The church of Santa Maria Nova, much better known as Santa Francesca Romana, started life as an oratory, which was built during the reign of Pope Paul I (r. 757-67) in part of the ancient Temple of Venus and Roma.
By the end of the 10th century the oratory had been rebuilt as a church. It was called Santa Maria Nova to distinguish it from another church in the Forum dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Santa Maria Antiqua, which had fallen into ruin. Santa Maria Nova was restored by Pope Alexander III (r. 1159-81). This involved the provision of the surviving apse mosaic and the building of the fine Romanesque bell tower.
In 1440 Francesca Bussa de' Leoni, a wealthy Roman noblewoman, who, in 1425, had founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary, was interred in Santa Maria Nova. Following her canonisation, on May 29th 1608, the interior of the church was remodelled by Carlo Lombardi (1559-1620), who also designed and built the porch and façade.
The dedicatory inscription on the frieze of the entablature proclaims: VIRG MARIAE AC S FRANCISCAE (To the Virgin Mary and St Frances). Above the entrance there is tablet with the inscription: PAVLO V BVRGHESIO ROMANO P M SEDENTE OLIVETANA CONGREGATIO SVIS ET MONASTERII SVMPTIBVS TEMPLVM HOC IN HANC FORMAM CONSTRVXIT ET ORNAVIT ANNO DOMINI MDCXV (The Olivetan congregation, with its own and the monastery's resources, built and decorated this temple in this form, during the reign of Paul V Borghese, Roman, Pontifex Maximus, in the year of the Lord, 1615).
The relics of St Frances of Rome are to be found in the crypt. In 1925 Pope Pius XI (r. 1922-39) declared her to be the patron saint of car drivers.
The painter Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1370-1427) was also interred in the church. However, no trace of his burial place remains.