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San Giovanni in Laterano is a heavily restored and remodelled 4th century basilica which is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, having its address as Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano in the rione Monti. Pictures on Wikimedia Commons are here. An English Wikipedia page is here.


The official name of the basilica in Italian is Santissimo Salvatore e Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano.

The principal dedication is, and always has been, to Christ our Saviour. Subsidiary dedications are to SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, hence the full name.

The usual familiar name in English is invariably "St John Lateran", and in Italian San Giovanni in Laterano. These will do for most purposes -but should be avoided in liturgical contexts.


This is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, of which the Pope is the reigning bishop. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church has named it "The Mother of All Churches" (Omnium ecclesiarum mater), and it has first place in honour of all churches ever built.

This is demonstrated on the façade, where a subsidiary inscription proclaims that Dogmate papali datur ac simul imperiali, quod sim cunctarum mater et caput ecclesiarum ("It is given by Papal and Imperial decree that I am the mother and head of all churches").

Non-Catholics may find it odd that St Peter's is not the senior church, but this is because of the theory behind the authority held by the Pope. Catholics believe that bishops are the heirs of the College of the Apostles with St Peter as its head, so the Pope is the head of all the bishops by virtue of his being the heir of St Peter as Bishop of Rome. St Peter's is the preferred location for the exercise of the pope's universal authority over the entire Church, but St John Lateran is the location of the source of that authority.

This is the senior of the four major basilicas of Rome, the other three (on order of seniority) being San Pietro in VaticanoSan Paolo fuori le Mura and Santa Maria Maggiore. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI abolished the title of “patriarchal basilica” formerly also given to these four churches.

St John Lateran is also the senior of the so-called Papal Basilicas which include, a well as these four, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (also a former "patriarchal basilica") and two churches in Assisi the altars of which are reserved for celebrations of Mass by the Pope (except by special dispensation, which is actually routinely given).

A recent development has been the bestowal of the title of "archbasilica" (arcibasilica) to emphasize the church's primacy.

It has been parochial for centuries, but nowadays the parish is not based in the basilica itself but in the baptistery.


Ancient times[]


In Republican times the locality of the basilica was a convenient exurban open space outside the Porta Caelimontana in the old Servian Walls, which was used for casual recreational and military training activities. However, the area was becoming inner-suburban even before the Aurelian Walls enclosed it to the south. These were erected by AD 275, by which time some villas of wealthy people had already been erected in the neighbourhood. (The ancient Romans themselves called such an exurban house a villa urbana, because it was easily accessed from the city for a short country stay.)

The present Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano was an important road junction in ancient times. It is suggested (with some debate) that before the Aurelian Walls were erected the ancient main road of the Via Tuscolana ran up the west side of the present basilical complex and along the present Via dei Santi Quattro Coronati. This route was provided with a postern gate where the ancient city wall does a zig-zag, but traffic then mainly used the Porta Asinaria. The importance of this road is that the baptistery preserves the alignment in its major axis.


The original source of the name Lateran was the family of the Laterani, which claimed descent from the 4th century BC consul Lucius Sextus Lateranus. It had a distinguished member in one Plautius Lateranus, who narrowly escaped with his life and phallus after having sex with Messalina the wife of Emperor Claudius but was then executed by Nero for suspicion of involvement in the conspiracy of Piso. According to Juvenal, the emperor then helped himself to the "impressive houses of the Laterani" which might (or might not) have included a residence here.

Whatever, it seems more certain that a villa here was granted to the consul Sextius Lateranus in AD 197 by his friend the emperor Septimius Severus. Whether this was a restitution or a simple gift, is for modern scholars to guess if they want to (the fashion nowadays is not to). This action by the emperor gave the name to the locality -however, the actual geographic term in Laterano is only unambiguously found in the sources from the 11th century.

Domus Faustae[]

The first documented evidence for a possible papal headquarters hereabouts is in a work by St Optatus of Milevis, an African writer. According to it, Pope Miltiades held a synod in the year 313 convenerunt in domum Faustae in "Laterani" [sic]. The editor of the critical edition of the saint's works unilaterally corrected the corrupt Laterani to Laterano, which is how the remark is usually copied and which gives the false impression that in Laterano was already a locality.

For centuries the lady Fausta, in whose house the synod convened, was identified with Fausta, the emperor Constantine's second wife who was herself a convert and a daughter of his defeated rival. However, to be noted are:

There is no evidence that this Fausta was the empress (the latter had not lived in Rome since she was a little girl). Neither is there any evidence that this Domus Faustae was the original house of the Laterani. Finally, there is no evidence that the Domus Faustae was donated to the pope to become the original papal palace. The pope might have borrowed the property for the day to hold the synod!


In Imperial times this locality on an outlier of the Caelian Hill counted as prestigious, and several large and palatial villa-type town houses have been excavated nearby.

Under the Ospedale di San Giovanni to the north-west was found in 1959 a very high-status residence in use from the 1st to the 4th centuries, thought to have been the residence of Domitia Lucilla the mother of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The suggested ownership of this house depends on the name of the empress being found on a piece of lead pipe near the obelisk in the Piazza di San Giovanni Laterano. This is important in the context of the basilica because it has been claimed as the original location of the famous equestrian statue of the emperor, which stood for centuries where the obelisk now is before being moved to the Campidoglio in 1538. Mediaeval people thought that it was of the emperor Constantine, and called it the Caballus Constantini.

In the acute angle formed by the present Via dell'Amba Aradam and the Via dei Laterani was traced another large residence, originally two large dwellings in the 1st century but combined into one larger one in the 4th. This is one of several suggested claimants for the title of the House of the Laterani and/or the Domus Faustae.

Another large house around a trapezoidal courtyard was located under the basilica's apse in 1884 during restoration work. This has also been claimed as the Domus Faustae.


It is known that there was a bath complex on the baptistery site in the late 3rd century, although how this evolved into the baptistery is disputed. It is thought that the baths belonged to the "Trapezoidal House" mentioned above, since they were next door to it. There is an impressive standing ruin of another bath-house west of the baptistery, across an ancient street which was (possibly) the former Via Tusculana. It is thought that this also belonged to a private villa, but which one (those already described, or an unknown other) cannot be decided without further excavations.


Under the basilica itself the archaeologists found the remains of a wealthy 1st century house with rich decoration of Neronian date. In about the year AD 197 it was demolished and replaced by a very large barracks complex called the Castra nova equitum singularium, which was for the mounted bodyguard or equites singulares of the emperor Septimius Severus. (The ancient Romans weren't complete geniuses -as well as not being able to invent the wheelbarrow, they did not have stirrups either. This meant that these troops were not very effective in warfare, but were mainly for show. The Roman army relied on infantry.)

The period of the civil war which eventually put the emperor Constantine on the throne involved the city of Rome being held by the emperor Maxentius, a confirmed pagan (as were most of the city's elite) and also the last Roman emperor actually to reside at Rome permanently.The equites singulares were part of Maxentius's army, and loyal to him. The Battle of the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312 saw the triumph of Constantine and the rout of the equites. This seems to have been one factor in the choice of the site of the basilica, for by demolishing the barracks of the elite troops of his enemy and erecting a Christian basilica over the foundations, Constantine's victory was symbolically made even more complete.


Constantine published the Edict of Milan in February 313, ending official disapproval of Christianity, and went on to make Christianity the official government cult of the Empire. He did not, however, suppress paganism and another motivation for choosing this rather out-of-the-way suburban site was its distance from the great pagan public institutions of Rome. By tradition the emperor granted Pope Miltiades the barracks and the so-called Domus Faustae for his headquarters as soon as he entered the city as victor in 312, and a church edifice was immediately consecrated here on 9 November 312. This is much too early, and is obviously dependent on the casual remark by Optatus already referred to.

It is not actually known where the pope had his headquarters in the city before then. Two centuries of archaeological investigations have led to not one single instance of a dedicated pre-Constantinian Christian place of worship being positively identified. This negative evidence is now thought to be significant. As well as private houses for small gatherings, it is suspected that early Roman Christians merely rented commercial meeting-halls for their larger gatherings -and so the pope might not have had a permanent and Church-owned cathedral before Constantine at all. (It may be noted here that the old idea that early Roman Christians lived and worshipped in the catacombs is complete rubbish.)

The barracks and the trapezoidal house next door were partially demolished for the new basilica, and the voids created by removing the roofs and the upper parts of the walls were packed with rubble to create a platform on which to erect the new basilica.

There is a serious problem in interpreting the functions of the several so-called Constantinian Christian basilicas. See Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura -Basilica Constantiniana. Basically, the revisionist hypothesis is that only the Lateran basilica was a church as nowadays understood -that is, a place where the Eucharist was celebrated. The others seem to have been funerary monuments without altars - this applies even to the old St Peter's.

The new basilica was consecrated on Sunday 9 November, almost certainly in the year 318. This makes it the oldest known church in Rome.

Form of first basilica[]

Substantial alterations throughout the centuries have made some aspects of the form of the first basilica debatable. The following is a fair scholarly consensus:

The edifice was 100 metres long (almost exactly), and 54.5 metres wide. There was a central nave with two side aisles on each side (the Italian nomenclature describes these as "five naves"), with each side aisle being half the width of the central nave. The end of the latter was occupied by a semi-circular apse ten metres deep. The inner side aisles were the same length as the central nave, but the outer side aisles were ten metres shorter and ended at a pair of large rectangular chambers which protruded beyond the external side walls on each side. It is not known what these chambers were for. They were not a transept, and seem to have been in the wrong place to be pastophoria or side-chambers for the storage of liturgical items and the preparation of the liturgical elements.

The outside was apparently unadorned, although lack of descriptions is not evidence of lack. The entrance arrangements are unknown. An atrium with colonnaded ambulatories is a possibility, although the one known to be here seems to have been built later (as at St Peter's). Otherwise there would have been a single-storey narthex or loggia, entering the church (it is thought) through three doorways -not five.

The central nave and side aisles were separated by colonnades supporting horizontal entablatures (that is, trabeated). On either side of the central nave were nineteen or twenty columns in red granite from Aswan in Egypt (the same stone as used in the obelisk outside), and the side aisles were separated by a colonnade on each side of twenty-one columns in green verde antico marble.

The roof was open, with trusses (in contrast to ancient Roman basilicas, which were vaulted in concrete).

As might be expected, the interior was lavishly decorated. If the 7th century entry in the Liber Pontificalis is to be trusted (a big "if"), the free-standing main altar had a fastigium (baldacchino ?) in precious metals. This featured a representation in silver of Christ accompanied by the twelve apostles on the side facing the nave, Christ with four angels holding swords in silver on the side facing the apse and a golden canopy from which hung a chandelier in gold. It is not clear whether these were silver statues "in the round", or high reliefs, but the Liber has the main statue of Christ weighing one hundred and forty Roman pounds in silver and being five feet high. Seven altars in silver flanked the main one, which possibly displayed relics and sacred vessels (they would not have been used for Mass at this period). The conch of the apse containing the cathedra had a mosaic featuring vine-scrolls in gold.

The interpretation of the description of this fastigium is very difficult, as it might have been like a baldacchino as now understood, or more like a propylaeum or triumphal gateway separating the sanctuary from the nave (the latter seems to be the more preferred interpretation). A further problem of analysis was provided by the archaeologists excavating under the floor of the nave, who found two lines of rectangular marble blocks with sockets in front of the sanctuary. These, called the solea, are posited to have continued down the central nave, and to have supported some sort of processional canopy. Such an item is not reconcilable with pontifical liturgies performed in later centuries, but then nobody knows how the basilica functioned liturgically when it was built anyway.

The interior as a whole had forty-six hanging lamps in silver, donated by the emperor. He also gave a patrimony in land to the new church as a working institution, in Greece and North Africa as well as nearer home in Calabria, Campania and in the city itself.

5th to 7th centuries[]

The church was first simply known as the Basilica Constantiniana, but it seems to have been dedicated to Christ Our Saviour from the beginning. However, the first mention of the dedication dates from the mid 7th century in the reign of Pope Martin I (649-55). At an early stage it was also nicknamed the Basilica Aurea, "The Golden Basilica", either because of its rich interior decoration or because its inside walls had been revetted with yellow marble (there is archaeological evidence that the floor was).

The original silver fastigium was looted by the Visigoths when they sacked the city in 410, and replaced by Emperor Valentinian III in the reign of Pope Sixtus III (432-40). The same pope might have built the present baptistery, but this is disputed (see section below). A much more systematic sack of Rome was undertaken by the Vandals in 455, and the basilica was apparently stripped of its precious metals. It was restored by Pope St Leo the Great, and one scholarly interpretation is that this pope rebuilt the apse with an ambulacrum or semi-circular outside walkway (this is disputed). His successor, Pope Hilary (461-468) founded three subsidiary oratories dedicated to St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist and the Holy Cross which were to each side and the back of the baptistery (the last-named was demolished in 1588). These were the first of many subsidiary chapels and churches around the basilica in the Middle Ages.

The first reference to a papal palace here dates from the year 501. Although the sensible tradition is that the popes took up residence here from the time of Constantine, there is actually no proof of this.

There was another restoration by Pope St Gregory the Great in about 590. It is regularly claimed in publications that the dedication of the basilica then changed to St John the Baptist, and that a Benedictine monastery was attached to it. This was a malicious fabrication propagated by the Benedictine abbey of Montecassino from the 12th century in order to boost its prestige, and should be ignored. The basilica has never been administered by monks, only by secular priests succeeded by canons regular.

The Oratory of St Venantius was founded next to the baptistery by Pope John IV (640-642). He was from Dalmatia (modern Croatia), which was being ruined by incursions of Slav barbarians at the time (these hominids made the Germanic barbarians look high-tech), and so built the oratory for saints' relics rescued from ruined churches.


The foundation of the present baptistery has been argued over by scholars to the present day. Archaeologists working from 1925 to 1929 found that the octagonal walls stand on a circular foundation plinth. This was taken as evidence of a circular 4th (?) century building, inserted into an already mentioned bath-house complex itself rebuilt at the start of the 3rd century. One interpretation then made was that this rotunda was a pre-existing baptistery taken over by Constantine for his basilica. A second one was that this rotunda was the baptistery that Constantine built, and that in either case it was demolished and replaced by the present octagonal edifice by Pope Sixtus III in the early 5th century. This has been seriously disputed in recent analysis, and the latest consensus is that the present octagonal structure is Constantinian and that Pope Sixtus only altered the interior arrangements as part of a major refit that also involved the side-chapels added by his successors.

