Mausoleo di Santa Costanza
Mausoleo di Santa Costanza
4.5
Points of Interest & LandmarksReligious SitesChurches & Cathedrals
About
Originally built as a mausoleum in the fourth century for Costanza, son of Constantine, this church was transformed into a baptistery and then into a church towards the middle of the second century.
Duration: 1-2 hours
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The area
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Neighborhood: Trieste
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  • Sant'Agnese - Annibaliano • 4 min walk
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4.5
237 reviews
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Vincent M
New Orleans, LA2,213 contributions
Jan 2014 • Solo
The Mausoleo di Santa Costanza is one of the very few ancient Roman buildings which is still standing, generally just as it looked in antiquity. It is also a remarkable time capsule of the exact time that pagan Rome ended and papal Rome began. The mausoleum is nowhere near as large and impressive as the Pantheon, and nowhere near as centrally located, but is well worth going out of your way to see, if you’ve already done the major block-buster monuments and museums, and are looking for something a bit further from the madding crowd.

The mausoleum was built on a country estate owned by the family of Constantine the Great, on the north side of the ancient via Nomentana, well outside the Aurelian Walls. The name derives from the traditional belief that the mausoleum was built by Constantine the Great for his eldest daughter, Constantina. "Costanza" and Constance are variants of Constantina, but the imperial daughter, although Christian, was actually about as saintly as Torquemada. Scholars now concur that Constantine's building was an earlier one, long gone, and that the Mausoleo di Santa Costanza was actually built by Julian II, for his wife, Helena, another Christian daughter of Constantine. Upon this mausoleum’s completion, the sarcophagus of Constantina was moved to it, to join that of her younger sister.

Julian was a noted military commander, reforming administrator, and philosopher, but what makes this monument particularly interesting is that Julian was the last pagan emperor of Rome, a throwback if you will, since the preceding emperors of the dynasty were all Christian. Julian wanted to restore Hellenistic polytheism as the official state religion, but he was quite tolerant of both Christianity and Judaism, and issued an edict to guarantee freedom of religion. So this mausoleum was built by a pagan emperor for his Christian wife and sister-in-law. Both sisters were empresses: Helena as the wife of an Augustus, and Constantina was formally declared an Augusta by her father. The original mausoleum contained elements that were pagan, Christian, imperial, and decorative. Some additional Christian mosaics were added later, obliterating some, but by no means all, of the original decoration. In its current state, Christian iconography dominates, but is integrated with pagan mosaics.

The mausoleum's state of preservation is remarkable. The Romans have a long history of ripping apart their own best landmarks in order to provide building materials for newer structures. Why quarry and polish marble and haul it all the way down from Carrera when you can simply pry it off the walls of a hundred-year-old edifice half a mile from where you're building? Why build on the outskirts of town when you can simply raze whatever currently happens to be on top of a super location close to the shopping mall at Trajan's Market? This has been going on from the early days of pagan Rome up until about last Thursday. The reason the mausoleum escaped such destruction was that it was so far outside the city walls, that it would have been a major pain to haul its heavy stones and pillars all the way back into town—much easier for the Romans to tear off materials from the imperial baths across their street. That logic doesn't work the other way round--it DOES make sense, if building an isolated mausoleum well outside the walls, to use building materials readily available inside them, and the interior columns of the mausoleum were obtained from earlier pagan temples. In the 1200s, the mausoleum was declared a church, which protected it from desecration by the laity. And it was protected from the Church itself because it was out of sight, out of mind. While Renaissance popes were busily melting down the bronze ceiling of the Pantheon, and 18th century popes were commissioning architectural nonentities to "modernize" churches that had originally been designed by Michelangelo, nothing much happened way out east at Santa Costanza. The two porphyry sarcophagi were carted off to the Vatican; in 1620 Cardinal Veralli had a new and unimpressive mosaic painted on the interior of the dome, over the original mosaics, but by Roman standards this building is as close to pristine as you can get.

The exterior architecture is not particularly imposing (see photo). The interior, however, is quite remarkable. While the shadowy Late Antiquity interior is romantic (see photo), and the dome is pleasant, the mosaics on the ambulatory's vault around the colonnade steal the show.

A drum supports the dome via 12 Roman arches (see photo), and the whole is supported by 12 pairs of columns (see photo) which both may have been intended as allusions to the 12 apostles. If so, they are the most important ORIGINAL Christian elements remaining. The dome originally had Judeo-Christian mosaics--a lower set relating scenes from the Old Testament, and an upper set relating scenes from the New, all of them painted over by a second-rate Baroque artist. The dome’s original mosaic also prominently displayed the images of two regal women, obviously contemporary portraits of Helena and Constantina. One wishes that Cardinal Veralli had restored, rather than replaced, them. There still are, however, contemporary portraits of Romans, including Constantina and her first husband, Hannibalianus, King of Pontus, on the barrel vault over the ambulatory. The most important CURRENT Christian elements were added between 400 and 700 AD--still Late Antiquity, but very late indeed (Imperial rule of Rome from Constantinople lasted until the early 700s).

