Follow an itinerary in discovery of Rome’s “little Great Beauty.” Federico Schiaffino leads the way.
In a city dominated by enormity, where history showcases all its imposing grandeur on every street corner, it might seem odd to focus instead on more modestly sized sites. Due to their proximity to their gigantic counterparts, these tiny monuments seem even smaller by comparison, but they are every bit as fascinating, and often all the more alluring for their diminutive proportions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the city’s littlest churches, which have to compete with some of the biggest in the world, yet manage to hold their own despite (or perhaps because of) their meager size.
This is certainly the case with Sacro Cuore del Suffragio church, also known as the miniature Duomo of Milan, built at the turn of the last century in neo-Gothic style. Another is the Lilliputian church of San Benedetto in Piscinula in Trastevere, a true mini-jewel that preserves a precious Cosmatesque floor and Rome’s smallest church bell (also the oldest!) at less than 18 inches in diameter. Legend has it that the church was built on the foundations of the family home of St. Benedict himself. The mighty mass of Palazzo Spada famous for the optical illusion of Borromini’s Forced Perspective that can be found in its courtyard—is counterbalanced by the tiny church of Santa Maria della Quercia, so called for the oak tree that sits directly in front of its microscopic façade. Just a few steps away, around the corner from Campo de’ Fiori, where the ancient and massive Theater of Pompeo once stood, is the church of Santa Barbara ai Librai, a petite but lovely baroque gem hemmed in on both sides by centuries-old palaces.
Another example of miniature architecture is the cloister of the church of Santi Quattro Coronati, brilliantly juxtaposed with the majesty of the complex to which it belongs, a medieval fortress with a convent and church attached. The cloister, a masterpiece of Cosmatesque art, is formed by a quadriportico of columns, each one topped by a capital in the shape of a lotus. Graffiti that dates back to the Middle Ages shows a primitive dice game. One can imagine the monks partaking in a game between one prayer and another.
If Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest church dedicated to the Virgin in the entire world, the extreme on the opposite end of the spectrum is the chapel of Madonna dell’Archetto, the smallest and most intimate Marian church in the city. It was built in the 1800s to venerate a 17th-century image of the Madonna of the famed miracle of the eyelids. The story goes that the painted eyes of the Virgin have moved many times to the shock of the worshipers who have witnessed it. The chapel’s rich decorations include encaustic frescoes by Costantino Brumidi, the same artist who painted The Apotheosis of Washing- ton on the dome of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Another lovely and itty-bitty church is San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, or “San Carlino” to locals. Designed by Francesco Borromini at the height of the baroque period, the entire all-white church could fit inside a single one of the four piers that support the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
But churches aren’t the only tiny beau- ties in Rome. Standing proudly in front of the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is a small sculpture of an elephant created by Bernini on commission of Pope Alexander VII. The baby pachyderm supports an ancient obelisk on its back (the smallest in Rome) that was brought from Heliopolis at the behest of Emperor Domitian in the 1st century AD. The inscription below reminds viewers that high knowledge requires a robust mind, the latter of which is represented by the elephant. Romans refer to the sculpture as the Pulcino (baby chick) della Minerva, due to its diminutive and amusing size.
The Tempietto of Bramante, located in the courtyard of the church of San Pietro in Montorio, is so tiny that it can comfortably hold just four visitors at a time. The miniature temple was designed by the great Renaissance architect in 1502 to mark the place that was once believed to be the site of the execution of St. Peter. It features a colonnade on the outside resting on a short circular staircase, crowned by a balustrade from which the dome rises. The circular interior has room for little more than an altar with a statue of the apostle, and below is an unadorned crypt where a plaque on the floor protects the hole that appears to have been left by the cross of St. Peter.
Finally, to conclude this mini-route at the table, we suggest three restaurants where good food and, above all, intimacy are guaranteed. Il Bacaro is an exquisite restaurant capable of accommodating a mere 15 people; Epiro is just over 200 square feet and its handful of tables can seat a maximum of 15 customers; and finally the minuscule Seiperdue boasts only twelve seats, the perfect spot for a romantic dinner, reserved for just a lucky few.
Il Bacaro – Via degli Spagnoli, 27. Tel 066872554.
Epiro – Piazza Epiro, 26. Tel 0669317603.
Seiperdue – Via Bonifacio VIII, 14. Tel 0687764899.