Emperor Constantine had installed a porphyry font with seven silver deer pouring water out of their mouths, also an image of the Lamb of God in gold and images of Christ and St John the Baptist in silver. All the metal would have been looted by the barbarians in the 5th century.

It has been suggested (without evidence) that the dedication of St John the Baptist was originally that of the baptistery, and that it passed to the basilica by a sort of osmosis. The first unofficial documentary mention of the basilica itself having a subsidiary dedication to the two saints John is from the mid 7th century: Basilica costantiniana quae et Salvatoris ipsa quoque et S[an]c[t]i Iohannis dicitur. An official reference to such a dedication has to wait until the beginning of the 10th century.

Monasteries and vineyards[]

The conquests of Islam in the latter 7th century meant that many monastics of Eastern rite came to Rome as refugees. By this time the hills of Rome were already depopulated, because the aqueducts had failed and the only way to obtain a water supply was to dig a deep well. Hence the surviving citizens huddled next to the river, and in the valleys where there were springs and where shallow wells would yield water. The hills were left to the monks, who founded many monasteries on them.

It is thought that these spearheaded the clearance of the ruined city neighbourhoods on the hills, and turned them into vineyards -drinking well and river water was dangerous to the health, hence the ready market for wine. This meant an enormous amount of work, but the process is entirely undocumented. It used to be imagined that the ruins simply somehow eroded away and left open country, but a moment's thought will show how silly this idea is. The vineyards provided the setting for the basilica until the 19th century.

In 726, the Imperial government at Constantinople (the so-called "Byzantine Empire", although the Roman citizens and everyone else back then called it the Roman Empire) began a policy of iconoclasm or destruction of sacred images which was strenuously resisted by Greek monastics. This led to another influx of exiles into Rome, and hence more monasteries. By the end of the century, the basilica was the focus of a swarm of monasteries which mostly faded away after the 10th century. The surviving churches of Santi Marcellino e Pietro al Laterano and Sant'Andrea in Laterano descend from two of them.

8th century[]

Pope Zacharias (741-51), a Greek himself, is the first pope on record to initiate substantial building works in the patriarchium or papal palace, which were continued by Pope Hadrian I (772–779) and which eventually resulted in the enormous mediaeval palace. The latter pope also restored the roof of the basilica and the atrium, and it is argued that he actually built the latter instead of repairing a previously existing structure. Support for this opinion lies in the odd layout -the atrium only occupied the basilica's frontage for the central nave and the two right hand side aisles. It is thought that this was in order to respect a pre-existing structure on the site of the later Oratory of St Thomas.

Pope Leo III (795-816) built a famous dining hall or Triclinium Leoninum for the palace, which was embellished with mosaics in its apse. An 18th century copy of apse and mosaics is near the Scala Santa, but not on the original site which was nearer the basilica's façade and faced the other way. He also installed stained glass windows in the apse (it is known that the apse had windows, but the disposition of the original fenestration of the basilica is unknown).

9th century[]

The Liber Pontificalis entry for Pope Sergius II (844-7) mentions that he had a ceremonial staircase installed in the north entrance of the palace. It became known as the Scala Pilati, which literally means "staircase armed with javelins". An unprovable hypothesis is that this name originally referred to guards with javelins standing at the entrance to the palace, and that later the word pilati was taken to refer to Pontius Pilate -and so the legend of the Scala Santa was born. The same pope also had excavated the forerunner of the present confessio or devotional crypt in front of the high altar.

In 897 the basilica was the scene of the surreal "cadaver synod", when Pope Stephen VI (896–897) had the body of Pope Formosus (891-896) exhumed and put on a mock trial. The corpse was convicted, desecrated and ended up in the river. A 19th century painting of the proceedings is here.

During the synod the basilica was, ominously, severely damaged by an earthquake in the year 896. The entire roof of the central nave fell in. Nowadays it is not considered that Rome is at risk from a major earthquake, but in fact major ones have occasionally happened and this particular one probably caused the final ruination of the great ancient monuments of the Roman Forum and elsewhere in the city. (Another earthquake in 1349 is now considered to have collapsed one side of the Colosseum, leaving a very convenient heap of building stone for Renaissance architects.)

10th century[]

Pope Sergius III (904–911) had the basilica completely restored because of the earthquake damage. This has been described as a complete rebuilding on the old foundations, but this is disputed. Fabric of the outer walls was probably left standing, while the central nave side walls above the colonnades were rebuilt. This restoration involved new mosaics in the apse, and a tower campanile was also apparently erected. It is only now that the dedication of St John the Baptist appears in the official sources.

There is some debate about this campanile, with an alternative viewpoint being that the twin campanili now existing derive from a similar pair erected by Pope Sergius.

Pope John XII (955-964) built an oratory dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle, against the basilica's frontage next to the beginnings of the left hand side aisles. This was in the corner of the frontage and the atrium, and probably replaced an earlier building. This structure was to function as the basilica's sacrarium or vestry for centuries, until demolished in the 17th century. It was the original location of the famous Sedes stercoraria or "shitty chair", in which the pope sat during his ceremonial vesting. An extremely stupid legend alleged that it that it was used to examine the anus of a newly-elected pope to check that he was a virgin up there, but the real reason was that, when the pope sat in the seat, the chapel choir sang a verse from Psalm 113: Suscitans de terra inopem, de stercore erigens pauperem ("He raises the helpless from the ground, from the shit-heap he lifts up the poor"). A mitigated version of the legend suggests that the inspection was to ensure that the candidate had intact genitalia, so as to fulfil an ancient requirement for the sacramental priesthood derived from Jewish norms specified in the Old Testament.

The first mention of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Campus Lateranensis (the present Piazza di San Giovanni Laterano) is from 965. The popes were collecting other ancient sculptures to display here, too. These included the Spinario, the Lex de imperio Vespasiani and the fragments of the Colossus of Constantine. (The Capitoline Wolf was thought to be one of these, but is actually early mediaeval.)

In the 10th and 11th centuries, several popes were buried in the portico next to the atrium. As well as Pope John XII, Popes John X, John XIV, Alexander II and Sylvester II were laid to rest here before the fashion established itself of burial at St Peter's.

Layout in the Middle Ages[]

At the turn of the millennium, the basilica was in open country surrounded by vineyards as the nearest urban areas were the Roman Forum (turned into a closely-packed neighbourhood) and the Suburra (a slum in ancient times, and to remain so until the 19th century). The road network had been mostly abandoned, and the main access to the complex was a driveway from the Via Labicana on the line of the lower end of the present Via Merulana. Another important route for pilgrims ran to the Tiber quays via the Clivus Scauri, San Gregorio Magno al Celio and the north side of the Circus Maximus. A road of sorts led down to the Via Appia near the Baths of Caracalla, and donkey tracks occupied the present Via dei Quattro Coronati and the present road to Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. The only way to Santa Maria Maggiore was via a lane to Sant'Eusebio all'Esquilino and then through the Arch of Gallienus.

To the north of the basilica was the papal palace or patriarchium, with the private living quarters of the pope around what is now the Scala Santa and the official departments around a courtyard on the site of the present palace. To the south of the basilica were the living quarters of the resident clergy, later called the monasterium. The basilica was initially administered by a college of secular priests, who were already expected to follow a common rule of life although their status as Canons Regular of the Lateran was to come later around the turn of the millennium.

The basilical complex proper was surrounded by subsidiary institutions, which as the Middle Ages progressed became focused on pilgrimages with many hospices being founded. As travelling to Rome became (relatively) safer in the 11th century, the number of pilgrims arriving here increased massively.

The section of the Forma Urbis Romae map by Lanciani 1901 which shows the layout of the complex in the later Middle Ages is here. Be aware that several details as shown are not now considered correct.

12th century[]

In 1115 in the reign of Pope Paschal II, the basilica's tower campanile (or the eastern one of the two, if there were two) was struck by lightning and fell on outer right hand side aisle. It is uncertain whether this particular tower was put up by Pope Sergius III in the 10th century, or was a later 11th century replacement. Proper repair to the damage was finished only in the reign of Pope Innocent II (1130-43), but the tower was not replaced until the extant twin campanili were erected in the 13th century.

In 1120, the aqueduct of the Aqua Claudia was repaired to bring water to the complex. This can be regarded as the beginning of the glory days of the palace.

In 1123, the First Council of the Lateran was called by Pope Callixtus II. This ranks as an ecumenical council of the Church, and almost a thousand bishops and religious superiors attended. They assembled in a large meeting-hall which stood on the west side of the palace courtyard north of the basilica, and was fifty metres long with five apses in each side wall and one in the south end where the pope presided as chair. This aula concilii was to host further ecumenical councils. The Second Council of the Lateran was in 1139, the Third Council of the Lateran in 1179 and the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 (there was a Fifth Council much later, in 1512).

In the restoration by Pope Innocent II the far ends of the colonnades were cut back to give the church a proper transept, as it has now.

The additional subsidiary dedication to St John the Evangelist as well as St John the Baptist was made official by Pope Lucius II (1144–1145).

13th century[]

It used to be thought that the portico was spectacularly rebuilt by Nicola d'Angelo in the reign of Pope Alexander III (1159-81), but this work is nowadays dated to the beginning of the 13th century. It survived until 1732, and sculptural fragments are now in the cloisters. The portico had six columns supporting an entablature bearing an epigraph announcing the basilica to be the first in dignity of all churches (the predecessor of the present recut inscription), as well as a frieze with lion-head masks and mosaics showing The Donation of Constantine, The Baptism of Constantine, The Beheading of the Baptist, The Boiling in Oil of St John the Evangelist and Pope St Sylvester Defeats the Dragon. All of these are lost.

Pope Honorius III (1216-27) is on record as supervising restoration work in the basilica. It used to be thought that his work was superseded by later projects, but now it seems that he might have been responsible for the above.

The superb surviving monastery cloisters were erected between 1222 and 1232 by Vassalletto father and son, both called Pietro. By this time the priests in charge were living as canons, that is, under a common rule of life. However, they were supplemented by salaried clergy called penitentiaries (penitenzieri) whose main job was to hear the confessions of pilgrims. These two groups shared the convent premises, but were kept apart institutionally.

Also around this time the influential Annibaldi family managed to obtain permission to build a palace and fortified tower in the Campus Lateranensis, in between the baptistery and the aula.

A serious earthquake in 1277 damaged both basilica and palace, and Pope Nicholas III oversaw the repair work. He is most famous for rebuilding the main palace chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum in the process -see San Lorenzo in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum for the result.

Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92) ordered a remodelling of the sanctuary area of the basilica. The apse was completely rebuilt, and it might have been at this point that an ambulacrum was provided running round the outside of the apse, instead of in the time of Pope Leo I. A magnificent mosaic by Jacopo Torriti was provided for the apse conch, which was destroyed in 1876. Torriti's assistant in this was a Franciscan friar called Jacopo da Camerino. The high altar was executed by Cinto de Salvati, and completed in 1293 by Giovanni dell'Aventino and Giovanni di Cosma with his son Lucantonio. The canopy of the baldacchino was in silver, supported by four columns of red jasper. In front of the altar and stretching into the nave was the schola cantorum or Choir of the Canons, enclosed by marble screens. The nave end of this featured another altar dedicated to St Mary Magdalen, which was the one used for ordinary daily Masses. This was erected by Deodato di Cosma in 1297.

At the end of the 13th century, the basilica would have been an absolute treasure-house of mediaeval artworks. Tragically little of these have survived, mostly in the form of sad fragments displayed in the cloister.

A fresco of the medieval interior of the basilica can be seen in San Martino ai Monti, but unfortunately scholars have recently decided that it is not reliable. More useful are a series of sketches of the outside of the basilica and palace made by Maarten van Heemskerck in about 1535.

Loggia of Benedictions[]

The last intervention in the period of the basilica's glory was by Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303). He built the Loggia of Benedictions (Loggia delle Benedizioni) which was attached to the north end of the aula concilii, and was a spectacular raised balcony over the aula's entrance. Three porphyry columns supported an entablature, on which was the balcony proper which had a single large trefoil opening over a solid carved marble balustrade flanked by a pair of columns in verde antico. Over this in turn was a round-headed niche with a gable and flanked by a pair of crocketed Gothic pinnacles, which contained statues of SS Peter and Paul now in the basilica's museum. A drawing by Heemskerck can be found on a web-page here.

The most important aspect of this project was the fresco work by Giotto. A rather pathetic fragment of this, showing the pope, is now in the basilica.

The Loggia was built for the great Jubilee which the pope declared for the year 1300.

Avignon captivity[]

On 6 May 1308 the basilica was gutted by fire, which destroyed the nave roof and also damaged the palace. It burned for three days. The complex never recovered, because the French Pope Clement V (1305–1314) refused to move to Rome after his election and settled at the papally governed enclave of Avignon in the south of France. The Avignon Captivity was a complete disaster for the city of Rome, as government (such as there was) was left in the charge of the abbot of San Paolo fuori le Mura and a feral nobility ran amok. The citizens and pilgrims were terrorized, and the population fell below 20 000 for the first time since the city grew to greatness.

The destruction of the basilica was not total, as the baldacchino of the altar was reported as only damaged and Emperor Henry VII was crowned here in 1312. Pope Clement sent an enormous sum of money for rebuilding, but in 1343 a storm damaged the basilica followed by an earthquake in 1347. Finally, the church was destroyed by fire again in 1360. This fire was much more thorough, since the transept roof burned as well as the nave and the altar was destroyed under the fallen debris. For four years the ruins lay untouched, to be lamented over by Petrarch.

Pope Urban V (1362–1370) finally commissioned an architect from Siena called Giovanni di Stefano to rebuild in 1364. Because many of the original columns of the colonnades had been crushed by falling walls, he apparently replaced several of them with brick piers. The surviving baldacchino is by him, and is now the only visible evidence of the restoration. He also added spires to the two campanili, later replaced. The work was completed in 1370.

After the return of Pope Gregory XI to Rome in 1377, the Vatican palace was chosen as the papal residence and this proved to be the death-knell of the old Lateran Palace. However, he did arrange the rebuilding of the north end of the transept (the present "Loggia of Benedictions", not to be confused with the mediaeval one), and provided it with a pair of lion sculptures on columns to guard the entrance. The fabric of this rebuilding is the wall behind the Loggia.


Pope Gregory oversaw the completion of the restoration by Giovanni di Stefano, and Pope Urban VI (1378-89) enshrined the heads of SS Peter and Paul in silver reliquaries in the baldacchino above the high altar, where they still are.

