The page covers:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Fašade and Portico
Interior and Borromini's Renovation
Exhibits from the Museums
The Tribune (Triclinio Leoniano) and Oratorio del SS. Sacramento
This view of S. Giovanni in Laterano was for Vasi a view over very modern
buildings, or to be more precise over very recently modernized buildings, because the new fašades of the basilica and of the adjoining palace were
completed in 1735 and the Tribune of Triclinio Leoniano, the large niche on the right side of the plate, was built in 1743.
These grand monuments were situated in a scarcely populated neighbourhood of XVIIIth century Rome, which had lost the importance it had prior to the move of the papal residence from the Lateran Palace to Avignon in 1309. The name Lateran derives from that of the owners of the area in the Ist century AD.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Fašade of the Basilica; 2) Palazzo Pontificio; 3) Women's Ward of Ospedale di S. Giovanni in Laterano; 4) Triclinio; 5) Ancient aqueduct. 3) and 5) are covered in other pages. The small map shows also 6) Oratorio del SS. Sacramento. Vasi dedicated two other etchings to the Basilica: in plate 34 he showed its northern lateral fašade and in plate 101 the Baptistery.
The view in August 2021
A large modern esplanade (a gathering point for political rallies) allows a good view of the Basilica and of the adjoining palace, which have not been modified since Vasi's time.
It is extremely imposing - that of St. Peter's alone is more so; and when from far off on the Campagna you see the colossal images of the mitred saints along the top standing distinct against the sky, you forget their coarse construction and their inflated draperies. The view from the great space which stretches from the church steps to the city wall is the very prince of the views.
Read more of Henry James's account of his visit to this site in 1873.
I came at last to S. John Laterans Church, the Mother Church of all Churches in the World, and the Popes Cathedral. In saying this I have said enough and I say this after
the words which are written in the architrave over the Porch of this Church, and after the Bull of Gregory the XI who declared this Church to be the Popes chief seat, and to have the preheminency over the other Churches, Orbis et Urbis;
even over S. Peter's Church too by name.
Richard Lassels' The Voyage of Italy, or a Compleat Journey through Italy in ca 1668
The old fašade had a long inscription, which was rewritten in the new one between the portico and the loggia. Its initial words "DOGMATE PAPALI DATUR AC SIMUL IMPERIALI QUOD SIM CUNCTARUM MATER CAPUT ECCLESIARUM ..." state that "By papal decision and similarly by imperial decree I (the Basilica/the Roman Church) am the mother of all, the head of the Church". The inscription was probably dictated by Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) and it is related to the so-called Donation of Constantine, a forged document according to which Emperor Constantine donated the city of Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I (see an oratory with frescoes covering the event).
After Pope Sixtus V had redesigned the lateral fašade of S. Giovanni in Laterano in 1589, many popes considered replacing the old main fašade with a new one, but it was only in 1732 that Pope Clement XII took steps to provide the ancient basilica with a new grand entrance.
Twenty-three projects were reviewed by Accademia di S. Luca, the guild of the Roman artists;
the choice fell on the project submitted by Alessandro Galilei, a young architect from Florence, who maybe was helped by the fact that the Pope came from that city.
The facade is of a style of architecture kindred to that of St. Peter's, but superior in beauty and simplicity; the perpendicular of the columns and pilasters, which support the massive entablature, being broken only by the horizontal line of the balconies, running across nearly in the middle.
George Stillman Hillard - Six Months in Italy in 1847-1848
During the XIXth century the fašade was regarded as an anticipation of Neoclassicism and it was highly praised, although it retained some features of the Roman Baroque tradition (e.g. the balustrade with fifteen gigantic statues).
Fašade: (left) Coat of arms of Pope Clement XII; (right) mosaic portraying Jesus Christ by Jacopo Torriti (ca. 1291) (see a larger image) between two angels by Paolo Campi
A large inscription dedicates the basilica to Jesus Christ Saviour, to St. John the Baptist and to St. John the Evangelist. Originally it was known as Basilica del Salvatore, but during the
pontificate of St. Gregory the Great (590-604), it was dedicated also to the two Saints, owing to the construction of oratories named after them near the basilica.
