All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in June 2009.
Piazza laterale di S. Giovanni (Book 2) (Map A4) (Day 1) (View C9) (Rione Monti)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Palazzo del Laterano
S. Giovanni in Laterano
The Plate (No. 34)
The plate shows the western square of S. Giovanni in Laterano (the eastern square with the main fašade is shown in plate 46). It was designed during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus V who linked the Lateran to Santa Maria Maggiore and the Colosseum through new straight streets. The view is taken from the green dot in the 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Obelisco e fontana; 2) Campanile e portico laterale della Basilica di S. Giovanni in Laterano; 3) Palazzo Pontificio; 4) Scala Santa; 5) a second obelisk (Obelisco Sallustiano) lying on the ground. This second obelisk which Pope Clement XII planned to place in front of the main fašade was eventually re-erected at TrinitÓ dei Monti. This square is shown also in two other plates by Vasi: 101 - Battisterio Lateranense and 172 - Spedale di S. Giovanni Laterano.
If only the square were not a focal point of Rome's traffic, the view would almost exactly match the plate by Vasi.
This is the oldest and tallest obelisk of Rome and also the last to be brought from Egypt (to see all the obelisks of Rome click here). It was originally built to decorate the Temple of Karnak in Thebes and it was dedicated to Pharaoh Thutmosis IV. Emperor Constantine considered using it for embellishing Nova Roma (Constantinople) and the obelisk was brought to Alexandria together with a second obelisk which was dedicated to Pharaoh Thutmosis III. Of the two obelisks the latter was eventually brought to Constantinople and placed in its Hippodrome, while the former was assigned to Rome by Emperor Constantius II; the transportation occurred in 357 on a specially built ship. In 1587 this obelisk was found in the Circus Maximus and in the following year it was relocated in Piazza S. Giovanni. It is very well preserved, with easily readable hieroglyphics. Pope Sixtus V placed the whole array of his heraldic symbols on its top: not only the three mountains with the star, but also the lion holding the pears.
The Fountain of three Popes
At first sight the fountain looks like many other fountains built by Pope Paul V Borghese, but when looking closer his heraldic symbols (dragons and eagles) have the appearance of having been "pasted" to the structure of the fountain. An inspection shows that the construction of the fountain was started during the pontificate of Sixtus V as the lion holding the pears indicates. A few years later Pope Clement VIII modified the fountain and left his mark on the decoration on the top. Finally in 1607 Pope Paul V added his eagle and dragons. A statue of St. John Evangelist which was added to the fountain probably by Pope Innocent X was lost in the XIXth century.
The Lateran Palace is a hymn to Pope Sixtus V. His heraldic symbols are everywhere from the entrance to the cornice. It was designed by Domenico Fontana who coped with all the challenging tasks the pope commissioned him (reconstruction of aqueducts, relocation of obelisks, a net of conduits and fountains, the opening of new streets, etc.). It was completed in 1589, but the popes preferred to live in Palazzo del Quirinale and this large building was used as a hospital or a hospice; at the time of the etching it was a Conservatorio di povere zitelle, one of many institutions caring for young women.
Today the palace (which belongs to the Holy See) houses a historical museum of the Papal State.
According to tradition the basilica was built on land belonging to Emperor Constantine; although the area was located inside the walls of Rome, it was remote from the centre of the city; the layout of the church was based on an east-west axis: this meant that its entrance was oriented towards Porta Asinaria, in other words the basilica turned its back to the city. For this reason Pope Sixtus V decided to build a large loggia on the southern arm of the transept, which was the part of the building which faced the city. A few years later Pope Clement VIII lavishly decorated the transept and placed a great altar at its northern end: in this way two churches coexisted: the east-west one (in very poor condition) and the south-north one which was entirely modernized. Later on the east-west one was renovated by Francesco Borromini for the 1650 Jubilee Year and it was given a new fašade by Pope Clement XII in 1735. The fašade of the transept retains part of its medieval structure, because the two bell towers, notwithstanding the coats of arms of Pope Pius IV, were built during the pontificate of Pope Innocent II in the XIIth century.
The loggia was used for the papal blessings (SIXTUS PP V AD BENEDICTIONES EXTRUXIT) and it was designed by Domenico Fontana. The heraldic symbols of the pope were placed in many parts of the building. Pope Clement XII added a light railing with his elegant coat of arms.
You may wish to see the basilica in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
Domenico Fontana built this palace to house the staircase of Pontius Pilate's house, which was brought to Rome by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. The 28 steps may be ascended only by worshippers on their knees. Many do it for the recovery of one of their next of kin.
Read Charles Dickens's account of his visit to Scala Santa in 1845.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 2: Piazza di Termini
Next step in Day 1 itinerary: Chiesa de' SS. Pietro e Marcellino
Next step in your tour of Rione Monti: Chiesa di S. Stefano Rotondo