Pope Martin V (1417-1431) restored the nave roof again, and had the extant Cosmatesque floor laid. He also commissioned Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello to fresco the interior, resulting in a superb display only known through drawings that Borromeo ordered to be made before he supervised the destruction of the frescoes. Pope Eugene IV (1431–1447) oversaw the completion of this restoration project. The colonnades of the central nave had become dangerous (the ancient granite columns were probably cracked and spalled by fire), and were now systematically replaced by brick piers with arcade arches instead of a horizontal entablature. The north end of the transept was given a proper façade, involving a large Gothic arched doorway with several orders of molding and a tympanum, over which was a small round window and then a cavetto cornice which curved outwards. This last feature was drawn by Heemskerck, but without a mosaic (the idea of the curve is that a mosaic would not seem fore-shortened to somebody standing in front of the door).

The Fifth Council of the Lateran was held here in 1512. This was the old palace's swan-song.

Pope Paul III (1534-49) rebuilt the dome of the baptistery. He also proposed the demolition of the palace to provide materials for the future repair of the basilica -it is obvious that the vast old complex was now derelict. The ancient sculptures in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, including the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, were donated to the city and taken to the Campodoglio in 1558.

Pope Pius IV (1559-65) embellished the baptistery, and also commissioned the extant nave ceiling of the basilica in 1562. The design is attributed to Pirro Ligorio, the structural carpenters were Vico di Raffaele di Lazzaro and Matteo Bartolini da Castello, the fine-detail woodcarvers were Daniele da Volterra and François "Flaminio" Boulanger, the painter was Luzio Luzi and the gilder was Leonardi Cugni. The work dragged on to 1567, which is why the heraldry of Pope Pius V features.

The two campanili were remodelled in the style that they now have by Pope Pius IV.

Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) cleared the present Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano for the Jubilee year of 1575, by demolishing the Annibaldi palace. The present baptistery entrance was made then, allegedly, which would have entailed demolishing the atrium of the Chapel of the Holy Cross (see below).

Sixtus V[]

Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) oversaw enormous changes to the complex. Firstly, he ordered the demolition of the old palace in 1586 and its replacement by the present smaller edifice by Domenico Fontana. This was finished in 1589, and was intended as a summer palace for the popes. However, they preferred the Quirinal Palace because it was at a higher elevation -cooler and with fewer malarial mosquitoes. The new palace never found a proper use until recently.

The pope's attention to the city's street system led to the provision of a new main road from the basilica to Santa Maria Maggiore, the present Via Merulana.

The pope specified that the 13th century private palace chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum was to be kept, and Fontana enclosed this in a new building also containing the Scala Santa which he had transferred from its original position in the north entrance porch of the old palace. This stand-alone edifice is now usually simply known as the Scala Santa.

Fontana also laid out the present Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. He brought in and erected the obelisk, and provided an entrance loggia for the north end of the basilica's transept. The new civic space was the terminus of the equally new Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, laid out from the Colosseum in order to give a proper direct route from the city for papal processions. This was completed in 1588, and replaced the closely parallel but unsuitable Via dei Quattro Coronati which was no better than a bridle path.

Very unfortunately, Fontana also demolished the ancient Oratory of the Holy Cross in 1588 -this was an enormous loss.

Oratory of the Holy Cross[]

The Oratorio della Santa Croce had been founded by Pope Hilary in the 5th century. It had the plan of a Greek cross inserted into a chamfered square, and the edifice used to be regarded as ancient (perhaps a mausoleum). However, the revised scholarly opinion is that it was built by Pope Hilary. There was a central octagonal dome, with a high drum topped by a shallow tiled cupola. The location was just to the north-east of the baptistery, with a public entrance in the north-west cross arm and another entrance in the north-east arm which led into a rectangular atrium colonnaded on its west and south sides. The latter side contained an entrance into the baptistery, which is now the main public entrance to that edifice.

Much of the original decorative elements had survived, including polychrome marble inlay work on the walls and a mosaic showing four angels around a central tondo containing the Cross in the interior of the dome. A fragment of the True Cross was venerated here in mediaeval times.

The little atrium was noted as being especially beautiful, with columns of porphyry and coloured marbles, ancient sarcophagi converted into fountains, marble screens and mosaics.

Baroque remodelling[]

For the Jubilee of 1600, Pope Clement VIII gave Giacomo della Porta the commission to re-decorate the transept and erect the spectacular Blessed Sacrament Altar. The Cavalier d'Arpino oversaw the fresco work. It is thought that the two verde antico columns in the aedicule came from the ancient aisle colonnades.

In 1646, the patched-up basilica was in danger of collapsing. Pope Innocent X gave the task of restoring the fabric to Francesco Borromini, in preparation for the Holy Year of 1650. However the work went on for so long that the date was missed, and the project was only completed in 1660. By that time the pope was dead, and had been succeeded by Alexander VII. The latter brought the ancient bronze doors from Sant'Adriano, the ancient Curia Iulia, and installed them as the central entrance doors. The ancient Oratory of St Thomas next to the portico was demolished.

It was as a result of Borromini's restoration that the church was given its present Baroque appearance, and it no longer looks like ancient basilica. Only the gilded ceiling and the Cosmatesque floor were kept, although Borromini had intended to provide a vault for the central nave. The ceiling has since been restored and altered considerably, whereas Borromini had the floor carefully repaired. The dimensions of the edifice were not changed.

The major structural change was that the square piers of the central arcades were removed and replaced with massive rectangular piers each with an apsidal niche on its inner face. There are five of these piers on each side, with a sixth attached to the counterfaçade. Controversially, Borromini also removed the ancient verde antico aisle columns, and put them into store. Then he replaced them with ten square piers on either side, with an eleventh on the steps leading up to the transept. The inner side aisles he arch-vaulted, with saucers alternating with short barrel vaults behind the central piers. The outer side aisles he gave flat vaults, with the bays separated by trabeations.

Many of the ancient verde antico columns re-used to embellish Baroque aedicules inserted into the niches in the central piers. These remained empty until 1702, when they were used to display colossal statues of the twelve apostles. The project was ordered by Pope Clement XI, and supervised by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphilj who was Archpriest (priest-in-charge) of the basilica. This work was finished in 1718, when the pope had the oval tondi in the upper nave side walls frescoed with prophets.

As regards the ancient verde antico columns. It is thought that there were originally forty-two in the basilica, and that thirty-nine were salvaged by Borromini after two went into the Blessed Sacrament Altar (what happened to the one left over?). He used twenty-four in the nave aedicules. Of the fifteen left to hand, eight went to the Chigi Chapel in Siena Cathedral and some others are thought to be in Sant'Agnese in Agone.

New portico[]

Meanwhile, the Lateran Palace remained underused. Pope Innocent XII (1691-1700) actually established an orphanage here, with the orphans put to work in weaving silk.

The next major intervention was for the Jubilee of 1750. Pope Clement XII began the project in good time by holding a competition in 1732 for the design of a new façade and portico to replace the mediaeval one. The surprise winner was Alessandro Galilei, a Florentine hardly well-known in Rome. However, the choice was prescient because Galilei was an anti-Baroque forerunner of the neo-Classical architectural movement, and had already been involved in the neo-Palladian architectural movement in England and Ireland. It is claimed that Christopher Wren's work in London was a major influence on him. The new portico was completed in 1735. Part of the project was the provision of a funerary chapel for the pope's family, which is the Corsini Chapel just behind the façade on the left.

In 1775 the nave ceiling was restored on the orders of Pope Pius VI, who had his own heraldry incorporated in it.

19th century[]

The interior of the Lateran Palace was restored in 1838, after it had become very messy. The edifice had been seriously abused under the batrachian occupation government of the French under Napoleon from 1808 to 1814.

In 1851, Pope Pius IX employed Filippo Martinucci to restore the high altar, and to provide the present confessio or devotional crypt. After the annexation of Rome by Italy in 1870, this pope and his two successors sulked in the Vatican and did not visit the basilica for over half a century.

The last major intervention in the fabric was in 1878, when Pope Leo XIII commissioned Virginio Vespignani and his son Francesco to extend the sanctuary by one bay and so to provide a proper choir for the canons. This was done by demolishing the mediaeval apse, and with it the famous apse mosaic by Torriti -a surprising act of vandalism at so late a date. The work was completed in 1884, two years after Virginio died. The new apse was provided with a copy of the lost mosaic, which is often described as the old one carefully transferred -this is not the case. Art critics of the time who saw both old and new mosaics were not kind about the latter.

After the demolition of the old apse, possibly in 1880, it was realized that substantial remains of ancient buildings existed beneath the basilica. A limited excavations was carried out, which revealed a large house around a trapezoidal courtyard which was predictably hailed as the Domus Faustae.

The present church measures 130 by 54 metres as a result of the extension of the sanctuary.

Museums in the palace[]

Some use was found for the palace in the 19th century, as an overflow for the Vatican Museums called the Museo Lateranense although it comprised three separate museum institutions.

Pope Gregory XVI (1831–1846) set up the Museo Profano Lateranense here in 1844, the collection comprising pagan Roman statues, relief sculptures and mosaics. In 1854, under Pius IX, this was joined by the Museo Pio Cristiano, comprising three main collections assembled by the pioneer archaeologists Giuseppe Marchi (a Jesuit) and Giovanni Battista de Rossi. Marchi collected early Christian sculptural items, while de Rossi concentrated on epigraphs; a third department of the museum consisted of copies of some of the more important catacomb frescoes then known. Father Marchi was appointed as director of the new museum.

In 1910, under Pope St Pius X, the Lapidario Ebraico was established here also which is a unique collection of one hundred and thirty seven Roman Jewish epitaphs from ancient cemeteries in Rome (mostly from catacombs on the Via Portuense).

Then the Museo Missionario Etnografico was opened on the orders of Pope  Pius XI, based on a collection of historical documents relating to 19th century missionary activity and ethnographic items from the peoples among whom these missions took place. The core of the collection was first publicly exhibited in Rome at the Missionary Exposition in 1925.

The four separate museum institutions were transferred from the Lateran Palace to the Vatican Museums on the orders of Pope St John XXIII, and the collections put back on public display there in 1970. They are still catalogued as ex Lateranense to indicate their former location. Pope St John then finally gave the Palace a proper function, by establishing the offices of the Vicariate of the Diocese of Rome here.

A new museum illustrating the history of the Papal States, the Museo Storico Vaticano, was opened in the palace in 1991.


In 1929, the Lateran Treaty finally regularized the relationships between the Holy See and Italy, and the basilical complex became an extra-territorial entity. This means that the territory remains with Italy, but all administration is vested entirely in Vatican City. The area concerned includes the basilical complex with the palace and monastery, also the Scala Santa with its attached monastery in a detached portion. Pope Pius XI gave a home in the complex to the University of the Pontifical Roman Seminary, which had been founded by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 when he suppressed the Jesuits (previously in charge of training the diocesan clergy). The institution still has its headquarters here, although now it is called the Pontifical Lateran University.

Further excavations under the church were carried out 1934–1938, the opportunity being taken with a restoration of the Cosmatesque floor. These revealed the remains of the barracks of the Equites singulari, which are substantial because of the way that the rooms of the edifice had been packed with rubble to form a platform on which to build the basilica. It was merely a case of removing the rubble, taking care not to undermine the church's foundations.

On 23 July 1993, a Mafia car bomb damaged the façades of the palace and basilica in Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. The 1992-3 Mafia bombing campaign was the result of certain seriously lunatic Sicilian "businessmen" thinking that they could terrorize both the Church and the Italian government. They were wrong. Here, the damage was quickly repaired by 1996.

A new bronze Holy Door was installed for the Jubilee of 2000, designed by Floriano Bodini.


Layout of locality[]

The Lateran is a well-defined locality in an area of 19th century suburban development of little more interest than the vineyards that it replaced. The gigantic statues of Christ and the apostles over the façade of the basilica feature in many views of the city, but the basilica itself hides itself surprisingly well close-up.

To its north-west is the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano with its obelisk, and this has been historically the main focus of the church's civic presence. To the east of the piazza is the bulk of the Lateran Palace, occupying the north side of the nave and hiding any view of it. South is the prominent façade of the north end of the transept, the Loggia of Benedictions (a poor substitute for the grand mediaeval one). To the south-west is the Baptistery, and beyond that are the buildings of the university. To the west are the buildings of the men's department of the Ospedale di San Giovanni by Giacomo Mola 1634, and what looks like a church in the north-west corner is the end of the ward wing of the women's department by Giovanni Antonio de' Rossi 1666.

If you walk eastwards along the main road, you will see the façade of the Scala Santa straight ahead on the other side of the road from the palace. Then, round the corner of the palace on the right, is the main façade of the basilica overlooking the large trapezoidal grassed area of the Piazza di Porta San Giovanni.

Many people enter the church from the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano - note that this entrance is, in effect, the back door, and you will get a very different and better impression of the church if you enter from the front on your first visit.

Layout and fabric of basilica[]

The basilica's fabric is in brick. There is uncertainty and argument as how much of the original 4th century brickwork remains in the fabric, with some thinking that there is very little.

The central nave, transept and sanctuary are under one pitched and tiled roof in the form of a Latin cross. The side aisles have lower roofs, which are now flat, and the apse is roofed in lead. The façade block by Galalei is a separate structure architecturally, and has its own pitched and tiled roof.

There are five large external chapels off the nave side aisles, added by the simple expedient of knocking holes through the outer side walls of the church in order to provide access. The two to the north are entirely hidden by the palace; the eastern one is the Cappella Torlonia and has a little dome in lead, while the western one is the Cappella Massimo and has a simple pitched and tiled roof. The three to the south are interesting studies in architectural contrasts. The one to the east is on a Greek cross plan with side apses, and is the Cappella Corsini. It has a hemispherical dome in lead on a circular brick drum with large rectangular windows, which you can see if you peer round the left hand corner of the entrance façade. The middle chapel is the Cappella Antonelli, which is rectangular externally and has an elliptical dome which is tiled in a smooth curve (no sectors). The western chapel has an oval (egg-shaped) dome, tiled in ten sectors.

To the south of the transept is the mediaeval cloister, and to the west of the south side of the transept is the large sacristy wing which extends well beyond the apse. The baptistery with its four subsidiary chapels is a stand-alone edifice on a different axis, at an angle to the major axis of the church to the north-west of the apse.

Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano[]

The piazza is now dominated by a very wide, busy and horrifying main road which basically ruins it as a civic space. However, it is the surviving area of the ancient Campus Lateranensis which was the mustering-ground of both the basilica and the palace throughout mediaeval times. (The main entrance of the basilica faced away from the city and over a slope, so the mustering-ground was not established there.) Here stood the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius before it was moved to the Campodoglio in 1538.

The present layout (minus the road, but with the obelisk) was the work of Domenico Fontana in 1588. The piazza was designed to be the terminus of the new papal processional road of the Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, opened in the same year for Pope Sixtus V.

This street was declared to be the city's Via Gay by the municipality in 2007 and, as such, has its own web-page here which is winsomely pastel compared to similar offerings from other European cities.

The piazza's furnishings were renewed and modified by Valadier in the 1830's.


In Egypt[]

The pink granite obelisk was originally quarried in the Northern Quarry at Aswan, Egypt on the orders of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1479 to 1425 BC) of the Eighteenth Dynasty. He apparently intended it to be one of a pair (as all other known obelisks are), and it is thought that the twin would have been the Unfinished Obelisk, still in the quarry after it was abandoned when a flaw developed in the stone. There is a strong suspicion that the original commissioner was Hatshepsut, the "queen pharaoh" who temporarily supplanted Tuthmosis when he was a boy.

The obelisk is a monolith or single piece of stone, 32 metres high and weighing an estimated 455 tons. It is the largest obelisk known. About one to four metres of its seriously damaged base was sawn off before it was re-erected here. The Ancient Egyptians had no iron tools back then, so this item was quarried using diorite stone mauls to bash the rock and was finished using copper and bronze tools. This would have taken man-years of work, and the details of how they managed it are still unknown. For example, how did they carve the hieroglyphs so crisply?

A translation of the hieroglyphic inscriptions, too long to be given, is online here (search for "Obelisk now at the Lateran" on the web-page). As well as the usual formulaic incantations and boasts, it gives the interesting information that work was abandoned for 35 years after the death of the pharaoh. Then his son, Tuthmosis IV, had the obelisk erected at the eastern end of the temple of Amun Re in Karnak, Egypt, around 1390 BC.

The location of the obelisk was, it is thought, in the so-called "Temple of the Hearing Ear" which was a subsidiary temple just to the east of the enormous main one. It was rebuilt by Pharaoh Ramesses II, who added an inscription to the base of the obelisk. The temple's function was as a centre for receiving oracular pleas from ordinary people to the god Amun Re, hence the ancient name. On the plan here it is shown as the "Temple of Ramesses II".

Whereas St Peter certainly saw the obelisk now at Piazza San Pietro when he was being martyred in the adjacent ancient circus, Moses may very well have seen this one if he ever travelled to the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes (in his day, the pharaohs had their capital in the Delta region).

In ancient Rome[]

The emperor Constantine ordered the obelisk to be taken to his new capital of Constantinople, but he died before it left Egypt. So it was brought to Rome by Constantius II, son of Constantine, and erected on the spina (central reservation) of the Circus Maximus. There it stood until it was toppled by an earthquake on an unknown date.

Pope Sixtus V was told of its documented existence, and it was found in 1587 seven metres below the surface of the vegetable gardens that the Circus had become, broken in three pieces. The depth indicates that the obelisk fell soon after the Circus was abandoned, and was then buried by those clearing the ruins on the adjacent hills for conversion to vineyards (such a burial could not have come about by simple natural erosion). The pope had the obelisk restored, and erected on its present location on 3 August 1588. The work was overseen by Fontana, who signed the plinth in satisfaction.

Present appearance[]

The obelisk stands on a tall limestone plinth. The side of this which faces the basilica bears an inscription which mentions the baptism of Constantine in the baptistery here, a legend that it historically inaccurate (he was actually baptized on his deathbed at Nicomedia in what is now Turkey). The other sides bear epigraphs describing the finding and re-erection.

When it was new back in Egypt, the pyramidion (point) of the obelisk would have been plated with electrum which, as a rare naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold, the Egyptians prized more than gold. Pope Sixtus had a bronze cross put on top instead, set on stylized mountains, a star and four pear-holding lions which occur in his coat-of-arms (the mountains and star originated with the Chigi family, although he was a Peretti -hence the pears).

The side of the plinth facing the main road has a fountain, featuring an eagle and two dragons from the heraldry of Pope Paul V (1605-21) who was a Borghese. However, the sides of the gigantic curlicues show the lion-and-pears motif of Pope Sixtus V which indicate that Pope Paul usurped the work (it was quite common at the time for successive popes to have widdling-contests by leaving their heraldry on architecture for which they had commissioned minor repairs. This can cause problems for historians).

Loggia of Benedictions[]

Loggia façade[]

The present Loggia of Benedictions occupies the entrance façade at the north end of the transept of the basilica, and replaced the mediaeval one. It is is by Domenico Fontana, who designed it in 1586. The edifice has two structurally identical storeys, each with five large arched portals with simply molded archivolts springing from Doric imposts. The arches are separated by pilasters supporting an entablature, and a pair of pilasters occupies each end.

The first storey is the entrance loggia, approached by a short flight of steps. The pilasters of this storey are Doric, and the frieze of the entablature has metopes with Eucharistic symbols. The cornice is dentillated. The spandrels of the arches have stars, stylized mountains and lions holding pear-boughs, all from the heraldry of Pope Sixtus. The railings were added by Pope Clement XII, and incorporate his heraldry.

The second storey is Corinthian, and has a low pin balustrade in the arches. The central arch's balustrade is slightly higher, and has two panels bearing the coat-of-arms of Pope Sixtus The entablature has an inscription Sixtus p[a]p[a] V ad benedictiones extruxit MDLXXXVI ("Pope Sixtus V built it for blessings, 1586"). The cornice is also dentillated, but also has little lions' masks. Above, there is another pin balustrade with two more coats-of-arms. The arch spandrels in this storey have Sistine heraldic elements too, except that the lions are replaced by simple pear boughs (a visual pun or rebus on the name Peretti).

Transept frontage and campanili[]

Above the loggia you can see the façade of the end of the transept. It is flanked by two low Romanesque bell-towers, given their present form by Pope Pius IV (1559-65) whose heraldry is on display in two gigantic panels (the shield with balls is of the Medici family). The wall surfaces are made to look like ashlar blocks with wide joints, except for a large rectangular panel in the centre below the horizontal roofline which is panelled with re-used ancient marble revetting slabs mostly in bluish-grey. The wall in which this is set is actually a false screen, concealing the gable end of the transept behind.

Below this marble panelling is a dentillated arc, enclosing a tondo which contains a little round window and some exposed brickwork. The bricks on view are re-used ancient ones. This is the only place where you can see the actual mediaeval brick fabric of the basilica from the street.

The twin campanili are rather squat, and have pyramidal spires with ball finials. Each has three storeys separated by dentillated cornices, the upper two storeys having soundholes in the form of an arcade of three arches separated by little columns.

19th century additions[]

The block to the right of the Loggia was added at the end of the 19th century as part of the re-modelling of the basilica's sanctuary. The Vespignanis, father and son, who were responsible, made a commendable effort in matching the structure both to the Loggia next door and to the palace façade. There is a three-arched portico on the ground floor with the arches separated by paired Doric pilasters, and a second storey with paired Corinthian pilasters. The separating entablature has triglyphs on its frieze, in proper Doric style. The three windows in the top storey have a central segmental pediment flanked by two triangular ones, in imitation of the palace.

The strange kiosk to the right is part of the same 19th century project, and has a large open Doric arch on each of its three sides, matching the loggia. What was it designed for?


The vaults and lunettes of the interiors of both the entrance portico and the Loggia of Benedictions have frescoes that were executed in 1588 by a group of artists led by Giovanni Guerra and Cesare Nebbia. In the portico vault are represented the heavenly host: Our Lady and the Apostles with prophets, martyrs, holy popes, virgins and other saints together with angels. The vault of the loggia has scenes from the martyrdom of St Peter and the conversion of Constantine, as well as Old Testament scenes and Doctors of the Church accompanied by angels and allegorical figures. The far wall has a large depiction of Pope Sixtus accompanied by cardinals in its centre.

The bronze statue to the left in the entrance portico is of Henry IV of France, who was reckoned as a benefactor of the basilica. It is by Nicolas Cordier 1608. The king had confirmed a donation to the Chapter of the ancient but rotten abbey of Clairac, the monks of which had apostatized to become Protestants in 1565. The Chapter of the Lateran obtained the property in 1604, but then oversaw a shocking and disgusting series of scandals involving the resident abbey clergy and those of the diocese of Agen. For example, one canon regular sent to be the administrator by the Chapter built a mansion in the city for his sodomisée mistress out of abbey funds (following the neat delusion that priestly celibacy is only breached by vaginal sex). Despite, the Chapter voted to make the reigning King of France an honorary canon in gratitude, and this conceit is still offered to the President of the Republic of France. The crawling epigraph on the pedestal is here.

To the right in the portico is a marble tablet bearing a copy of the bull of 1372 by Pope Gregory XI which proclaimed the basilica as being the first in dignity of all churches.

BASILICA of St John Lateran - Oct 2008 (2)

The actual balcony for benedictions is in the central arch above the main entrance. From it, by tradition a newly elected Pope would give his blessing on the day that he first took possession of the cathedral. However the main entrance façade of the basilica also has a loggia, and the area available there for a large crowd made this the more convenient location in modern times.

Lateran palace[]

The vast warren of the mediaeval Lateran Palace was finally demolished by Pope Sixtus V (15851590) after being derelict for decades. This was replaced by the neatly designed present edifice by Fontana, which is now occupied mostly by the Vicariate offices as well as the Museo Storico Vaticano. The three very similarly designed wings are arranged around an almost square courtyard to the north of the basilica -almost square but not quite, because if you count the rows of windows in each upper storey you will find fifteen in the west wing, thirteen in the north one and eleven in the east one.

There are three storeys, rendered in orange ochre with architectural details in limestone. The first storey has windows with floating cornices, while the other two storeys have alternate triangular and segmentally pedimented windows. Note how the architect has varied the design by placing a segment over a triangle, and vice versa. The roofline has a dentillated cornice with modillions over a frieze with more lions and pears, and from the piazza to the east you can see a single-storey belvedere tower. This is in the form of a rectangular Doric kiosk, with four columns on the long sides, two on the short and with corner piers, and is a fine edifice in its own right.

The main entrance is on the north side, where there is an impressive doorway with a flight of steps, having a pair of grey granite Doric columns supporting a pin-balustraded balcony on posts. Above the doorcase is a lions's mask with swags containing pears, and the work is embellished with other details from the heraldry of Pope Sixtus V. A little tablet inserted into the pediment of the window above the entrance proclaims his responsibility, and above is his coat-of-arms with tassels and fluttering ribbons.

The west entrance is the vehicular access to the paved courtyard, which is now a (very highly treasured) car parking facility for Vicariate employees. The gateway has the same balcony, window pediment and coat-of-arms as the other entrances, but here the portal is a rusticated arch with rusticated Doric semi-columns. The eastern entrance is similar.

Scala Santa and Sancta Sanctorum[]

Across the main road to the south-east of the palace is a building housing the Scala Santa, the Holy Staircase, and the chapel known as the Sancta Sanctorum. The latter was originally the main private chapel of the mediaeval palace, used by the popes from the time of Constantine (perhaps) until the move to Avignon in 1313.

For a fuller treatment of this edifice, see San Lorenzo in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum.

The stairs are said to have been brought here from the praetorium of Pilate in Jerusalem, where Christ climbed them before his Passion. The tradition is uncertain, but there is nothing that disproves it. They were said to have been brought to Rome by St Helena, Constantine's mother. It has 28 marble steps, now cased in wood. In several places, there are glass panes in the wood, through which one can see stains in the marble. These are said to be drops of Christ's blood, spilled when He walked the stairs. Many pilgrims come here to climb them, always on their knees, while contemplating on the Passion of Christ. It is said that the only person who gave up halfway up stairs is Martin Luther, who came here when he was still an Augustinian monk - but this might just be another joke about Luther. The 78 year old Blessed Pope Pius IX, in the other hand, managed to climb them on his knees on the eve of King Victor Emmanuel's invasion and annexation of Rome.

At the top of the stairs are a church and three chapels served by a Passionist community, which has a convent attached.

The oldest chapel is a 13th century rebuilding of an older structure, and is known as the Sancta Sanctorum, or Holy of Holies. This name refers to the inner room in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which only the high priest could enter. It was a private chapel for the Pope. Above the entrance to the apse is the inscription NON EST IN TOTO SANCTIOR ORBE LOCUS ("there is no holier place in all the world"). It was decorated by the Cosmati in the 12th century, and was actually signed. An inscription with beautiful mediaeval lettering says MAGISTER COSMATUS FECIT HOC OPUS, meaning "Master Cosmatus made this work". The floor is a prime example of Cosmatesque work. The ceiling has a fresco showing the four beasts who sing a perpetual liturgy to God according to Scripture - a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle - and which came to be used as symbols for the Evangelists. On the walls are scenes of martyrdoms, including St Stephen the Deacon, Protomartyr of the Church, and SS Peter and Paul. The latter are shown explicitly as suffering in Rome, as it was their martyrdoms that first turned the city into a holy place. It was formerly used as the relic treasury of the papal palace, and allegedly held such relics as a bit of bread from the Last Supper, St John the Baptist's coat, St Matthew's shoulder, St Bartholomew's chin, and the heads of SS Peter, Paul, Agnes and Euphemia. There are still many relics and holy objects here, including ancient reliquaries with stones and earth from the Holy Land, brought back by pilgrims. Many of the reliquaries have Greek inscriptions, and are from the time before the Churches of the East and West were separated. You can look through a grille to see the Acheiropoeta, meaning 'not made with hands', an ancient icon of Christ said to have been miraculously painted by angels.

To the right of the chapel in this storey is the church of San Lorenzo, and behind the chapel is a devotional area also open to the public (the Sancta Sanctorum is only open to guided tours). It has a 16th century crucifix.

Triclinium Leoninum[]


The Triclinium Leoninum

Round the right hand corner of the façade of the Scala Santa is what purports to be the apse mosaic of a 9th century papal dining hall, Triclinium Leoninum, now displayed in an 18th century brick aedicule. It depicts Christ with the Apostles in the centre, Christ with Constantine and Pope Sylvester I on the left, and St Peter, Pope Leo III and Charlemagne on the right. Pope Leo III has a square nimbus, showing that he was alive when it was made.

