Visit Rome following 8 XVIIIth century itineraries XVIIIth century Rome in the 10 Books of Giuseppe Vasi - Le Magnificenze di Roma Antica e Moderna The Grand View of Rome by G. Vasi The Environs of Rome: Frascati, Tivoli, Albano and other small towns near Rome A 1781 map of Rome by G. Vasi An 1852 map of Rome by P. Letarouilly Rome seen by a 1905 armchair traveller in the paintings by Alberto Pisa The 14 historical districts of Rome An abridged history of Rome How to spend a peaceful day in Rome Baroque sculptors and their works The coats of arms of the popes in the monuments of Rome Pages on a specific pope Pages complementing the itineraries and the views by Giuseppe Vasi Walks in the Roman countryside and in other towns of Latium following Ferdinand Gregorovius A Directory of links to the Churches of Rome A Directory of links to the Palaces and Villas of Rome A Directory of links to the Other Monuments of Rome A Directory of Baroque Architects with links to their works A Directory of links to Monuments of Ancient Rome A Directory of links to Monuments of Medieval Rome A Directory of links to Monuments of Renaissance A Directory of links to Monuments of the Late Renaissance A list of the most noteworthy Roman Families Directories of fountains, obelisks, museums, etc. Books and guides used for developing this web site An illustrated Glossary of Art Terms Venice and the Levant Roman recollections in Florence A list of Italian towns shown in this web site Venetian Fortresses in Greece Vienna seen by an Italian XVIIIth century traveller A list of foreign towns shown in this web site
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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in June 2009.

To the Italian 
visitors of my web site

Piazza laterale di S. Giovanni (Book 2) (Map A4) (Day 1) (View C9) (Rione Monti)

In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Today's view
The obelisk
The fountain
Palazzo del Laterano
S. Giovanni in Laterano
Scala Santa

The Plate (No. 34)

The lateral place of St. John in Lateran

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.

Small ViewSmall Map


The Square today
The view in May 2009

If only the square were not a focal point of Rome's traffic, the view would almost exactly match the plate by Vasi.

The Obelisk

The Obelisk
(left to right): The obelisk; one of the inscriptions dictated by Pope Sixtus V; detail of its reliefs; bronze top

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

The view
(left) Fountain; (right) detail showing the heraldic symbols of Pope Clement VIII (stars and stripe) and of Pope Sixtus V (lion and pears)

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 Palace

The Palace
Fašade towards S. Maria Maggiore and detail of its cornice

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.

The Palace
Portal on the Piazza and enlargement of the coat of arms

The Church

Fašade of the Church
(left) Transept fašade of S. Giovanni in Laterano; (right) medieval bell towers

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.

Coats of arms
(left) Coat of arms of Pope Clement XII; (right) coat of arms of Pope Sixtus V

Scala Santa

Scala Santa
(left) Fašade; (right) the staircase

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:

Obelisco Egizio sulla Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano
Molto celebre, e maraviglioso Ŕ il grande obelisco, che si vede inalzato in mezzo a questa vastissima piazza, poichŔ da Ramise Re di Egitto era stato eretto in Tebe entro un vastissimo tempio in onore del Sole, e dipoi da Cambise fu sottratto dalle rovine di quella CittÓ con grande industria, per conservare la sua mole, che come Ammiano dimostra, era assai maggiore di quella, che Ŕ oggidý; perci˛ Augusto considerando la di lui eccessiva grandezza non ebbe coraggio di rimuoverlo: ma Costantino Magno levandolo dal proprio sito, per il Nilo lo fece condurre ad Alessandria, e mentre preparava una nave di 300. remi per condurlo a Roma, egli morý prima di effettuare la sua impresa, che poi da Costanzo suo figliuolo fu compita felicemente; indi portato per il Tevere fu introdotto in Roma per la porta Ostiense, e poi nel mezzo del Circo massimo fu alzato. E quello di granito rosso ornato tutto di segni egizj, ed Ŕ lungo 115. piedi in circa senza la base, e piedistallo, ed Ŕ largo nel suo piantato piedi nove e mezzo da un lato, e dall'altro piedi otto. Il Pontefice Sisto V. l'anno 1588. lo fece disotterrare dalle rovine del detto Circo massimo, nel quale giaceva 14. palmi sotterra, insieme con quello, che poi il medesimo Pontefice drizz˛, come dicemmo, nella piazza del Popolo. E perchŔ era rotto in tre pezzi, fecelo raggiustare, e quivi incontro al portico della benedizione, e al palazzo, che egli aveva fatti fabbricare con disegno del Cav. Domenico Fontana, a' 10. di Agosto fu drizzato in onore di Ges¨ Cristo vero Sole di giustizia, ponendovi in cuna il segno della ss. Croce di metallo, alta palmi 9: e mezzo: sicchŔ dal piano della piazza fino alla sommitÓ della Croce Ŕ alto palmi dugento quattro. A piŔ di questo maravigliosa sasso fu poi fatto un fonte di acqua perenne.
Ora passando alla sagrosanta Basilica; osserveremo il nobilissimo portico, che Ŕ da questa parte, non giÓ il principale, ma bensý il laterale, ornato di stucchi dorati, di pitture, e di una magnifica statua di metallo fatta dal Rino Capitolo in memoria di Enrico IV. Re di Francia benefattore di questa Basilica. Sofferse questa un grande incendio lĺanno 1308. risedendo in Avignone Clemente V. e rimanendo abbruciata la chiesa, il palazzo, e la canonica, il medesimo Pontefice ordin˛, che sý rifacesse la chiesa, il palazzo, e la canonica in una forma pi¨ sa e pi¨ bella. Gregorio XI. avendo riportata la Sede Apostolica in Roma aprý questa porta laterale, e poi Martino V. fece il gran pavimento intarsiato di pietre dure, e fece dipingere le pareti da Pietro Pisano; Pio IV. alz˛ i due campanili, e Sisto V. fece il divisato portico per dare la benedizione al popolo nelle feste principali, ed il magnifico palazzo latrale, ornato di pitture e stucchi dorati, che ora Ŕ adattato per conservatorio delle povere zittelle orfane.
Scala Santa
Santa si dice questa Scala, perchŔ essendo stata del palazzo di Pilato, pi¨ volte vi salý il nostro Redentore in tempo della sua passione. Quando fu portata a Roma, fu collocata presso la basilica Lateranense; ma poi da Sisto V. essendo in quel medesimo luogo edificato il palazzo Pontificio, eresse poco discosto un gran portico con cinque scale, ed in mezzo colloc˛ la Santa, ad effetto che con devozione si salisse in ginocchio, e poi si scendesse dalle altre 4. laterali. Questa costa di 28. gradini di marmo greco, i quali per il continuo salire del popolo Cristiano, son tutti incavati, per lo che furono coperti di grosse tavole. In capo a questa colloc˛ le reliquie dell'antichissima cappella segreta del Papa, detta Sancta Sanctorum coll'immagine del ss. Salvatore, nella quale non Ŕ lecito ad alcuno di entrare.

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