Santa Maria degli Angeli

begun 1561, Michelangelo; 1749, Vanvitelli. Plazza della Repubblica. www.santamariadegliangeliroma.it

The aspect of the church reveals a checkered history of cultural idenity: ancient monument, Renaissance embellishments, Italian national symbolism, Fascist archaeological interests.

On a sunny day, stop outside the entrance and feel the intensity of the reflected heat. This was once the hot room, or caldarium, of Rome's largest imperial baths - faced with huge glass windows to take full advantage of the sun. Enter, and you walk through the intermediate, temperate room (tepdiarium) before emerging into the main, cool room (frigidarium), once with an Olympic-sized swimming pool beyond.

The central room of the church, stretching away to your left and right, preserves the general form, size, and height of the Roman space. This was the grand hall of the baths, a melting pot of all social classes, the place where people met, deals were struck, and daily cares unwound. Stand in this vast and imposing room and you will be made aware of your inherent human scale. The eight granite columns along the walls are original. Those at the entrance are modern brick and plaster additions. This is a grand space of imperial magnitude, a space that unifies disparate elements and postulates a single purpose. Not you and them, but we the visitors.

As you re-emerge into the heat and bustle of Piazza della Repubblica, the calm will stay with you. Refreshed. Revived.

Santa Maria degli Angeli is one church a person might not visit unless prompted. The contrast between the "pile of bricks" look at entry and the magnificent interior volumes and Roman bath history makes it a must-see.