The original mosaic has been dated to just before year 800, when Charlemagne was crowned as emperor in Rome, but the present work is an 18th century copy.

For further details and elucidations on this structure, see here.

Piazza di Porta San Giovanni[]

In front of the main entrance façade of the church is a large grassed area, often nowadays used as an assembly point for political demonstrations ( the city of Rome lacks convenient open spaces for the purpose). This is the Piazza di Porta San Giovanni. Beyond is a busy road junction, where traffic leaves and enters the walled city by the 16th century Porta San Giovanni, which replaced the ancient Porta Asinaria. The latter is the gate by which Totila the Goth entered Rome in 547 during the Gothic Wars.

If you look towards Santa Croce in Gerusalemme from the basilica's entrance, you can see a large bronze sculptural group of St Francis with five of his disciples, which is by Giuseppe Tonnini. The sculpture was inaugurated in 1927 on the seven hundredth anniversary of the death of the saint, and is here to commemorate an event from his life. While he was in Rome to get the Holy Father's approval for his Order, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) saw in a dream that a man was supporting the basilica, which was on the verge of collapse. The next day, he met St Francis at the Lateran and recognized in him the saint sent by God to restore the church - not St John Lateran in particular, but the Church in general. The interview allegedly took place in the gardens formerly on this site.

The sculpture has its own web-page here.

The view eastwards from the basilica's entrance before 1870 was famously beautiful and inspiring. A British pilgrim called Mrs Hemans wrote, just before that year: "Few Roman churches are set within so impressive a picture as Santa Croce, approached on every side through those solitudes of vineyards and gardens, quiet roads and long avenues of trees, that occupy such an immense expanse within the walls of Rome. The scene from the Lateran, looking towards this basilica across the level grass, between lines of trees, with the distance of Campagna and the mountains, the castellated walls, the arcades of the Claudian aqueduct, amid gardens and groves, is more than beautiful".

After 1870, what happened to the area was horrid. Chinnery wrote in 1903: "The view from the porch, embracing the ancient walls of Aurelian, the Campagna with its long lines of aqueducts [still then an overgrazed and treeless sheep-walk], the Alban and Sabine hills dotted with white villages, is very beautiful". He added: "The hideous blocks of modern houses on the left are an eyesore, and spoil the view". The contemporary viewer may well add: "What view?". Sic transit gloria praeteritorum, cum tranquillior mundus erat.

A few foreign visitors made the trip to the Alban hills to see the view in the other direction, with the white façade of the basilica spotlit in the vast Campagna at sunrise, in front of the domes of the city on the infinitely distant horizon. Impossible now.


The main façade, in travertine limestone, is the work of Alessandro Galilei. This fairly young Florentine architect (born in 1691) beat many more famous names in a competition to win the commission. The first stone was laid by Pope Clement XII in 1732, and the completed structure was blessed on 8 December, 1735. Tragically, the architect died in the following year. His design has been described as early Neo-Classical, but is perhaps better described as Palladian Survival with Baroque elements (notably the crowning balustrade with statuary).

The façade faces the east, as the basilica was built before the tradition of placing the altar in the east had taken hold in Rome (actually, it never did overall as anybody visiting several Roman churches will notice).

The edifice is a separate architectural element, added onto the east frontage of the basilica. It has two storeys, with an entrance narthex occupying the lower one and a loggia occupying the upper one, but the design unifies these by incorporating a monumental, slightly projecting propylaeum with flanking gigantic pilasters. The propylaeum has two pairs of monumental Composite engaged columns on high shared plinths, which support an entablature and triangular pediment with modillions (little brackets) in the form of straps. In the tympanum of the pediment is a mosaic fragment by Jacopo Torriti, about 1291, which is the only survival of the famous mosaic decoration of the mediaeval portico that used to stand here. It shows the head of Christ, and is in a wreath tondo being held by a pair of angels sculpted by Paolo Ciampi.

The main body of the edifice has ten monumental Composite pilasters, on plinths which match those of the propylaeum. Two pairs occupy the outer corners, another two pairs are partly hidden by the columns of the propylaeum and two singletons are in between. These define five rectangular portals into the narthex, and five arched openings into the loggia.

The plinths have Baroque relief details. The two of the propylaeum have oval epigraph tablets in olive-wreaths with palm-fronds and ribbons, the two singletons have the coat-of-arms of Pope Clement XII and the two of the outer pilaster pairs bear the emblem of an umbraculum (liturgical umbrella) with the Keys of St Peter and swags. The epigraphs are two of the same: Sacros[ancta] Lateran[ensis] eccles[ia], omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput ("The holy Lateran church, mother and head of all churches of the city and the world").

The portals are trabeated, that is, each has two pairs of Composite pilasters supporting a horizontal entablature which bears a pin balustrade for the arched loggia portal above. The central entrance portal is almost as twice as wide as the side ones. The iron railings closing off the five entrance portals are original, and the central set bears the name of Pope Clement XII.

The friezes of the trabeation entablatures bear an epigraph which is a copy of a mediaeval one that used to be on the old portico. It reads:

Dogmate papali datur ac simul imperiali quod sim cunctarum mater et caput ecclesiarum. Hinc salvatoris celestia regna datoris nomine sanxerunt cum cuncta peracta fuerunt. Quesumus ex toto conversi supplice voto nostra quod hec aedes tibi Christe sit inclita sedes.

("By a papal decree, together with an Imperial one, it is given that I am the head and mother of all churches. When everything was finished, they made this [place] sacred by the name of the Saviour who gives the heavenly kingdom. We, [your] servants by vow, beseech you, Christ, by our supplications that this temple may be for you a glorious seat".)

The loggia portal arches have molded archivolts springing from two pairs of Composite imposts, which match those of the trabeations below. The intradoses of the arches are embellished with square coffers containing rosettes.

The central portal and the arch above it are embellished to provide a balcony for papal blessings, subsidiary to the traditional Loggia of Benedictions at the other end of the basilica but more convenient for a large crowd. The entrance has two pairs of free-standing grey-veined white marble columns supporting a cornice on posts, the cornice in turn supporting the actual balcony. The central second-storey void above the balcony has a central arched section flanked by a pair of trabeations (horizontal bits); this design feature is called a serliana. The archivolt of this is supported by two pairs of grey granite columns, and the spandrels have a pair of putti in relief.

The gigantic pilasters mentioned support extensions to each side of the entablature of the propylaeum. The three entablature sections together bear a dedicatory epigraph on its frieze: Clemens XII Pont[ifex] Max[imus] anno [sui regni] V, Christo Salvatori in hon[ore] SS[anctorum] Ioan[nis] Bapt[istae] et Evang[elistae]. Above there is an attic with a plinth over each of the ten pilasters, those over the central two pairs being slightly higher than the others and with pin balustrades linking them. In the centre there is a massive eleventh plinth with concave sides, bearing the Chi-rho symbol in a wreath as an allusion to the conversion of the emperor Constantine.

The plinths are occupied by colossal seven-metre high statues of Christ, SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist with other saints. All but one of the others are Doctors of the Church, except for St Eusebius who is here because he is counted as a founder of the Canons Regular (he forced the clergy of his cathedral at Vercelli to live by a common rule).

The full list of the saints, with the sculptors' names, is below. (Beware of the Vatican website's list, which has one of the sculptors crawling out of his tomb to do the job after being dead for fifty years. This mistake has propagated online.)


The entrance portico or narthex, which measures 10 by 50 metres, is in the lower storey of the entrance block by Galilei. It has a barrel vault coffered in hexagons which are arranged in transverse rows, tessellated with lozenges and with a central relief panel showing the coat-of-arms of Pope Clement XII. This is reflected in the floor, where the heraldry is executed in polychrome marble pietra dura work.


The Portico and Ancient Roman Bronze Doors

There are five entrance doors. The main entrance, leading into the central nave, has a pair of ancient bronze doors installed here by Borromini on the orders of Pope Alexander VII. They had been brought from Sant'Adriano, the ancient Curia Iulia or Senate House in the Forum Romanum, and because the doors were slightly too small for the molded marble doorcase Borromini provided a bronze fillet bearing stars from the heraldry of Pope Alexander who was a Chigi. The door to the far right is the Holy Door, which is only open during Holy Years. The tradition used to be that it was otherwise bricked up and that the pope would ceremonially remove a brick at the start of the unblocking at the beginning of the Jubilee. However, Pope St John Paul II changed this and ordered a sculptural bronze door to be installed in 2000. This was designed by Floriano Bodini, and is a single panel showing the Mother and Child standing in front of the crucified Christ. Note the very interesting detail that the nails are through Christ's wrists, not the palms of his hands as usually depicted in art. This is historically correct, as the hands would have torn free if nailed through the palms during crucifixion.

ROME's ST John Lateran - Oct

4th Century Roman Statue of Constantine in the Portico

To the right is the entrance to the Historical Museum of the Vatican, housed in part of the palace. To the left is a statue of Constantine behind a set of railings, which was found in the ruined Baths of Constantine on the Quirinal (not the Baths of Diocletian). The ruins of these baths were fairly extensive until they were cleared away between 1605 and 1621 to build the Palazzo Rospigliosi. The statue was found in the process, and kept at the Palazzo until purchased in 1704 for the Capitoline Museums. In 1725 a statue of Pope Clement XII was commissioned from Agostino Cornacchini for this location in the narthex, but the pope apparently hated it and had it removed (is it the same statue as the one set up in Ancona in 1738? See photo here). Then the 5th century statue of the emperor was restored by Ruggero Bescapè and set up here in 1737. A slightly different tint to the marble will enable you to see which bits he had to add, amounting to all the lower part of the body as well as the arms.

There are four rectangular bas-relief panels, executed in 1736 on the theme of the life of St John the Baptist. One is over the statue mentioned above, another is over the palace entrance and two are over side entrances:

  • The Baptism of John by Zechariah, by Bernardino Ludovisi (right hand side entrance).
  • John the Baptist Preaching in the Desert by Giovanni Battista Maini (left hand side entrance).
  • John the Baptist Reproves Herod by Pietro Bracci (palace doorway).
  • The Decapitation of St John the Baptist by Filippo della Valle (over statue).
    2011 Lateran, door

    Close-up of the ancient bronze doors from the Senate House.



San Giovanni in Laterano

The central nave is flanked by two aisles on each side (in the English way of describing a church like this, although the Italian equivalent is "five naves"). Off the outer side aisles are external chapels, three large ones with two small ones on the left and two large ones with two small ones on the right.

This nave-and-double-aisle layout is familiarly regarded as typical of an old basilica of this size, but actually what sort of liturgical arrangements had prompted the invention of the plan in the 4th century are a complete mystery.

At the end of the nave is a transept, with a side entrance under the Loggia of Benedictions to the right and an impressive Altar of the Blessed Sacrament to the left. The central altar, with its confessio and baldacchino, is in the transept. The right hand side of the transept has a little chapel off it, and also the entrance to the Treasury. The left hand end has the entrance to the old choir chapel of the canons, beyond which are the Chapter House of the canons and two sacristies, the so-called Sacrestia antica and the Sacrestia dei Canonici.

The 19th century choir is beyond the transept, just before the rebuilt apse.

The cloisters have an entrance off the far end of the outer left hand aisle, just before the transept.

Central nave[]


The central nave is a study in contrasts. There is a spectacular late mediaeval floor, piers and upper side walls in coolly monumental Baroque, and a similarly spectacular Renaissance ceiling.

The standing fabric is by Borromini, whose work has had to endure sneering, hostile and dismissive comments for the last two centuries. If it were regarded in its own right it would receive admiration, but many critics have not been able to look past the accusation of vandalism as regards his alteration to the ancient fabric of the basilica (especially his demolition of the original verde antico side aisle colonnades). This is unfair. The work was sponsored by Pope Innocent X Pamphilj, whose family heraldry features prominently. Look for the dove bearing an olive branch -there are enough of them around.

Borromini replaced central nave arcades having square brick piers ( which had already replaced the original ancient columns) with five massive rectangular piers on each side. He also added two more piers to the counterfaçade, engaged with the wall there and having diagonal inner faces (a very Borrominian detail). The inner face of each of these twelve piers sports a segmentally curved niche containing an identically designed aedicule, in turn containing a colossal white marble statue of one of the apostles. This stands on a black(ish) marble plinth bearing the apostle's name in a palm wreath, and is flanked by a pair of ancient verde antico Composite columns which Borromini scavenged from the demolished aisle arcades. These columns in turn support a bowed (convex) triangular pediment on posts, with the Pamphilj dove in white marble in the tympanum. The cove of the niche and the bow of the pediment create a little saucer dome over the statue, which has star coffering with rosettes. Behind the columns is an identically styled pair of pilasters in red marble, and behind the statue is what looks like a coved doorcase in grey-veined white marble, as if the apostle were just emerging from a door. This represents the gateway to Heavenly Jerusalem, which the apostles guard.

The pair of aedicules flanking the entrance face diagonally up the nave.

Above each aedicule is a rectangular (almost square) stucco relief panel, allegedly originally intended to be in bronze. Above this in turn is an oval fresco tondo in a lush floral wreath. Each aedicule, relief and fresco set is flanked by a pair of gigantic ribbed Composite pilasters with incurved volutes, which do not reach the ceiling and do not actually support anything. This is good evidence of Borromini's original intention of replacing the ceiling with a vault. Above each pair of pilasters is an entablature fragment set back from the capitals, bearing three wreaths containing the Pamphij dove in the middle and crossed palm branches to the sides. These are linked by swags hanging from flaming torches.

In between the piers are five arches, each with a molded archivolt springing from Doric imposts. These imposts and the arch intrados have recesses along their length, containing stucco laurel foliage bundles -except for the two central arches, where the foliage is palm leaves. Also, these two arches have the Pamphilj heraldry on their keystones. Above each arch, except the central two again, is a large rectangular window flanked by Ionic pilasters with the capitals incorporating women's heads and supporting an omega cornice. The curve of the latter touches the ceiling, and contains the Pamphilj dove yet again in a wreath. The central windows are wider, and are in the form of a serliana with two engaged rendered Composite columns supporting a triangular pediment with a broken cornice and flanking a recessed pair of free-standing marble columns supporting a shallowly curved archivolt with That Bird once again in a scallop tablet on the keystone. The archivolt intrudes into the pediment.

As mentioned, the decor of Borromini's work is cool and is predominantly in a light grey tint with the gigantic pilasters looking as if they are in white marble with pale grey veins.

