Minor Roman Basilicas: San Silvestro in Capite

For pilgrims of Rome, the main churches one sets out to see are usually fairly obvious, with St. Peter's reigning topmost of course, followed by the other major basilicas like St. Paul's, St. Mary Major and the Lateran archbasilica. Even amongst the minor basilicas, there is a certain 'touristy' type of hierarchy. For example, San Clemente, San Lorenzo fuori le mura and so on are quite popular destinations amongst the minor basilicas. But Rome has so much more to offer than this, and if you do not spend at least a little bit of time exploring some of the other minor basilicas, churches and chapels of the city, you really are missing out on some interesting treasures.

Today I thought we'd take a quick look at San Silvestro in Capite, a minor basilica located a reasonably short walk from the Pantheon just off Piazza San Silvestro. If it weren't for the church's splendid Romanesque belltower, you might miss this church altogether.

What is perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this church, at least for myself, is that when one walks through the doors off the street, one enters into a forecourt that is absolutely packed with various 'spoila' coming from both the imperial Roman and Christian periods -- mainly architectural remnants coming from the graves of ancient Romans, but also some other elements as well. Similar to its better known counterpart, Santa Maria in Trastevere, these fragments have been embedded right into the walls of the basilica's portico and courtyard. 

A particularly curious Roman gravestone that includes two footprints

Turning our attention now to the interior, we should perhaps mention that the basilica is dedicated to Pope St. Sylvester the First (d. 335) and was originally built in the eighth century over top the remnants of a pagan temple as a shrine for the relics of the saints and martyrs of the Roman catacombs. (The campanile, or bell-tower, shown earlier, was added at the end of the twelfth century).

As one will see from the interior, most of its art is dated to the sixteenth century and later, and it is absolutely rich with painted works and gilding.

Of interest especially is the fresco in the apse which was painted by Ludovico Gimignani and which depicts the Baptism of Constantine. 

Before the high altar designed by the Florentine artist Pier Soderini in 1518, one will find the confessio.

As mentioned above, the church is richly decorated with painted works, here is just a small sample:

The basilica, incidentally, also boasts the relic of the head of St. John the Baptist.

Certainly worth your time to visit the next time you are in Rome, particularly if you are interested in collections of Roman spoila. 

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