The beautiful porphyry sarcophagus of Helena is now in the Vatican museum, (mislabeled as Constantina’s) and a plaster replica has been placed in the niche opposite the mausoleum entrance (see photo). It's a safe bet that Helena's sarcophagus was actually directly under the dome, but since the mausoleum is a consecrated church, that space is now occupied by a small altar (see photo). The actual sarcophagus of Constantina, bathtub-shaped, is now on display inside San Pietro. Sentimentally, I wish both sarcophagi were back where they first stood, but from a practical standpoint, I'm sure they're much safer from theft or vandalism where they're at, and in any case, the actual mortal remains of Constantine the Great's two imperial daughters have long since been dumped.

There is a circular ambulatory, with a barreled vault, around the pillars. On a sunny day, the 12 windows under the dome provide some bright beams of light slanting down to whatever is directly in line with the sun. Other than that, it's quite somber inside. There are electric lights for the mosaics on the barrel vaults, but you need to put money into a machine to turn them on for about two minutes. Given the time and trouble you already invested to go all the way out to the mausoleum, it's well worth turning on the lights, particularly if you want to take photos. Bring change.

The original 4th century mosaics are of enormous interest, but so are two important Christian mosaics in the niches on the north and south sides of the vault. They date from the 5th to 7th centuries, and are two of the earliest extant examples of a "Christ in Majesty," which uses a stylistic composition originally reserved for Roman emperors, but substitutes Christ for Caesar.
The mosaic on the north niche shows a "traditio legis"--a transmission of the law. In imperial usage, a traditio legis shows the emperor in the center, handling a scroll to a subordinate: the scroll could be an imperial edict or an imperial commission, such as the governorship of Egypt or Britain. In this one, Christ is handing over either the stewardship of church doctrine, or the governorship of the church, to St Peter (and hence to the bishops of Rome) as St Paul looks on. Christ wears a toga of imperial purple and gold, but is still shown as a shepherd. The mosaic on the south niche shows a “traditio clavius”—a transmission of keys. In it Christ, sans sheep and seated on a circle (the celestial sphere?), is handing over the keys to either the Christian church or the Kingdom of Heaven to St Peter. Paul is absent. Both these mosaics are making political statements about papal primacy, a concept that was still strongly contested even by Christian emperors centuries after the pagan Julian built the mausoleum. However, these mosaics are two of the very earliest pictorial representations of papal primacy that still exist. Since they are in a building said to be built by Constantine, of “Donation” fame, it’s plain to see why Cardinal Veralli didn’t have THEM painted over (see photo).

If you stand directly in front of the traditio clavius at the south niche (a declaration of Christian dominion), and look immediately above, you’ll see the most astonishing artistic juxtaposition that I’ve ever stumbled across: a thoroughly pagan mosaic of Roman teamsters hauling in cartloads of grapes, and devotees of Bacchus drinking the vino and cavorting about in Dionysian ritual madness in temples, all with an elaborate background of grapevines (see photo). The Christian church has never been shy about moving into pagan digs, a la Santa Maria sopra Minerva or Mexico City’s Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary sopra the Great Temple of the Aztecs. But the normal procedure is to thoroughly REPLACE the pagan stuff, not co-habitate with it! Here, the Church appears to have neglected to eradicate the Dionysian imagery until a good thousand years after the worship of Bacchus had stopped being a living religion, and then simply tolerated it as harmless. And they did this despite some provocation: for almost a hundred years Flemish artists studying in Rome, having discovered what they believed was a bona fide temple of Bacchus out on via Nomentana, would sneak in at night and have drunken debauches, ending with one final flagon of vino in front of the tomb of Bacchus (Helena’s, not Constantina’s, and sure as shooting not Bacchus’s). I don’t know whether that had anything to do with the Vatican removing the sarcophagi, but in 1720 Pope Clement XI sternly forbade the use of the mausoleum for pagan rites. However, with clemency befitting his name, and perhaps a bit more sense and taste than Cardinal Veralli had exhibited, Clement XI eliminated the offending Flemings, not the inoffensive mosaics. Modern tourists, whether Christian or pagan, can thank him for that.