Some commentators think that there are ancient colonnade columns walled up in the piers, but this is uncertain.


Because of the diagonal pier faces, the counterfaçade looks like a three-sided apse with gigantic pilasters folded into the corners. The inner pair of these flank the main entrance, which inside is set into an arch having a long epigraph celebrating the restoration by Pope Innocent X in its tympanum. The coat-of-arms of the pope is on the archivolt, while above is a large window looking into the entrance loggia and which has in front of it another serliana resembling those over the central side arches, except here all four columns are free-standing.


The Cosmatesque floor is from the 14th century, a late example of this technique. It was paid by the Colonna family, and completed in its present form in 1425 under Pope Martin V. The family's heraldic device of a single column can be seen depicted in several places on the floor.

The geometric forms used in this floor are spectacularly intricate, but the colouring is surprisingly pallid and is dominated by light grey hues. The reason for this seems to be that the supply of brightly coloured recycled ancient stone from ruins was drying up by then -there is much less bright yellow giallo antico, dark green serpentine and deep crimson imperial porphyry than in earlier floors of this style. Or perhaps cost was a factor. The rectangular bordering panels in mostly yellowish marbles are by Borromini.

Fascinatingly, when the floor was restored in the late 19th century it was found that some of the pieces of inlay were fragments of an epitaph composed in honour of St Hippolytus of Rome by Pope St Damasus (366-84). This was originally on the saint's shrine in the Catacomba di Sant'Ippolito, and the presence of the fragments here is good evidence that some at least of the catacombs were known in the Middle Ages.


Pope Pius IV (1559-65) commissioned the extant flat coffered wooden nave ceiling of the basilica in 1562. The design is attributed to Pirro Ligorio, the structural carpenters were Vico di Raffaele di Lazzaro and Matteo Bartolini da Castello, the fine-detail woodcarvers were Daniele da Volterra and François "Flaminio" Boulanger, the painter was Luzio Luzi and the gilder was Leonardi Cugni. The work dragged on to 1567, which is why the heraldry of Pope Pius V features. Then in 1775 the ceiling was restored on the orders of Pope Pius VI, who had his own heraldry incorporated in it -there seems to be uncertainty as to how radical a restoration this was.

There are three papal coats-of-arms in the ceiling, occupying the three main coffers: Pope Pius IV (Medici, 1559-1565) in the centre, those of St. Pius V (1566-1572) at the far end and Pius VI (1775-1799) at the entrance. The side coffers feature the Instruments of the Passion in the centre, and Eucharistic symbols at each end. The gilding is fabulously rich, with backgrounds in red and blue with a little green. The Medici heraldry is interestingly incorrect -the balls should be gules (red), not gilded (except the top one, azure with fleur-de-lys or). Why? The heraldry of Pius VI is charming, showing a woman's head blowing on a lily.

Nave statues, reliefs and frescoes[]

The statues in the nave, installed here during Pope Clement XI's pontificate (170021),

ROME's ST John Lateran - Oct

depict the twelve Apostles, with St Paul instead of St Matthias. They can all be identified by clear attributes, and also have labels on their plinths.

Above the statues are stucco relief panels, with Old Testament scenes on the left and related scenes from the New Testament on the right. These were designed in 1650 by Alessandro Algardi, and executed by his school led by Antonio Raggi and Giovanni Antonio De Rossi. Several of those concerned have been identified by recent documentary research. Above these reliefs are frescoes of prophets in oval tondi, executed in 1718 by a team of artists.

Starting at the left side of the entrance, the statues, reliefs and frescoes on each pier are listed as follows (with the attributes of the apostles concerned given in parenthesis):

And on the right side, again starting from the entrance:

Triumphal arch[]

The triumphal arch by Borromini fits rather awkwardly into his design of the central nave. A pair of monumental ancient pink granite Composite columns, with gilded highlights on the capitals, support an archivolt as wide as the nave by means of a pair of posts which are treated as extrusions of a non-existent entablature having an architrave, nave and a cornice of several moldings. The spandrels have frescoes of St John the Baptist, to the left, and St John the Evangelist to the right.

It is surmised that this pair of columns survives from the ancient central nave colonnades.

High altar[]

Altar itself[]

The high altar stands in the transept, just behind the triumphal arch and with a confessio or devotional crypt intruding into the nave. This altar is a so-called "Papal altar", reserved for the Holy Father (although, in practice, permission for Mass to be celebrated on it by others is routinely granted).

The altar with its baldacchino was originally part of the restoration of the basilica ordered by Pope Urban V (1362-70) after the previous altar had been destroyed by fire and the collapse of the burning transept roof. The architect was Giovanni di Stefano, who began work here in 1367 and took three years to complete it. However, in 1851 Pope Pius IX employed Filippo Martinucci to provide a new high altar and the present confessio as well as restoring the baldacchino.

The white marble altar faces down the nave. The frontal has vaguely Cosmatesque detailing, with four little barber's pole columns dividing the field into three. Each of these has a Papal coat-of-arms in bronze, the central one being over a circular stellated aperture. From left to right, the shields are of Popes Urban V, Pius IX and Gregory XI. The reason for the aperture is that under the mensa is preserved the alleged wooden tabletop on which St Peter and his successors are said to have celebrated the Eucharist right up to the time that the basilica was built.

Interestingly, the tradition of a portable wooden altar table fits in with the recent suggestion that the popes before the emperor Constantine had no fixed cathedral church, but used whatever commercial premises they could rent for the purpose. The developed tradition is that the table was from the home of St Pudens, with whom St Peter stayed as a guest. This legend is discredited (see Santa Pudenziana for further details).


The elaborate Gothic baldacchino is by Giovanni di Stefano (another picture), and was consecrated with the altar by Pope Urban V in 1370. Contributions to the cost were made by King Charles V of France and one Pietro Belliforte, whose heraldic shields were incorporated into the decoration in gratitude.

There are four storeys. The first has four columns with gilded capitals, which are not a matching set. Three are in grey granite, but the near left hand one is in bigio antico marble and is Corinthian. The near right hand one is Composite and is in granito dell'Elba, but the two back ones have derivative capitals featuring griffins and are in what is described as granito orientale (Egyptian, from Mons Claudianus?).

These columns support a horizontal entablature, with a frieze in blue with little white rosettes except at the front where an epigraph records the restoration of Pope Pius IX in 1851: Pius IX Pont. Max. in veteram formam restituit, ac splediori cult instauravit, anno D. MDCCCLI. In between the column capitals is pendant Gothic tracery, consisting of three slightly pointed arches each subdivided into two sub-arches with quatrefoils and with a total of three little heraldic shields on each side above the latter. These are described as:

(Nave side) Pope Urban V in the centre, to the right "Cardinal Antonelli" (which one?), to the left Cardinal Angelico de Grimoard.

(Either side) Pope Urban again, flanked by "a nephew" and a blank shield.

(Far side) Pope Urban again, with Grimoard again to the right and Guglielmo d'Agrifoglio to the left.

The vault above the altar, with SS Peter and Paul in relief, is by Giovanni Cosci but was restored in 1804 by Giovan Domenico Fiorentini.

The second storey has three fresco panels on each side, and at each corner above the columns are two statues of saints each with its miniature Gothic canopy. The panels were originally executed by Barna da Siena (it is thought) in 1369, but were repainted by Antoniazzo Romano and his school in the late 15th century. The contribution of Fiorenzo di Lorenzo is also claimed. Giovanni Battista Brughi did some repainting in the Borromini restoration, and finally the restorers in 1851 had a go. So, the present frescoes are hardly 14th century but still look good.

The scenes depicted are:

(Nave side) The Crucifixion with Our Lady and St John the Evangelist, flanked by SS James the Less (?), Paul, Peter and Philip.

(Right side) The Mother and Child with Angels being venerated by a cardinal, and flanked by four more saints who are, left to right, SS Lawrence with his gridiron, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Stephen the Protomartyr with one of the stones used to kill him.

(Left side) Christ the Good Shepherd with three saintly bishops and one cardinal, who look like the four Doctors of the Church -St Gregory is certainly the one on the far left, for he has the Dove of the Holy Spirit whispering in his ear, the cardinal looks like St Jerome and the other two would be SS Augustine and Ambrose.

(Far side) The Annunciation and The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin, while the right hand panel features St Catherine of Alexandria and St Anthony the Great (?).

After another entablature with larger gilded rosettes, there comes the third storey which is a large open relic chamber. It is protected by gilded bronze railings with a barley-sugar twist ,which were installed by Pope Gregory XI. Each side is flanked by a semi-column which is also twisted, and at the corners are square pillars with recessed centre-strips in blue. The railings are topped by little Gothic arches, above which are bronze vine-scrolls.

In the chamber are two silver-gilt reliquaries (not easy to see through the railings) in which the alleged heads, or parts of

The Gothic Baldacchino and Altar of the Blessed Sacarament

The Gothic Baldacchino and Altar of the Blessed Sacarament

the heads, of SS Peter and Paul are enshrined. These have been here since 1370, when they were moved from the Sancta Sanctorum in the palace. The original 14th century reliquaries were by a goldsmith called Francesco di Bartolo, but they were melted down on the orders of Pope Pius VI in order to pay an indemnity imposed by Napoleon in the Treaty of Tolentino 1797. This vandalism was so embarrassing afterwards that Catholic publications and guidebooks usually described the reliquaries as "looted by the French" -this was not so, but the assertion is still in print. The replacement reliquaries were sponsored by a noblewoman called Maria Emanuela Pignatelli, produced by Giuseppe Valadier and installed in 1804.

The fourth storey is the canopy. This has a spectacular spire with gilded crockets and with gilt vine-scroll decoration, and is accompanied by four gables each with an octofoil aperture containing a bust of one of the Evangelists. Crocketed pinnacles are at the corners, and below the gables are open lunettes containing bronze fanlight grilles with more vines. Each statue bust is accompanied by a pair of heraldic shields, of King Charles, Belliforte, Pope Urban V and Pope Gregory XI.

The vault of the canopy, over the relic-chamber, has constellations of gold stars on a blue background. The blue pigment used here and elsewhere on the baldacchino is ultramarine, in mediaeval times a fabulously expensive material derived from lapis lazuli which had its only source in Afghanistan. The blue bits on the baldacchino were more expensive to do per unit area than the gilded ones.


The U-shaped confessio was originally dug out under Pope Sergius II (844-7), at a time when many churches in Rome were given fake catacombs under their high altars in order to accommodate relics of martyrs. The latter were being brought into the city, as the suburban catacombs were abandoned in the face of threats from various marauders. The strange thing here, however, was that there were no major saints' relics venerated in the basilica -the popes in the Middle Ages kept their enormous collection safe in the Sancta Sanctorum at the palace, including the heads of SS Peter and Paul now above the altar.

After being remodelled in the 14th century, when it was a chapel dedicated to St John the Evangelist, the confessio was refitted again in the Baroque restoration under Borromini. Then it was enlarged on the orders of Pope St Pius IX (18461878) in 1851, a project which took two years. The gilded bronze Baroque railing was destroyed and replaced by the present balustrade, and shamefully a fresco cycle by Giovanni Battista Brughi was also destroyed.

The void now has a protective open marble screen balustrade, containing decorative bronze railing panels executed in a sort of Gothic spider-web style which is actually quite enjoyable. The single entrance leads to a double staircase with a metal handrail which is also sort-of Gothic. The walls are revetted in polychrome marble work, mostly in a white and red brecciated marble with a dado in greenish grey. There is now no altar, but instead a wooden statue of St John the Baptist standing on an ancient Corinthian column capital. This is by Donato da Formello, and used to be in the saint's chapel next to the baptistery. From 1772 it was kept in the sacristy.

Behind the statue is a Gothic arched doorway, which actually leads into the scavi although never used nowadays. It is blocked by a diapered grid with Gothic detailing.

The bronze tomb-slab of Pope Martin V (1417-1431) is the major item of interest here.

Image of St

It is by Simone di Giovanni Ghini, a pupil of Donatello, and shows the pope's effigy in shallow relief.The inscription describes him as temporum suorum felicitas, "the joy of his times", and the church can be grateful to him for the nave floor.

As at San Paolo fuori le Mura, visitors have taken to throwing coins into the confessio. The money goes to pious purposes -not to the basilica cleaners' wine fund, even if they would seriously deserve it.

Side aisles[]


Borromini completely re-vamped the side aisles too, dismantling the ancient verde antico colonnades in the process and replacing them with eleven square brick piers on either side having incut corners (including a pair on the transept steps). The style of vaulting is different for the inner and outer aisles, but all is in a pale grey or white with no other colour.

The inner aisles have shallow saucer-domes or cupolas behind the central nave arcade arches, and short barrel vaults behind the piers. Each barrel vault is bounded by a pair of arches in the same style as those of the nave arcades, and these three define the dome pendentives. The fourth arch in each cupola bay encloses the portal into the outer side aisle, which is rectangular; the tympanum of the arch above contains a window. The barrel vaults are undecorated, but the cupolas have thin circular stucco wreaths supported by angel's heads each with four wings.

The outer aisles have flat vaults, with trabeation beams separating the bays and also covering the portals from the inner aisles just mentioned. These beams are supported by angel corbels.

The aisle floors by Bernini have lozenge-shaped tiles in white, black and pale grey which give a trompe l'oeil effect of cubes.

The following description deals with the objects of interest in the inner side aisles first. Then, it starts in the outer side aisle to the right of the entrance and deals with the chapels and other items in anticlockwise order up this aisle and around the back of the high altar and so back down the left hand outer side aisle.

Giotto fresco[]

In the right hand inner aisle, on the back of the first nave pier, is what looks at first sight to be a fine Baroque funerary monument. It is not, but is a sort of shrine to a fresco fragment from a lost cycle of frescoes within the mediaeval Loggia of Benedictions commissioned by Pope Boniface VIII for the Jubilee of 1300. (This spectacular Loggia should not be confused with the one now over the north transept entrance, but was sited in what is now the main road to the north-east of the obelisk).

See here for a photo of the aedicule, and here for a close-up.

The fresco fragment is attributed to Giotto, although there has been a lot of argument about this. The larger scene of which it is a part has been preserved in a copy of a copy, viewable here. The pope is shown in the loggia blessing a crowd, accompanied by a cardinal and a cleric or monk. The consensus on the event depicted is that it was the opening of the Jubilee, with the cardinal possibly being Francesco Caetani. Other scenes in the cycle are described as having depicted The Baptism of Constantine and The Building of the Lateran Basilica.

