When in Rome: Basilica di Santa Prassede

There are so many beautiful churches in Rome, that first-time visitors are often left exhausted and overwhelmed by all they have seen. On subsequent visits to the Italian capital, my tip for Rome sightseeing is make an effort to visit some of the spectacular but less-frequented churches around the Eternal City.

One exceptional church tucked away on a side street, close to the much more visited Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica, is Santa Prassede (Saint Praxades). One could be forgiven for unwittingly passing this church by – it barely stands out from the surrounding houses.

Yet missing out on a visit to this gem of a church would be a real mistake. Despite its simple exterior, the Byzantine mosaics on display here are well worth the visit.

The church is named for Saint Praxades, who is said to have lived in this area. The church was built in 822 A.D., on the site of 2nd century Roman houses. Legend has it that it was Saint Praxedes herself who transported to this site and then reburied the bones of 2000 Christian martyrs who had been buried in the Roman catacombs. The catacombs, located outside the city walls, were considered unsafe during the 9th century Saracen invasions of Rome.

The beautiful 9th century mosaics high above the altar depict Saint Praxedes and her sister being presented to Christ. The luminous gold and bright colours reflect the changing light of day.

The real highlight of this church, however, is the tiny chapel of San Zenone, with its striking mosaics. Every centimeter of this chapel is encrusted in luscious, vibrant Byzantine mosaic work. The rich colours, incredible details, and the proximity of the mosaics in this tiny space, all allow visitors to carefully examine the work and to better understand the enormous complexity of creating such beautiful medieval mosaics.

The lights in the San Zenone chapel are controlled by timed, coin-operated machines, so bring along plenty of coins to admire this stunning art under the lights. You will be very pleased to have discovered this tucked-away masterpiece.

This church is very close to the excellent bakery, Panella. Be sure to stop by afterwards for a light lunch or aperativo.

Santa Prassede is located near Santa Maria Maggiore, on Via di Santa Prassede, 9A. It is open daily 7:00-12:00 and 16:00-18:30.

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