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Santa Maria della Scala

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Santa Maria della Scala

English name: Our Lady of the Staircase
Dedication: Blessed Virgin Mary
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Clergy: Discalced Carmelites
Titular church Yes, deaconry
Built: 15931610
Contact data
Address: 23 Piazza della Scala

Santa Maria della Scala is a Baroque titular church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Trastevere, at Piazza della Scala 23 which is just south of the Porta Settimiana. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons. [1]


This is one of Rome's devotional churches. It was built as a new foundation 15931610 to house an icon of the Madonna, which had originally been placed on the landing of a staircase in a nearby private house. A deformed child whose mother often prayed before the image was cured, and the church was built in response to the veneration of the people that resulted. The original architect was Francesco Capriano da Volterra, but when he died Girolamo Rainaldi took over. In 1597 the unfinished church was entrusted to the administration of the Discalced Carmelites, who are still in charge, and as a result many of the artworks have Carmelite themes. The friars contracted with Matteo da Città di Castello and Ottaviano Mascherino to build their convent next door. In 1664 the cardinalate title was created. The church was restored in the 18th century, and much of the decoration dates from then.

During the Roman Republic of 1849 the complex was used as a field hospital for Garibaldi's irregulars fighting the French army intent on reconquering the city for the Pope. Most of the action was local to Trastevere, which is why the Garibaldi monument overlooks the church from the Janiculum.

The last titular deacon of the church was H.E. François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who was appointed on 21 February, 2001, and died on 16 September 2002. The present titular is Stanislaw Kazimierz Nagy, who is Polish.



The plan of the church is based on a Latin cross, with short transepts which do not extend beyond the walls of the nave aisles. There is a central dome, having a shallow pitched and tiled saucer on an octagonal drum without fenestration. There is tall lantern, with its own little octagonal cap. A long rectangular presbyterium is beyond the dome, and on the far left hand corner of this is perched a little campanile of a single storey. The soundholes of this are extended arches, one on each face, and there is a pyramidal cap.


Maria della Scala

The façade of the church is rather restrained, although large and somewhat dominating in the little piazza. It is in travertine, of two storeys, and is higher than the nave behind it. The central portion of the first storey is brought forward slightly, and has two pairs of gigantic Corinthian pilasters flanking the doorway and supporting the blank entablature. Another pair of pilasters occupy the outer corners. The entrance has a pair of swagged Ionic columns, and over the door is a Baroque statue of the Madonna and Child in an ornate arched niche with a ribbed conch, volutes and a crowning triangular pediment intruded into by the conch. The sculptor was Francesco Cusart, who carved it in 1633.

The second storey has two pairs of pilasters of the same style as those of the storey below, except the capitals are Composite not Corinthian. They flank a large rectangular window with a balustrade and Ionic columns, and this has a raised segmental pediment. The crowning triangular pediment contains a simple coat of arms, and this storey is flanked by a pair of gigantic volutes.

2011 Maria della Scala detail

Detail of entrance, showing statue of Our Lady

Adjacent to the church is a monastery famous for its 17th century pharmacy, where the original furnishings and equipment have been preserved. It used to supply the papal court, and survived as a business until 1954. Fortunately, nobody bothered to clear the premises out and they have now been restored as a museum. Access is by appointment.


Layout and decorationEdit

There are three chapels on each side of the nave, an altar in each transept and a choir with apse behind the altar with its ciborium. The latter is by Carlo Rainaldi, c. 1650, and is a free-standing domed structure (a tempietto) incorporating sixteen slender Corinthian columns of Sicilian alabaster. The four statues of the Evangelists on it look like bronze, but are terracotta since the originals were looted in 1849. However, the central Lamb of the Apocalypse in glory is in gilded bronze.

The interior wall and ceiling surfaces of the church are richly decorated, although not all of the decoration is real. The vaults of the nave, dome, choir and left arm of the transept are decorated with painting intended to resemble mouldings; the attempt is not altogether successful. The nave ceiling displays round garlands set in octagonal frames rather than a figurative painting, and the dome has imitation coffering containing rosettes. The right transept ceiling has the real thing, however, and is a very nice example of stucco relief.