The original dedication was evident in the mosaic by Jacopo Torriti which decorated the tympanum of the old fašade (and of the new one). The hospital near the basilica was dedicated to the Saviour too.
The main coat of arms of Pope Clement XII is inside the loggia, but other coats of arms can be seen in the portico (see below and in the image used as background for this page) and on the fašade.
(left) Statue of Emperor Constantine in the portico; (centre) another statue of the Emperor on the balustrade of Piazza del Campidoglio; (right) coat of arms of Pope Clement XII in the portico
The Emperor is said to have funded the construction of the basilica on the site of the former barracks of the equites singulares (selected cavalrymen). These cavalrymen sided with Maxentius, Constantine's rival, and their barracks was pulled down.
An equestrian statue of the Emperor by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was visible from the portico of S. Pietro and Pope Clement XII placed an ancient statue of the Emperor in that of S. Giovanni: the arms and the lower part of the body are a Renaissance addition.
The portico contains another ancient work of art: the bronze doors of Curia Julia, the hall where the Roman Senate had its meetings, were used for the central entrance to the basilica. Because of their smaller size they were placed inside a bronze frame which was decorated with the heraldic symbols of Pope Alexander VII.
In 1646 Pope Innocent X entrusted Francesco Borromini with the renovation of the interior, but he set many limits to the scope of the architect's task.
Part of the ceiling of the main nave with the coat of arms of Pope Pius V
The Pope did not want the wooden coffered ceiling to be touched. It was made in 1562-1567 by Flaminio Bolongier (or Boulanger) who coordinated a team of expert woodworkers. It is a beautiful piece of art, but it represented a main constraint for Borromini because it did not fit with the way the architect used to link the walls to the ceiling (as he did at S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and at Cappella dei Re Magi). Bolongier designed also the ceilings of S. Maria in Aracoeli and of Sala dei Trionfi at Palazzo dei Conservatori. You may wish to see a page on the Ceilings of the Roman Churches.
(left/centre) Heraldic symbols of Pope Martin V Colonna on the Cosmati floor of the main nave; (right-above) heraldic symbol of Pope Innocent X on the passages between the main nave and the side ones; (right-below) heraldic symbol of Pope Alexander VII at the entrance to the main nave
The second constraint imposed on Borromini was related to the floor of the main nave. This was made in the XIIIth century, but it was very poorly maintained during the absence of the Popes from Rome. Pope Martin V promoted its restoration in ca 1420. Borromini was in favour of rather plain floors which would not distract the visitor from the architectural design of the building, but he had to comply with Pope Innocent X's request. His relationship with the Pope was not as strong as that his rival Bernini had with Pope Urban VIII and Pope Alexander VII. Actually Borromini reported to Monsignor Virgilio Spada, with whom he was on very friendly terms, but the lack of a direct contact with the Pope did not allow him to obtain a relaxation of the constraints.
Bernini was given carte blanche by Pope Urban VIII to create an entirely novel canopy at S. Pietro, but Borromini was not allowed to do the same at S. Giovanni in Laterano. The Basilica was partially destroyed by a fire in 1308 and again damaged by another fire in 1361. These fires caused a silver canopy to melt down. It was only in 1370 that a new canopy was erected at the initiative of Pope Urban V. It resembles that made by Arnolfo di Cambio at S. Cecilia, but it is taller because its upper section houses the silver reliquaries of the heads of St. Peter and of St. Paul.
The transept was outside the scope of Borromini's task. It had been decorated by Pope Clement VIII in a very lavish way, with marbles, frescoes and a great altar. It could be accessed via the lateral fašade and those who entered from there had the feeling that the transept was the church and not a part of it. You may wish to see the main altar, the gigantic organ and other elements of its decoration.
Finally Borromini was asked not to modify the apse of the basilica which was decorated with a large mosaic. It was made in 1291 by Jacopo Torriti (and others) at the initiative of Pope Nicholas IV. The Pope had been a Franciscan friar and he requested to include St. Francis and St. Anthony of Padua among the saints portrayed in the mosaic.
