Santa Maria degli Angeli is a really, really big church occupying a small part of the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian. To me, this is an extraordinarily un-church-y church. Thoughts I should have in a church are happily replaced by imaginations of the size and grandeur of the baths. And as if that weren’t distraction enough, there are special exhibits and a noontime show every single day!
Roman baths have fascinated me ever since I listened to The Teaching Company‘s Roman history course. These baths were built around 300 A.D., extended over 30 acres and could accommodate 3,000 people at once. (Stop and think about that!) There were gargantuan pools for hot, lukewarm, and cold bathing, a vast suite of changing rooms, gymnasiums, two libraries, meeting rooms, theaters, concert halls, and gardens.
I’m completely beset by how ginormous the baths were. The church, huge though it is (huge enough to be the one used for state events), was built into a relatively small part of the ruins of those baths. Rick Steves‘ Rome guidebook walks you through the church as if through baths themselves.
The piazza in front of the church, Piazza della Republica, was built along the outer edges of the baths, so one can use that outline to begin to imagine their size. In fact, I had an hour break in the sun’s activity (damn that daylight savings time – I fell for it again), so I walked a few blocks from Santa Maria and the piazza to another church, San Bernardo,
that was built inside a huge column that marked one corner of this huge complex of baths. So a big part of the fun of visiting Santa Maria is being able to understand how big the baths were. It boggles the mind.
At the “sunstrip,” the fun really begins. It’s a little similar to a sundial, but it’s not round, so I don’t know what else to call it. It’s a long brass strip embedded in JUST the right place on the gorgeous marble floor. And there’s a hole up ingeniously hidden up in some crown molding that lets the sun in at JUST the right angle. So the sun shines on the floor and as the earth moves, the sunspot makes its way toward the brass strip. And when the sun gets to the brass strip, TA DA — it’s noon!
Except when it’s daylight savings time. And you have to account for the difference between here and Greenwich Mean Time. So the TA-DA ! moment happened at 1:13. Which explains why I had over an hour to kill in the middle of the day.