Side-note tips: Santa Agnese, right next door, is definitely well worth seeing. And Via Nomentana, from the mausoleum to the nearest Metro stop, while a bit of a walk, is not without interest. I’d recommend taking a cab to the mausoleum, and then walking back into town along Nomentana. You’ll pass Benito Mussolini’s elegant Villa Torlonia and a number of embassies—Canada, Mexico, Sweden—as you walk through a relatively un-touristy “real” Roman neighborhood, until you reach the impressive Bersaglieri Monument, commissioned by Mussolini, facing the Aurelian Wall’s Porta Pia, designed by Michelangelo, with a museum of the history of the Bersaglieri inside (because in 1870 the Bersaglieri breached the Aurelian wall beside Porta Pia to overwhelm the besieged Swiss Guards and capture papal-ruled Rome, completing the unification of Italy). From Porta Pia you can walk straight ahead, on what’s then called Via XX Settembre, and turn left on Via Leonida Bissolati to get to either the Repubblica Metro Station or, even better, Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, a church housed within the only remaining bit of an imperial Roman baths which is also remarkably pristine.
Written August 24, 2014
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

docko1
Chicago, IL89 contributions
Sep 2017 • Couples
Other reviewers have called it a hidden gem, and that's so true. I've been to Rome many times, and when the noise and crowds become too much, I go to Santa Costanza. In a quiet, serene neighborhood, maybe a ten-minute cab ride from Piazza del Popolo, it's always almost empty and cool and quiet. Beautiful mosaics from the 4th century. Yes, as one writer noted, it could use some explanatory notes, as I don't recall any at all. Read up before you go.
Written June 11, 2018
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

John F
Swindon, UK9 contributions
Feb 2016 • Couples
We walked 5km slowly from Campo Di Fiori to this location taking in other great historic sites on the way. But this is an amazing building - especially to survive much less messed about with than many other early churches in Rome.

Make sure you put some Euros in to get the lights turned on! We suspect some people came and went not realising they were available. Makes a massive difference enabling you to see the mosaics.

If you are interested in Rome and the early Christian Church this is a must. Brilliant.
Written February 9, 2016
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Andriy R
Bad Ischl, Austria20 contributions
May 2016 • Solo
Very well preserved mosaics - roman from 4th century and christian from at least 7th century. Unlike ancient frescoes, the mosaics have preserved their vivid colours. Truly beautiful! And pay attention to stunning details (like on first photo attached). Place is so quiet and easily accessible with subway. Just few steps away are ancient basilica and catacombs. Totally worth a visit.
Written May 29, 2016
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Deborah S
Highlands 27 contributions
We were exploring near our hotel and found this treasure. There was a small wedding happening here, but they didn't seem troubled by our looking at the place and enjoying the beauty and peace here. I have to say, this place felt far more spiritual than the Vatican. Easily accessible from Metro, worth a visit for sure.
Written April 12, 2015
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Phylis C
Gainesville, FL97 contributions
Jan 2014 • Family
I wanted to take my grown kids to some catacombs. I had been to San Sabastiano and San Callisto in the past. The Catacombs of Sant'Agnese are easy to get to. They are on the Metro stop-Sant' Agnese-Annibaliano-this is a brand new station and that in itself if quite impressive. There is a very modern self clean toilet in the subway (50 cents). The tours of the Catacombs were on the half hour, take about 45 minutes and they do close during the middle of the day so plan on an early tour. You can actually see real bones! There is a coffee shop up the hill within the compound and that is where Santa Costanza is, among the gardens. Take your euro coins as Santa Costanza is pretty dark and you will need to feed the meter to get the lights on. There is "graffiti" carved into some of the mosaics on the walls there. Both churches are lovely.
Written January 16, 2014
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

alexineberry
Clitheroe, UK236 contributions
Oct 2019
This is definitely off the beaten track, but well worth it. The ceiling is absolutely beautiful - I have seen nothing similar elsewhere in Rome.
Written October 25, 2019
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Louis A
Houston, TX21 contributions
Sep 2018
The mausoleum of St. Constance was built in the 4th century AD as the burial place for Constantina, the daughter of the Emperor Constantine, who died in 354 AD. The cylindrical mausoleum and its adjacent large funerary basilica (in ruins) are and excellent example of early Christian architecture initiated during the reign of the Emperor Constantine.
Written September 20, 2018
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

ludor
Iasi, Romania2,985 contributions
Apr 2018 • Friends
It's a hidden gem, a lot less crowded then other touristic places in Rome of similar significance. The architecture, mosaics and all the interior are extremely interesting, with pagan reminiscences in early Christian decorations. The sarcophagus of the emperor Constantine's daughter is impressive, even if is just the copy, the original being kept in Vatican.
Written April 29, 2018
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

36GrannyJ
Appleby-in-Westmorland, UK30 contributions
Feb 2016
Tucked away out of the city centre on Nomentana this small mausoleum is a haven of peace. The mosaics are charmingly complete and the general ambience peaceful. lights for the interior are 0.40 euros and don't last long so take change. Pay a visit too to Santa Agnieza with her sweet story.
Written February 18, 2016
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

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Mausoleo di Santa Costanza, Rome

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