You know you live in Rome when you are so spoilt for choice with the many stunning attractions in and around the city that those in the neighborhood tend to be put off for “another” day. That day is never tomorrow or even next week and if you are lucky, it will be in a the couple of months. In my case, it took years for me to visit Scala Santa which is in the neighborhood I live in.
Situated in the neighborhood of San Giovanni, Scala Santa are the holy stairs which Jesus was supposedly to have walked up to face the judgment given by Pontius Pilate. The stairs which were said to be brought to Rome in the 4th century by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, are housed in a structure with a simple and humble facade.
It also doesn’t help that Scala Santa sits in the shadows of the Basilica di San Giovanni and is often skipped by visitors who unknowingly walk by when making their way to the Basilica, the main attraction in the neighborhood. However, this could quickly change as Rick Steves has just written about his experience here in a recent article on Italy.
Scala Santa though has always attracted Christian pilgrims who intentionally visit this sacred place to participate in the ritual of ascending the 28 white marble steps on their knees. Regardless of whether you are religious or not, the sight of the faithful slowly making their way up the stairs on their knees is a moving experience.
However, don’t just experience that and leave. You’ll be missing out on the incredible opportunity to visit the Sancta Sanctorum (“Holy of Holies”) which was the first private papal chapel before the relocation to the Vatican. Located at the top of the stairs and for a minimal fee, there is a custodian who will give you a detailed description of the frescoes and history of the Sancta Sanctorum (in Italian).
And yes there is way to get to the top of the stairs without going up on your knees. There are stairs to the left and right of the Holy Stairs that you can walk up to get to the souvenir shop where you can purchase the tickets from the nuns.
My suggestion is to take the stairs to the farthest left when facing the Holy Stairs and when you are at the top, turn left and you can’t miss the souvenir shop. Let the nuns know you want to buy a ticket for the Sancta Sanctorum €3.50 and €5 to also visit San Silvestro, I bought the latter.
The fee as you can see is minimal but many visitors just stood outside to take photos. If you have time, I would highly recommend that you buy the ticket. As I have mentioned, the custodian shared specifics and gave me a private tour of about 30 minutes. I had to wait for about 10-15 minutes for the previous group (there were only two people) and took this time to marvel at the details, especially the frescoes.
For example, looking up, the radiant blue vault with the symbol of the fours evangelists gave you the sensation that you were looking up to the heavens. The colors were captivating and as you move your eyes downwards, you will see that within the lunettes there are frescoes mostly depicting the scenes of martrydoms.
Another fascinating object in the Sancta Sanctorum that hangs behind the altar is the Acheropita, the image of the Saviour that tradition says “was not made by hand”. The custodian shared many fascinating stories associated with this venerated object and when given such insights, only then can you fully appreciate the Chapel.
Facing the same fate as many attractions in Italy, they unfortunately don’t have the budget for restoration and with the “Save the Stairs” campaign they aim to raise sufficient funds for much needed work. Hopefully you will take time from your schedule to visit the Scala Santa and any contribution will ensure the preservation of this sacred place!
For more details, please visit their official website.