While the Loggia was being demolished in 1586, Fulvio Orsini intervened and saved the fragment which was put in the cloisters. However, in 1786 the Caetani family had it brought into the basilica and re-hung behind glass in the present late Baroque aedicule. This has four granite Corinthian columns placed on inward pointing diagonals, which support a Borrominiesque entablature lacking a frieze and with two bowed sections flanking a coved one. In the cove is an ornately flower-garlanded coat-of-arms of Pope Boniface, who was a Caetani (the heraldry is argent two bends wavy azure), and behind this is an attic with a semi-circular cove having tufts of acorns and oak leaves at its ends. An epigraph describing the fresco's history is below the elaborate stucco frame, which has a gable with festoons.

The fresco was restored in 1952, when it was found to be in poor condition and heavily retouched. Unfortunately the loss of surface detail makes it difficult to ascribe the work firmly to the hand of Giotto, instead of his school.

The fresco has its own Italian Wikipedia page here.

Monument of Pope Sylvester II[]

In 1003, Pope Sylvester II allegedly dropped dead while celebrating Mass in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. This was regarded at the time as God's vengeance on some enormous sin and, since the popes of the period indulged in all the most obvious sins without harm, the rumour spread that he had been a black magician and a worshipper of Satan. According to the developed legend, his succubus (called Meridiana) told him that he would die if he ever said Mass in Jerusalem. He thought that she meant the city, and forgot about the name of the church. In the Middle Ages it was believed that the bones in his tomb would rattle about when the reigning Pope was about to die, and that his epitaph tablet would sweat moisture.

The mediaeval monument survived until it was destroyed in the Borromini restoration in 1684. It is recorded that when the sarcophagus was broken open, the fully-vested corpse was seen intact before it crumbled away in the fresh air. Borromini provided a cenotaph and included the salvaged epigraph tablet, but this aedicule was also destroyed when the Hungarians provided the present monument in 1907, the architect being Gzila Nalder.

A simple affair behind the second nave pier on this side, the aedicule has the alleged original epigraph at the bottom and a marble bas-relief in two panels within a pedimented frame at the top. The relief depicts the pope conferring the royal title on St Stephen of Hungary, an event that took place in 1001 (actually, the two never met). This marks the emergence of Hungary as a Christian kingdom. The sculptor is given as Josef Damko (1872-1955).

Here is a transcription of the epitaph, believed to have been composed by Pope Sergius IV:

Iste locus mundi Sylvestri membra sepulti, venturo Domino confert ad sonitum, quem dederat mundo celebrem doctissima virgo atque, caput mundi, culmina Romula. Primum Gebertus meruit Francigena sedem Remensis populi, metropolim patriae. Inde Ravennatis meruit conscendere summum Eccesiae regimen, nobilis atque potens. Post annum Romam, mutato nomine, sumpsit, ut toto pastor fieret orbe novus. Cui nimium placuit sociari mente fideli, obtulit hoc Caesar tertius Otto sibi. Tempus uterque comit, praeclarus uterque sophia, gaudet et omne seclum, frangitur omne reum. Clavigeri instar erat, coelorum sede potitus, terna suffectus cui vice pastor erat. Iste, vicem Petri postquam suscepit, abegit lustrali spatio saecula morte sui. Obriguit mundus, discussa pace, triumphus ecclesiae nutans dedidicit requiem. Sergius hunc loculum, miti pietate sacerdos succesorque suus, compsit amore sui. Quisquis ad hunc tumulum devexa lumina vertis, Omnipotens Domine, dic, miserere sui!

("This place gathers together the members of the buried Sylvester, until the sound [of the trumpet] when Christ comes. The Roman summit, the well-learned virgin and head of the world [the Church?], gave this famous one to the world. Firstly Gebert the French-born deserved the the [episcopal] seat of the people of Rouen, the metropolis of the fatherland. Then he, noble and powerful, deserved to ascend to the highest government of the church of Ravenna. After a year, changing his name, he took on Rome so that he would be a new pastor for all the world. Presently Emperor Otto III took him to himself, [for] it pleased him [the emperor?] to associate with a faithful mind. Each [of them] adorns the times, each is distinguished in wisdom, every age rejoices, every guilt is broken. He had the likeness of the key-bearer [St Peter], acquired by the throne of the heavens, adequate to be a pastor on three occasions [Rheims, Ravenna, Rome]. This one, after he took the place of Peter, left the world by his death after a propitius space [of time]. The world weps, peace runs away, the wobbling triumph of the Church gives up rest. Sergius the priest and his successor, in kind piety arranged this little place out of his love. Whoever you are who come to this tomb with the light fading, say 'Almighty God, have mercy on him'!")

The monument has photos at the bottom of the web-page here.

Other monuments in right hand inner aisle[]

Further on along the right hand inner aisle are three more funerary monuments. The next pier has one to Pope Alexander III (1159-81), designed by Domenico Guidi and set up on the orders of Pope Alexander VII in 1660. It has a coved entablature in yellow Siena marble, on four Corinthian columns in alabaster on a background of verde antico green marble. In the cove is an ornate coat-of-arms presumably (and anachronistically) meant to be of Alexander III, while the stylized-mountains-and-star finials flanking this are from the coat-of-arms of Alexander VII. The central epitaph is in black marble, bowed, with a white marble portrait medallion on top. The whole lot stands on a high curved plinth in Siena marble.

Then comes another memorial commissioned by Pope Alexander VII, this one to Pope Sergius IV (1009-12). This has a fragment of the pope's original monument, a relief effigy of the pope giving a blessing, which has been inserted into a capsule-shaped tondo surrounded by a wreath with spiky stars (from Pope Alexander's heraldry). This is flanked by a pair of angel caryatid pilasters, and topped by a coat-of-arms flanked by the mountains-and-star device again.

Finally, there is a monument to Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese 1565, by Guglielmo della Porta. The cardinal was a nephew of Pope Paul III. The monument has a black marble epitaph tablet in an molded white marble frame, flanked by a pair of verde antico Corinthian columns supporting a broken triangular pediment. An elliptical relief coat-of-arms is in the break, and above is a smaller segmental pediment. On the slopes of the first pediment are reclining statues of female allegories, Faith and Prudence, by a Milanese sculptor recorded as Antonio Peracha. (The attribution of the monument to Vignola seems to be a mistake propagated online.)

The tomb of Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese, is by Vignola, from the 16th century.

Left hand inner aisle[]

Diego Angeli, writing in 1903, mentioned that the confessionals in this aisle were decorated with bronze relief showing scenes from the life of Christ by one T. A. Mazzani 1864. Was this Tommaso Mazzani, one of the canons and a noted architect?

The memorials on the piers are as follows:

Giuseppe Lanciuti 1625.

Girolamo Garimberto 1575, with a good portrait bust of this impressively bearded bishop. His cathedral city is now Galižana in Croatia.

Alessandro Burgio 1613, who had been the Vicar (second-in-command after the Archpriest) of the basilica, and was a popular man according to the witness of his epitaph.

Cardinal Lucio Sassi 1604. His memorial has a pair of black marble Doric columns flanking a large slightly elliptical tondo, which contains an interesting (although damaged) portrait fresco of the cardinal in his scarlet robes. The pigment used in these is vermilion -a deadly poisonous compound of mercury.

Elena Savelli 1570. This monument is historically important, and was carefully moved by Borromini from the bottom of the right hand aisle. It is claimed as the first extant example in Rome of a funerary memorial with a portrait bust, which here is in bronze with the deceased turning to her right and clasping her hands in prayer. There are also three bronze medallions, depicting The Resurrection of Christ, The Angel of Judgment and The Resurrection of the Dead. The design is by Jacopo Del Duca from Sicily, with the actual bronze-casting being done by his brother Lorenzo.

Cappella Orsini[]

At the bottom of the far right hand side aisle, next to the Holy Door, is the tomb of Paolo Mellini. He was a Roman citizen who died of plague in 1527, and who has been confused with others of his family (especially those buried in the Cappella Mellini at Santa Maria del Popolo). The monument has a recumbent effigy, above which Borromini created a trompe l'oeil looking like a coved back-wall when it is actually only slightly curved. A pair of pilasters with flaming urn finials frames the composition, and the curve of the backing fits under an oval window with a molded frame in grey marble. Above the effigy is a very badly damaged fresco of the Madonna and Child, inspired by Melozzo. It allegedly came from the Colosseum, and was put here in 1669 (it did not belong to the memorial originally). Photos are here.

Borromini provided similar but charmingly different aedicules for salvaged memorials under the other windows in the aisle, and it is worth comparing the designs of these.

The entrance to the Orsini Chapel follows, which is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. This little chapel was allegedly designed by Borromini, but was re-fitted in 1729. It has the plan of a transverse rectangle with a tiny apse at each end, and an altarpiece depicting the Immaculate Conception by Placido Costanzi. Here is an epigraph commemorating Marie Anne de la Trémoille, nicknamed La Princesse des Ursins after she married into the Orsini family.

Between this and the next chapel is a monument of Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva, Duke of Atri. It was originally executed by Isaia da Pisa in 1574, but was re-modelled by Borromini to whom belongs the oval window and the trompe-l'oeil backing in grey marble which looks as if it is a curved portico with four pairs of Doric semi-columns. The items from the original memorial are the epitaph, a bronze coat-of-arms above this and two flanking statues in scallop-topped niches which portray allegories of Temperance and Prudence. The latter is fully clothed and holds a snake, but the former is almost nude and was a rather risky sculpture for the time. The symbolism is antitypical. The two ladies are in a gallery here.

Cappella Torlonia[]

The second chapel off the right hand outer aisle is a large one dedicated to St John Nepomucene (although there is no artistic evidence of this). It was commissioned by Prince Alessandro Torlonia and erected by Quintiliano Raimondi in 1838, with the help of a noted team of sculptors. This edifice is claimed to have been the last privately owned funerary chapel for a noble family in a church in Rome. Its construction entailed the demolition of a previous little chapel like the Cappella Orsini, which had frescoes by Sebastiano Conca.

The plan is based on a Greek cross, with shallow side arms and slightly longer entrance and apse arms. The fabric is a very sumptuous late neo-Classical design, with intricate gilded stucco decoration in and around the dome. Unfortunately the gate is kept locked, so usually you have to content yourself with peeping in.

The dominating central dome having a large oculus and coffering containing rosettes, which is in squares getting smaller as the oculus is approached. The dome rests on an attic plinth made up of a frieze in alabaster and a dentillate cornice, and this in turn rests on the true entablature which has a frieze with elaborate frond decoration in stucco including acanthus leaves. This entablature is supported on pendentives, which are defined by the short coffered barrel vaults of the cross arms. They contain hexagonal relief panels depicting the Evangelists, by Pietro Galli. The pendentives are on wide diagonal piers, the corners of which are embellished with white marble ribbed Corinthian pillars which support another entablature running round the interior.

The walls look as if they are revetted in coloured stone. There's a high dado in what looks like red marble, and a sub-frieze below the entablature in green. The walls in between are in yellow. The floor has a radial pattern of trapezoids in polychrome marble, focusing on a large circular grille in curlicued bronze work which opens into the funerary crypt.

The Torlonia family Chapel, St John Lateran-2008 485

The altar has an aedicule comprising a triangular pediment supported by a pair of ribbed Corinthian columns. The altarpiece is a marble relief of The Deposition of Christ, which was executed by Pietro Tenerani in 1844. The frontal with a main panel of lapis lazuli and side panels of Russian malachite, both framed in Oriental alabaster. The back wall of the sanctuary is also revetted in the latter stone.

There are statues of allegorical virtues in niches flanking the altar and the entrance. Those facing the altar are Fortitude by Filippo Gnaccarini, and Temperance by Achille Stocchi. Those by the entrance are Justice by Vincenzo Grassi and Prudence by Angelo Bezzi. Unfortunately the latter died before he could finish Prudence, so she was completed by a sculptor called Dante.

The memorial to Giovanni Torlonia is to the right. This is recorded as having been begun by Luigi Mainoni, continued by Giuseppe Chialli and finished by Giuseppe Barba of the latter's school. Piety is listed as being by Stocchi, and Faith by Bezzi. Opposite is a memorial to Anna Torlonia 1848, also by Barba with Religion by Vincenzo Gajassi and Hope by Filippo Gnaccarini.

The incredibly ornate and curvaceous bronze railings at the entrance, with four candlesticks and a central cross, are by Giacomo Luswergh, whose family was originally from Bavaria but had been in Rome since the 16th century.

The chapel has its own little sacristy (inaccessible to visitors). This contains a relief of The Entombment of Christ by Galli.

Cappella Massimo[]

The third chapel off the right hand outer aisle is another large one, and is used for some of the public Masses in the basilica (see section below on "Liturgy"). It is dedicated to the Crucifixion, which is confusing since there is also a Chapel of the Crucifix off the right hand end of the transept. Giacomo della Porta designed it in 1564 for Faustina Massimo as a funerary chapel for her family. Unfortunately it has solid wooden doors, and if these are locked you cannot see anything.

The chapel has a square plan, with a little rectangular barrel-vaulted sanctuary. It has Doric pilasters supporting an entablature with triglyphs on its frieze, and with double triglyph posts over the capitals. Over the entablature is an attic from which the vault springs. The sanctuary has a short barrel vault, intruding into the attic and with two rows of octagonal coffers. The 20th century floor has an interesting pattern in polychrome marble tiles, designed by Ildo Avetta.

The altar has an aedicule with a pair of Ionic columns in pavonazzetto marble supporting the separated ends of a triangular pediment that has its central section missing. In the void is a double curlicue device. The altarpiece is a Calvary by Girolamo Siciolante, Il Sermoneta. Above the pediment is a very large stucco scallop-shell, fitted into the curve of the vault.

Outside the chapel is the monument of Cardinal Cesare Rasponi (died 1675), a historian of the basilica. The impressive polychrome marble monument is by Filippo Carcani, and has a central niche flanked by a pair of Doric columns in pavonazzetto marble. This contains a sculpture of a man and a flying angel holding a portrait medallion, very much in the style of Bernini. A photo is here.

A marble relief panel including statue of St James the Great by the school of Andrea Bregno is in this location, dating from 1492. A photo is here.

Entrance to the palace[]

There follows the entrance lobby to the palace, designed by Fontana but altered by Borromini. To the left of the stairs is a statue of Cardinal Pietro Gasparri by Enrico Tadolini 1941. This impressive but rather academic work in polychrome marble, old-fashioned for the time, shows the cardinal kneeling at a prie-dieu within an arched niche.

