent, and the cloister were built afterwards, the choir was added in 1540 and, in 1600, the new confession, the raising of the presbytery, and the side altars were built. The church is decorated with stupendous frescoes made by Pietro Cavallini, which date back to the end of the 1200s and which were brought to light in the early 1900s.

The undergrounds discovered with the restoration of the crypt

Of the underground rooms, the only known ones were the crypt and the caldarium, in which, legend had it, the first attempt was made to suffocate Cecilia. The crypt was restored and enlarged in the late 1800s, which lead to the discovery of numerous rooms roughly 5 meters below the building which contained remains of a 2nd century BC domus, traces of a road, an access staircase, a classroom and a small internal spa. Further changes were made with the Christian use of the building in the following centuries as a room with a circular basin was transformed into a hexagonal baptistery covered with marble.