Pope Nicholas IV also promoted the decoration of S. Maria Maggiore with mosaics on the fašade and in the apse (the latter ones by Torriti).
Unfortunately in the 1880s Pope Leo XIII decided to enlarge the apse. A project which would have raised and moved back its walls was rejected perhaps because of cost considerations and the apse was pulled down. The new apse was decorated with a mosaic which depicts the same scene as the old one, but without the technical and stylistic features of Torriti's work.
The architect it seems had an antipathy to pillars; he walled them up in the buttresses, and adorned the buttresses with groups of pilasters: he raised the windows, and in order to crown them with pediments, broke the architrave and frieze, and even removed the cornice: he made niches for statues and topped them with crowns and pediments of every contorted form; in short, he has broken every straight line in the edifice, and filled it with semi-circles, spirals and triangles.
John Chetwode Eustace - A Classical Tour through Italy in 1802
The interior is rich and imposing, though not in the purest taste. The features of the basilica have disappeared; as the columns which once separated the nave from the aisles are imprisoned in piers, patched over with ornaments in stucco and marble. Twelve colossal statues of the apostles in marble - six on either hand - occupy niches scooped out of these piers. Hillard
The contrast of styles between the main nave Borromini redesigned and the other parts of the basilica is evident; the new decoration is based on white stuccoes and dark marbles, whereas the ceiling, the floor, the canopy and the apse are full of colours. The rows of columns which separated the main nave from the side ones were replaced by large pillars and sections of walls, so that the original design of the IVth century basilica is less evident than it is at S. Maria Maggiore.
Borromini placed some gigantic coats of arms of Pope Innocent X in the main and the side naves: three of them were selected by Filippo Juvarra for his book on the coats of arms of the popes.
Borromini designed twelve gigantic niches which were decorated with precious marbles in the main nave: his plan was that the best sculptors of Rome, including Bernini, should fill them with statues of the Apostles. Pope Alexander VII, the successor of Pope Innocent X, was more interested in the design and decoration of Piazza S. Pietro, than in completing S. Giovanni in Laterano and the niches remained empty for sixty years. The statues were placed in the niches between 1706 and 1718 at the initiative of Pope Clement XI.
(left) One of the two right naves; (centre) monument to Pope Alexander III; (right) "optical" floor
Borromini was free to redesign the four smaller naves: he made use of stucco angels as architectural elements (see an example in the historical section) and he emphasized the nave perspective by lowering the final arch. Their floor was paved with marble tiles creating an illusion of three-dimensional boxes, which can be noticed also in ancient floor mosaics, e.g. at Villa Adriana and at Aquileia. He also designed some funerary monuments to be placed there. They were dedicated to popes of the Middle Ages who were buried in S. Giovanni in Laterano. In their design Borromini showed his talent for combining curved lines and in the use of stucco (you may wish to see those to St. Pope Sergius IV and to Pope Boniface VIII). Overall these naves are an excellent summary of Borromini's views on architecture and decoration. One of them contains the once famous sweating stone.
S. Giovanni in Laterano contained some funerary monuments which Borromini redesigned in line with the taste of his time.
Cardinal Martinez de Chavez was Archpriest of the Lateran Basilica in 1444. He is best known for having founded S. Antonio dei Portoghesi and the adjoining hospice for pilgrims.
His monument is regarded as one of the first Early Renaissance works of art in Rome, but Isaia da Pisa placed the sarcophagus and the other statues inside a decorated white marble frame resembling a triumphal arch, which was most likely already lost at the time of Borromini.
A Monument to Cardinal Riccardo degli Annibaldi by Arnolfo di Cambio was moved to the cloister which retains many decorative elements of the basilica prior to Borromini's renovation.
S. Giovanni in Laterano houses a limited number of funerary monuments of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. Some of them are no longer in their original location. That to Mons. Filippucci has ended in a hall which was built near the new apse (it now houses a gift shop). The monument is an example of a pattern developed by Bernini which shows a portrait of the dead inside a medallion.
