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The Basilica is the most magnificent church in a city that does magnificent churches like no other. It was a combined effort by Rome’s most legendary 16thcentury architects. Donato Bramante, one of the pioneers of Renaissance architecture, came up with the blueprint around 1503, and Raphael reworked it before Michelangelo took over in 1547 and added his soaring Florentine-inspired dome.

Inside, the Basilica is packed with statues of popes, saints and cherubs peering out from every surface. The most famous is tucked in a corner near the entrance, behind a formidable barrier of bulletproof glass. It is Michelangelo’s sublime Pietà, a statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the crucified body of her son. Its exquisitely sinuous marble form was carved when the artist was just 25 and, while today it’s considered one of the world’s finest sculptures, it was criticised at the time for portraying Mary as a young woman instead of middle-aged, as she would have been at the time of Jesus’s death. Michelangelo explained that he had carved her tender features while thinking of his own mother, who had died when he was just six years old.

The Pietà is a far cry from another statue of Mary near the altar, which would look more at home in a Tim Burton movie than a church. Here, she stands atop a flowing wave of red and white marble, and emerging from beneath her is the winged skeleton of Death, holding aloft an hourglass: a terrifying memento mori hidden in this setting of religious beauty.

  • The Pope makes an appearance on Sundays and Wednesdays at noon, if he’s in town – which means that Wednesday mornings are the best time to visit the Sistine Chapel. If you secretly tag along with a tour group, you can slip into the Basilica from the Sistine Chapel without having to queue again.

Roman forum
Political power as we know it was invented in the ancient Roman Forum. It was a public square at the centre of the imperial city, lined with temples, senate debating chambers and monuments. All decisions concerning the vast empire were made here. Today, it is a vast, rock-strewn area studded with crumbled columns and rubble, alongside several restored buildings. It was largely destroyed when the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the late fifth century and, by the Middle Ages, it had suffered the indignity of becoming a cow field. It wasn’t until the 18th-century revival of interest in the Classical period that serious archaeological excavations began.

A stroll around the forum today is a trawl through layers of history. Its central avenue – the Via Sacra, or Sacred Way – was the route taken by the Roman armies as they returned from newly conquered lands bearing the spoils of their victories (and sometimes the dismembered bodies of their vanquished foes). At the far end of the Via Sacra on Capitoline Hill, past the rostrum from which emperors and senators would make speeches to friends, Romans and countrymen, was the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; here animal sacrifices were made to the most powerful of the Roman gods after each battle. Under Michelangelo’s watchful eye in the 16th century, the temple was converted into a cathedral, symbolising Christianity’s takeover of Roman authority, and this was the only reason it survived the plunder that left most of the other buildings stripped of their marble and stone after the fall of the empire.

Across the way stands the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, a huge columned temple, so sturdy that it withstood the many attempts to pull it down by locals keen to use the stone for their own houses.

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