San Paolo Fuori le Mura or St. Paul Outside the Walls is one of four major basilicas in Rome. The current church, once the largest in the world, is a reconstruction of the fourth century church which burned down in 1823. The church is located at the presumed burial place of St. Paul, which lies outside the Aurelian Wall, hence its name.
The apostle Paul was beheaded in the year 67, and his body was brought to a sepulchral area. The burial place was already venerated in the first century when a Cella Memoriae – a small memorial building – was erected here.
A first basilica, commissioned by Roman emperor Constantine I, was built in 324 on top of the Cella Memoriae. In 386 this basilica was already deemed too small and emperor Valentinian II ordered the demolition of the building. It would be replaced by a new, much larger structure. Valentinian’s successor, emperor Theodosius, appointed Ciriades as lead architect.
Ciriades designed a monumental structure with five naves whose roofs rest on eighty columns. Like most basilicas at the time it was preceded by a large atrium with a central fountain. The church was consecrated in 390 by pope Siricius but it was only completed five years later during the reign of Emperor Honorius.
More expansions followed during the next centuries, and by the ninth century, this was the largest church in Rome. It held that title until the current St. Peter’s Basilica was completed in 1626. After being sacked in 846 by the Saracens, the church was quickly restored and expansions and restorations continued until the eighteenth century.
The church we see today may not be the original fourth century basilica but it is still an imposing building, 131 meters long, 65 meters wide and 29 meters high. Its vast interior is particularly impressive, and gives a good idea of what ancient Roman basilicas must have looked like.
The impressive atrium on the west side of the basilica was added in the late nineteenth century. It was built by Guglielmo Calderini after a design by the neoclassical architect Luigi Poletti. The atrium consists of a four-sided portico with seventy Corinthian columns. At its center stands a large statue of the apostle Paul, created in Carrara marble by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Obici.
Location: Piazzale San Paolo 1, 00146 Rome
Tel.: + 39 06 698 80 800
Nearby sights: Centrale Montertini, Protestant Cemetery, Pyramid of Caius Cestius, Aurelian Wall
How to get there: Bus 23 (Pincherle / Parravano). Get off at the “Ostiense / LGT S. Paolo” stop. Metro: Line B (Laurentina). Get off at ‘Basilica San Paolo’
Official website: http://www.basilicasanpaolo.org/