In Carcani's stuccoes,
bodies are immensely elongated and fragile, as if they were without bones, while draperies laid in masses of parallel folds envelop them. Some of Carcani s work, particularly the stuccoes in the Cappella Lancellotti in S. Giovanni in Laterano, can only be described as a strange proto-Rococo, and the eighteenth-century charm of
the sweet heads of his figures would easily deceive many a connoisseur. It is surprising
that this Rococo transformation of Bernini's late manner could be performed, so soon
after the latter's death, by a sculptor who had worked in close association with him.
Rudolf Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 Penguin Books 1958
This chapel was redesigned by Giovanni Antonio de' Rossi in 1674-1686 and the decoration was made by Filippo Carcani. They both worked with Bernini.
The Corsini chapel is entitled to particular consideration, and may be regarded as one of the most perfect buildings of the kind existing. (..) This chapel is in the form of a Greek Cross. The entrance occupies the lower, the altar the upper part: a superb mausoleum terminates each end of the transept: the rail that separates the chapel from the aisle of the church is of gilt brass: the pavement is the finest marble; the walls are incrusted with alabaster and jasper, and adorned with basso relievos; six pillars adorn the recesses. (..) In the whole, though the Corsini chapel has not escaped criticism, yet it struck me as the most beautiful edifice of the kind; splendid without gaudiness, the valuable materials that form its pavement, line its walls and adorn its vaults, are so disposed as to mix together their varied hues into soft and delicate tints; while the size and symmetry of its form enable the eye to contain it with ease, and contemplate its unity, its proportions, and its ornaments without effort. Eustace
The Corsini chapel, built by Clement XII, after the design of Alessandro Galilei, was dedicated by him to S. Andrew Corsini, one of his Ancestors. The chapel is entered by a beautiful gilt bronze gate. (..) The two statues of Innocence and Penitence, on the little pediment of the altar, are by Bartolomeo Pincellotti.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1843
Galilei's Cappella Corsini is a balanced Greek-cross design articulated by a uniform Corinthian order crowned by a simple hemispherical dome with classical coffers. Severely classical when compared to the other works of these years, the chapel is still far from real Neo-Classicism, mainly on account of the sculptural decoration and the subtle colour symphony of its marbles with pale violets and mottled greens prevailing. Wittkower
In the niche to the left, as we
entered, is the beautiful sepulchre of Clement XII, the urn of which was found near the Pantheon,
and is hence supposed to have belonged to the baths
of Agrippa. (..) The niche is adorned moreover
with two porphyry columns, having gilt bronze bases
and capitals. Donovan
Maini's most important works are in Galilei's Cappella Corsini in S. Giovanni in Laterano: the bronze statue of Clement XII (1734), almost a straight classicizing copy after the pope of Bernini's Urban tomb, and, more characteristic, the monument to Cardinal Neri Corsini. (..) The rich sculptural decoration of the Cappella Corsini is as vital for our understanding of the position of sculptors in the 1730s as the Apostles of the Lateran were for that of about 1710. No less than ten sculptors were employed. Wittkower
Musei Capitolini: Lex de imperio Vespasiani
S. Giovanni in Laterano stands on the foundations of ancient buildings.
Repairs to its structures or additions to them have led to some interesting findings. A bronze plate with a long inscription was discovered in 1347
at the time of Cola di Rienzo. It was a law which gave a formal endorsement to the power of Emperor Vespasian.
His predecessors from Augustus to Nero had ruled the Empire without formally abolishing the traditional Republican system which was based on the supreme authority of the Senate.
The key passage of the law is in the paragraph between asterisks. Because the paragraph has a "typographical" error (humarum instead of humanarum) some archaeologists think the bronze plate was scrapped. This would explain why it was found in the Lateran where it had been used as building material. The inscription dictated by Vespasian to celebrate repairs he made to the aqueduct at Porta Maggiore reflects the effects of this law, by which imperator became a lifetime appointment and not a temporary one.