The floor has several interesting tomb slabs, and the one commemorating Julio Caesari Castellano of 1662 has a charming winged skeleton in opus sectile work.

The apse has a painting of the Queen of Heaven by the Cavaliere d'Arpino, flanked by paintings of the Baptism of Christ, the Marriage of Cana, the Last Supper and the Ascension. The apse conch has a fresco of Christ with Our Lady and saints.


The chapels are taken in anticlockwise order, starting at the bottom right. They contain very rich polychrome stonework. The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St John the Baptist, and the 17th century altarpiece is by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst. The altar columns are of black marble, and the work also uses alabaster, Sicilian jasper and yellow marble from Siena. This is the funerary chapel of the Sinibaldi family.

The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Hyacinth, which is also the funerary chapel of the Dionisi and Barisiani families. Two memorials belonging to the Sorbolongo family were moved here when the church was restored in the 18th century. The altar has columns of pink cottanello marble, and an altarpiece of Our Lady with SS Hyacinth and Catherine of SIena by Antiveduto Grammatica.

The third chapel on the right is dedicated to Our Lady, St Joseph and St Anne, and has an altarpiece by Giovanni Grezzi of 1710 showing the Holy Family. To the left is the Marriage of Our Lady by Antonio David, and to the left is the Dream of Joseph by Vincenzo Odazzi. The picture of the Sacred Heart on the altar is a copy of 1780 of a famous picture by Pompeo Batoni.

The right transept altar is dedicated to St Teresa of Jesus , the reformer whose work led to the establishment of the Discalced Carmelites as a separate order. The altar, designed by Giovanni Panini in 1617, has four spirally ribbed columns in verde antico marble and two stucco angels by Giovanni Battista Maini. The altarpiece, the Ecstasy of St Teresa, is by Francesco Mancini. The side walls have two marble reliefs depicting the saint in ecstasy again, the one on thie right by Michelangelo Sloctz and the left by Filippo Valle. The stucco reliefs above the altar which continue the theme are by Giuseppe Lironi. The relic of the saint's right foot is preserved here (the same foot that is prominent in Bernini's famous sculpture of her at Santa Maria della Vittoria, although she never went barefoot but wore sandals).

The left hand transept altar enshrines the original miraculous icon in an altar with four large columns of red marble from Verona (rosso di Verona). This is also the funerary chapel of the Santacroce family, and the monument to the Marquis Santacroce is by Alessandro Algardi. That to Livia Santacroce is by Domenico Guidi. The two paintings showing the Coronation of the Virgin and the Immaculate Conception are by Fra Luca Fiammingo, a Flemish artist.

The third chapel on the left contains a crucifix enshrined over an altar with black marble columns and an alabaster frontal. The corpus on the crucifix looks bronze but is actually stucco; it is being venerated by St John of the Cross and a gang of cherubs executed in white marble. This composition was by Pietro Papaleo of 1726, imitating Bernini. The other paintings and frescoes here are by Filippo Zucchetti.

The second chapel on the left is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady, and was designed by Girolamo Rainaldi. On the vault is painted a dove, while the side walls hold paintings showing the Marriage of Our Lady and the the Birth of Our Lady by Giovanni Conca. The altarpiece is the Death of the Virgin by Carlo Saraceni . This last work replaced a controversial work of Caravaggio , the eponymous Death of the Virgin. Caravaggio was suspected of having used the body of a prostitute drowned in the Tiber as a model (an alternative story is that she was one of his mistresses -alive, not dead), and so the friars rejected it with the alleged comment that doing such a thing lacked decorum and was almost heretical. The picture made its way to the Louvre. In front of the altar is a statue of St Teresa of Lisieux in a glass box.

The first chapel on the left is dedicated to the Our Lady of Mount Caramel. The altarpiece depicts the Virgin Handing the Scapular to St. Simon Stock with the prophet Elijah by Cristoforo Roncalli , who also executed the fresco of the Eternal Father.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Maria della Scala "Romeartlover" web-page

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

Blog page on pharmacy

Photo of crossing and dome

Roman Despatches - blog (with gallery)

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