Conjoined as they were, back to back, they naturally faced in opposite directions, the Venus Temple looking out toward the Colosseum and the East from whence Venus originated, and the Roma Temple dominating the Forum, the center of Roman religion, politics, and civic life. Venus Felix (Happy Venus) was honored both as the goddess of love, Amor, and as the mother of everything Roman, the mythic mother of Trojan Aeneas, whose son Iulus was the eponymic father of the Julian gens and whose followers were the forefathers (or "Patricians") of all the other Roman noble families. Roma was the very genia or personification of the city of Rome. In Ancient Roman times, the complex was more simply known as the Temple of the city of Rome.
Hadrian, one of Rome's greatest builders, was the architect, and the complex was dedicated in 135 AD during his reign, although it appears that the building wasnât actually completed until the reign of his successor, Antoninus Pius. According to legend, Apollodorus of Damascus, the professional architect who had advised Hadrian on many of his previous building projects, was executed after criticizing the unique design of the twin temples.
The two temples stood together on another even higher platform at the center of the 145 by 100 meter complex. The idea was that the lower podium would stand a little above the level of the Velia Ridge to which its western edge was anchored and that the upper podium would majestically raise the temple building above everything else around it. To make the floor of the whole complex level, the eastern end was built up high above the level of the pavement surrounding the pre-existing Colosseum, and vaulted chambers below that end (perhaps remnants of the Atrium of Nero's Domus Aurea) were apparently used to store machinery and equipment used to produce "special effects" for the Colosseum games.
Although the temples were actually two buildings end-to-end, their side walls ran past the apses and joined, giving the impression of a single long rectangular temple. Its fabric was brick faced concrete completely covered with white marble, and its roof, like that of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, was of gilded tiles. The rectangular mass was surrounded by double rows of tall columns (parts of which still lie about the site), twenty per side and ten across either end. The whole structure, the two temples and all those columns, made it the largest religious building ever built anywhere by the Romans, bigger than even the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus that reared above the other end of the Forum on the Capitoline Hill.
There was enough space around the temple for other public activities, and the complex became, in effect, the Forum of Hadrian, in line with the other "Imperial Fora" along the northern edge of the older republican "Forum Romanum." Porticoes, with high walls on the outside and pillars inside, ran along both of the longer sides of the complex providing shade. Some of the tall granite pillars from these side porticoes were re-erected in 1935. An open portico, two rows of pillars with a roof over them, ran along the end toward the republican forum and the end toward the Colosseum was adorned only with statues on pedestals. To make space for all of this, the "Colossus", the giant statue that Nero had erected in his own honor (and which was remodeled into Apollo after his dishonorable reign) was moved to a new base closer to the Colosseum.
The most recognizable feature of the ruins today is the tall apse of the Venus temple with the semi-hemispherical cross-hatched ceiling. The top of that semi-dome is at the level of the original flat ceiling of the cella or chamber of the temple. A later vaulted ceiling and other superstructures were erected by Emperor Maxentius after a serious fire in 307 AD and before the end of his rule when Constantine blew into town in 312 AD. The collapse of the temples is not documented, but the most prevalent theory is that they fell in a known serious earthquake during the papacy of Leo IV (847-55 AD).
It is certain that the church of Santa Maria Nova was built on the foundations of the temple of Roma during his reign as a replacement for Santa Maria Antiqua church, which was damaged when parts of the overhanging imperial palaces on the Palatine collapsed onto the southern side of the republican Forumduring the earthquake . Documentary evidence indicates that there was already a Christian oratory built by Pope Paul I between 757 and 767 on the Santa Maria Nova site. In the 12th century, Santa Maria Nova was enlarged and, with its new 42-meter bell tower, it was re-consecrated in 1161. There was an additional reconstruction and enlargement in 1216.
In 1421, Francesca Buzzi founded a congregation of nuns at Santa Maria Nova, which she joined herself when her husband died in 1436. She was canonized in 1608, and after yet another reconstruction in 1615, during which the church's baroque façade was added, the Santa Maria Nova church was renamed in her honor as the Church of Santa Francesca Romana. The memorial altar, or confessio, to Santa Francesca was done by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1638 and 1649, and the two angels flanking the 12th century apse mosaic ("Virgin Enthroned with Child") are also by his school although probably not by his hand. Aside from the Bernini work, the church's art is undistinguished by famous names but nonetheless quite beautiful. The very large 6th century "Virgin with Child" in the sacristy, which, according to legend came from Santa Maria Antiqua, is one of the most ancient Christian paintings anywhere in the world.
This well preserved and beautiful old church is one of the most sought after venues for upper-class Roman weddings. You can reach the church either via a stairway that goes up from the Via dei Fori Imperiali or by a road ramp that goes up from Via dei Fori Imperiali behind the refreshment stand near the Colosseum -- across the street from the subway station. The platform of the Temple of Venus and Rome is usually accessible, either through a gate on the north side of the church (Via dei Fori Imperiali side) or from the republican Forum side (up the ramp from the Colosseum toward the Arch of Titus and then double back next to the archeological service office and Forum Museum entrance.)
There are pictures and descriptions on the Internet, but don't let that replace a site visit.Then and now forum pix (including the Temple of Venus and Rome) from the Rome municipality: http://www.capitolium.org/eng/virtuale/virtuale.htm
Exterior and interior pictures of S. Francesca Romana from the Popolo Project -- scroll down to third row (with links to successive pages of pix): http://rubens.anu.edu.au/popolo/midjpg/alphabetical/00339.html