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica a Palazzo Corsini: Sedia o Trono Corsini (Corsini's Chair or Throne)
During the excavations to lay down the new foundations of Cappella Corsini an unusual type of ancient work of art was found. It is dated IInd or Ist century BC and it is decorated with scenes which include the hunting of a boar, a typical Etruscan subject. It became one of the most famous exhibits of the collection of antiquities which Cardinal Neri Maria Corsini, nephew of the Pope, gathered in his palace at Via della Lungara. You may wish to see St. Gregory's Chair, another ancient chair/throne.
Treasury of S. Giovanni in Laterano: details of "Croce Costantiniana" (silver and gold): (left) The Creation of Eve; (right) The Original Sin
that wee were heere, which was on the 6th of January,
wee saw by chance a great Crosse of silver that was given
by Constantin him selfe to this Church, and hath beene
ever since preserved here.
Francis Mortoft's Journal of his travels in France and Italy (1659)
S. Giovanni in Laterano has a small museum/treasury. It houses some precious objects which were used during ceremonies or as reliquaries. The Cross shown above, notwithstanding its reference to Constantine, was made in the XIIIth or the XIVth century. It was used during processions and in particular in that of Corpus Domini which was often led by the Pope. You may wish to see the Cross of Desiderius at Brescia.
Treasury of S. Giovanni in Laterano: Reliquary containing the Tunic of St. John Evangelist. It is decorated with scenes from the lives of Abraham (the Sacrifice of Isaac) and Moses (Nehustan, the bronze serpent on a pole which God told Moses to erect to protect the Jews during their journey in the desert)
According to tradition the tunic was moved to the basilica by St. Gregory the Great and this could have led to its dedication to St. John. The relic was usually shown to the public on Easter Sunday.
Palazzo del Laterano: (above) eastern fašade; (below) decoration of the cornice
Pope Clement XII paid tribute to Pope Sixtus V by adopting a decoration very close to that existing on the other sides of Palazzo del Laterano. The lions placed on this side, however do not hold pears, but frame the Pope's coat of arms.
(left) Tribune of Triclinio Leoniano; (right) entrance to Oratorio del SS. Sacramento
The large Tribune adjoining Scala Santa was built in 1743 by
Ferdinando Fuga for Pope Benedict XIV and it was decorated with mosaics
which are copies of those which existed in the banqueting hall (Triclinio) built by Pope Leo III in the old
Oratorio del SS. Sacramento is a chapel which belonged to a brotherhood having the objective of assisting the dying. It was built in the second half of the XVIIth century at the side of Scala Santa.
Mosaic of the Tribune
I wish here to mention an inscription I have seen, before I forget it: "Glory to God in highest, peace on earth TO MEN OF GOOD WILL!" It is not good scripture, but it is sound Catholic and human nature. This is in letters of gold around the apsis of a mosaic group at the side of the scala santa, Church of St. John Lateran, the mother and mistress of all the Catholic churches of the world. The group represents the Saviour, St. Peter, Pope Leo, St. Silvester, Constantine, and Charlemagne. Read more of Mark Twain's comments on some details of this mosaic.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Costantiniana, e Aurea fu detta questa sacrosanta Basilica, perchŔ dall'Imperatore
Costantino fu eretta con magnificenza, insieme coll'abitazione del Sommo Pontefice; e
Lateranense sý dice, perchŔ edificata sul palazzo di tale famiglia nobile, che poi era
passato in domino di Costantino suddetto. Da S. Silvestro fu consagrata con rito solenne
a' 9. di Novembre intorno all'anno 320. di nostra salute, in onore del ss. Salvatore,
e per decreto Papale, ed Imperiale fu dichiarata Capo di tutte le altre chiese del
Mondo Cattolico, come ne fanno testimonianza i versi seguenti, i quali erano intagliati
intorno intorno alla medesima.
Ut lex demonstrat, hic qua fuit edita quondam,
Lex hinc exivit, mentes qua ducit ab imis
Et vulgata dedit lumen per climata Sacli.
Flavius Constantinus,felix, victor, magister
utriusque militia, Patricius, & Consul
Ordinarius, & Padusia Illustris
famina ejus uxor voti compotes
de proprio fecerunt.