Casati monument[]

Further on is a Borromini-and-Cosmatesque memorial to the Milanese Cardinal Conte Casati (died in 1287), whose name is often erroneously given as Giussano. The aedicule by Borromini is possibly the best of his set under the oval windows, and features a ball-bounce cornice below the window, which is supported by four caryatids having fruit-baskets on their heads. The work is in a greenish-grey marble, but the anatomy of the caryatids and the pair of flaming-vase finials on top are in white. A photo is here.

This aedicule contains the cardinal's original epitaph in the lower centre. Above, there are three original Cosmatesque items. A pair of blind Gothic arches with two-light tracery on geometric mosaic flanks a sculptural relief with a mosaic background containing many gilded tesserae. Note that the tracery of the arch on the left has a quatrefoil, but the right hand one has an eight-petalled rose. The relief has Gothic fan tracery above it, and features a kneeling cardinal being presented to Christ by St John the Baptist. The cardinal holds a Gothic pinnacle. A close-up photo is here.

There is a persuasive hypothesis that these three elements do not come from the original tomb of Casti, but were from the altar of St Mary Magdalene that stood in the nave in front of the schola cantorum of the mediaeval basilica. Other elements from this destroyed work are in the cloister. If this is correct, the artist responsible was Deodato Cosma and the cardinal depicted is Giovanni Colonna, who sponsored the altar.

Chapel of St John the Evangelist[]

There follows a second little chapel, dedicated to St John the Evangelist. This is dominated by the enormous round-headed fresco over the altar (which has no aedicule). This shows St John having a vision of Our Lady while writing the Book of Revelation; the reference is Rev. 12:1. The artist was Lazzaro Baldi.

The famous Renaissance humanist Cardinal Tommaso Inghirami 1516, who had the pseudonym Phaedrus, was buried here. He was part of the brilliant cultural ambience at Rome which was destroyed in the Sack of 1527.

The monument to Cardinal António Martins de Chaves 1447 is the last thing in this aisle. The original memorial was by Isaia da Pisa, and Borromini incorporated salvaged elements in a truly sumptuous coved aedicule in red marble with green back-panelling. The cardinal is shown recumbent on his sarcophagus, with a weeper standing at each end. Behind the effigy are standing Our Lady in prayer, accompanied by St Anthony of Padua and a female saint holding a stemmed cup. A close-up of the surviving mediaeval elements is here. Borromini's eye for detail is shown in the sarcophagus being given low feet in yellow marble, contrasting with the overall colour scheme.

You now go up some steps into the transept.


The transept was substantially remodelled (but not completely rebuilt) by Giacomo della Porta, who was commissioned by Pope Clement VIII in 1592 to do the work in celebration of the Jubilee of 1600. The decorations in fresco were the responsibility of the Cavalier d'Arpino, who was in charge of a talented team of Mannerist artists: Giovanni Battista Ricci, Paris Nogari, Cristoforo Roncalli Il Pomarancio, Orazio Gentileschi, Cesare Nebbia, Giovanni Baglione and Bernardino Cesari. Background detailing was done by Ferraù Fenzoni and Paul Bril (the latter especially the landscapes).

Theirs is one of the best displays of Mannerist art in Rome, but the frescoes was restored in a four-year campaign from 1850 by Filippo Agricola and Alessandro Mantovani. Also, being rather high up they are not easy to see (serious visitors bring binoculars).

The transept has five bays, a wide and square central one as the crossing and two narrower ones on each side corresponding to the ends of the side aisles. The fabric extends slightly further than the nave side walls on each side, and here are the Loggia of Benedictions entrance to the right and the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament to the left. Opposite the arches at the ends of the aisles are arches leading into chapels and sacristies, which do not match but are narrower.

The transept has its own separate carved and gilded wooden ceiling, which is in a similar style to that of the nave. In the central large coffer is a gilded bust of Christ surrounded by winged putto's heads. This is flanked by smaller coffers with busts of SS Peter and Paul, and then full-length figures of SS John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. The pair of large side coffers displays the coat-of-arms of Pope Clement VIII. The ceiling was designed in 1592 by Taddeo Landini, and executed by a team of carpenters whose names are given as Francesco Matalani, Niccolò Varisco, Valerio Valle and Giuseppe de' Bianchi da Narni.

Each of the four side walls of the ends of the transept has three frescoes high up, separated by two windows with segmental pediments. Below these are two large frescoes, painted as if they are tapestries with rolled-up ends and with the borders containing heraldic symbols of Pope Clement. Below these in turn, the walls and arch piers were revetted spectacularly with polychrome marbles by Borromini.

In the spandrels of the nave and choir arches are frescoes of the Evangelists. In some of those of the side arches are little niches with triangular pediments, containing relief sculptures of angels. There are a total of nine of these, five in the right end and four in the left end. These were executed by a team of sculptors given as: Camillo Mariani, Nicolas Cordier, Ippolito Buzzi, Giovanni Antonio Paracca Il Valsoldo, Ambrogio Buonvicino and Stefano Maderno. The modern opinion is that Cordier and Il Valsoldo did most of the work.

The floor level is raised four steps from that of the nave. The floor itself was relaid by Andrea Busiri Vici in 1858, with a geometrical pattern of polychrome marble slabs including a pietra dura roundel displaying the coat-of-arms of Pope Pius IX which is behind the high altar.

The frescoes are as follows:

Right end, west wall. Top: St Barnabas by Ricci, St Bartholomew by Nogari and St Simon the Apostle by Pomarancio. Bottom: The Baptism of Constantine by Pomarancio, Pope Sylvester Receives the Envoys of Constantine on Mount Soracte by Nogari.

Right end, east wall. Top: St Thomas by Nebbia, St Philip by Baglione and St Thaddeus (Jude) by Gentileschi. Bottom: The Consecration of the Basilica by Ricci, and The Building of the Basilica by Nogari.

Left end, west wall. Top: St Andrew by Ricci, St Peter by Cesari and SS Ambrose (?) and Gregory the Great by Nebbia. Bottom: The Dream of Constantine by Nebbia, and The Triumph of Constantine by Cesari.

Left end, east wall. Top: SS Augustine (?) and Jerome (?) by Nebbia, St Paul by Nebbia and St James the Great by Nogari. Bottom: Constantine Donates Liturgical Vessels to the Basilica and The Miraculous Appearance of the Holy Face in the Basilica, both by Baglione.


The organs of the basilica have their own Italian Wikipedia page here.

The main organ is over the side entrance at the right end of the transept, leading in from under the Loggia of Benedictions. It was constructed in 1598 by Luca Blasi from Perugia, and the fantastically ornate Baroque case in blue and gold was constructed by Giovanni Battista Montano to a design by Giacomo Della Porta. It features many gilded angels disporting themselves, and a pair of twisted Solominic columns of a style more familiar from the great baldacchino at St Peter's. The instrument itself is claimed as the biggest and oldest in Rome. After a completely disastrous re-fitting in 1934 which rendered it unusable, it was restored to full working order in 1984.

The organ sits on an entablature with a frieze in pavonazzetto marble, the central part of which is brought forward over the entrance. This section is supported on two ribbed Corinthian columns in what is described as giallo antico. This rare marble was highly valued by the ancients, especially since the quarry at what is now Chemtou in Tunisia was worked out in the 3rd century. The real thing in Rome is in a warm yellow colour, verging on mango, with veins in orange and (occasionally) scarlet. Beware of so-called giallo antico of a more greenish hue and grey veins, as this is probably from Siena. Here, note that the right hand column has a break, and that the upper part is in a different colour from that of the left hand one. This marble is from a different source -was it a repair?

By tradition the columns came from the palace of Constantine and were donated by him, but a more scholarly opinion was that they were dug up in the Forum of Trajan. Note that the volutes in the capitals are on two different levels -this is unusual.

The decorated panels flanking the columns have a musical theme, on a background of verde antico. There are two busts of biblical musicians in niches, with a pair of friezes displaying contemporary musical instruments above them. To the left is King David with a harp by Francesco Aldini, and to the right is King Hezekiah with a portable organ by Ambrogio Buonvicino.

The doorcase has a triangular pediment on top of it, unsupported by any columns or pilasters. It has a broken top, into which is intruded an ornate coat-of-arms of Pope Clement. The angels supporters were sculpted by Il Valsoldo.

Cappella Ceci[]

There is a little chapel off the far right side of the transept, which is called the Ceci Chapel after the sponsoring family. It is reserved for private prayer and meditation. The dedication is to the Crucifix -note that this is the Chapel of the Crucifix, not the Chapel of the Crucifixion which is the Cappella Massimo in which some public Masses are said (the confusion is worse in Italian, since both are the Cappella del Crocifisso). To make things even more muddled, the Cappella Santorio also has a crucifix as the main altarpiece -although the dedication there is to Our Lady.

The ornate Baroque altar has a frontal in verde antico with inlaid details in giallo antico. A pair of Ionic columns in the former marble supports a molded archivolt in the latter stone, between two entablature fragments on posts above the capitals. Into the curve of this is tightly fitted a round-headed frame in the yellow marble again, which now contains a painted wooden crucifix on a grey marble background (apparently the altarpiece used to be a Nativity by Nicola da Pesaro). A second, higher pair of posts embellished with festoons flanks the archivolt, and support a horizontal cornice on which is a Symbol of the Trinity (that is, a triangle) in a gilded glory with floral swags.

To the right of the altar is a statue of a kneeling pope, in front of a marble slab embellished with Cosmatesque heraldry. The four shields on the latter are of the Tomacelli family, to which Boniface IX (1389-1404) belonged. The statue has hence been described as portraying him, or Pope Boniface VIII. However, modern opinion is that neither identification is correct and that the statue and slab do not belong together. The pope might be Urban V (1362-70), but any identification has to be uncertain.

Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico is buried here, and has a memorial to the right by Antonio d'Este executed in 1803 and with a good cameo-style medallion portrait. Opposite is thought to be the tomb of the humanist Lorenzo Valla 1457, a Canon Regular of the Lateran and one of the greatest philologists of his time. The monument has a reclining effigy on a sarcophagus frontal, the curvaceous decoration on the latter being known as strigillate after the Latin word for cut-throat razor. It was originally set up in the church, possibly in this chapel, but was moved to the cloister in the Borromini restoration. In 1825, it was moved back here; all this is recorded on the pair of flanking epigraph tablets.

The two frescoes on the side walls are, to the left The Nativity by Luigi Fontana 1887, and to the right The Presentation by Francesco Grandi (?) 1803. There seems to be some confusion in the sources as regards the latter, which seems to be by Fontana also -did he overpaint a work by Grandi?

To the left of the chapel entrance in the transept is an ornately decorated red stone tablet surrounded by pietra dura marble inlays, which records the twenty-fifty anniversary of the reign of Pope Pius IX in 1871.

To the left of the entrance to the chapel is the tomb of Pope Innocent III, made by Giuseppe Lucchetti in 1891, at the behest of Pope Leo XIII.

Portico Leonino[]

Before the late 19th century, the sanctuary apse opened onto the transept. Behind it, and following the curve of its outer wall, ran a colonnaded ambulatory or walkway which connected the two inner arches in the west walls of the transept. This work has been attributed (controversially) to Pope St Leo the Great in the past, hence the original name -it was probably early mediaeval.

This ambulatory was demolished in 1878, when Pope Leo XIII commissioned Virginio Vespignani and his son Francesco to extend the sanctuary by one bay and so to provide a proper choir for the canons within the basilica. The ambulatory was replaced by three straight corridors, two running down the sides of the new sanctuary and a transverse one which connects the two before running to the baptistery. These three corridors are still called the Portico Leonino, although there is no architectural continuity with the previous structure apart from the entrance arches in the transept.

The pope ordered the two archways to be converted into funerary memorials, the right hand one for Pope Innocent III and the left hand one for himself.

Pope Innocent had died and was buried at Perugia in 1216, but Pope Leo had his remains brought here in 1891. The monument shows the pope's effigy reclining on a draped sarcophagus over the door into the museum, and above the tympanum of the arch contains sculptures of Christ accompanied by SS Francis and Dominic (the pope had authorized their new Orders). Allegories of Religion and Fortitude stand in niches flanking the doorway. The work was by Giuseppe Lucchetti. The motivation for the reburial was that Pope Innocent was the greatest example in history of the exaltation of the papacy over secular rulers, and Pope Leo made this a theme of his restoration.

Pope Leo's own monument is by Giulio Tadolini 1907. The work is considered his masterpiece (photo here). The main statue shows the pope standing on his green basalt sarcophagus, in a posture as if he were acknowledging the cheers of a crowd. The detailing of the embroidery and lace on his vestments are very well carved. Two allegorical statues flank the doorway, The Church in Mourning on the right and The Working Man on the left. The latter may seem out of place, but is a reminder that the pope began the process of expounding the social teaching of the Catholic Church, especially as regards the rights and dignity of ordinary working people. He did this in his encyclical Rerum novarum, in which he dealt with the moral question of human work in a systematic manner. The document was instrumental in bringing about the modern social doctrine of the Church, as massively developed by subsequent popes.


In 1984 the Museo di San Giovanni in Laterano was opened, mostly comprising items from the basilica's Treasury. The main exhibition area occupies the right hand corridor of the Portico Leonino, and that part of the transverse corridor behind the apse. A subsidiary room is the so-called Sala Pio IX, which is a 19th century hall opening off the cloisters. There is a plan here, and a Cathopedia page here.

There is an entry charge, although the amount (a few euros) is not being advertised at present (2015).

The entrance is under the monument of Pope Innocent. Here, you will find a small shop and ticket counter. The exhibits are obviously mostly liturgical items and vestments, some of the latter being Renaissance in date and the earliest being the so-called Cope of St Sylvester which is late 13th century. Among the more interesting items are a Rosa d'Oro or "Golden Rose", a papal sign of honour bestowed on distinguished persons or churches and associated with Laetare Sunday. The example here was originally given to Queen Elena. Also there is a processional crucifix, dating from 1451 but close to the Romanesque in style, with biblical scenes (photo here).


The choir behind the high altar was constructed by Virginio Vespignani, as part of the building works ordered by Pope Leo XIII in 1878. He died in 1882, and his son Francesco completed the work in 1884. The apse was demolished and rebuilt some twenty metres further back, in order to give room for the new choir. The famous apse mosaic is often described as "preserved" -it was not, but was copied and that not very well. Diego Angeli 1902 had this to say: Disgraziamente in tali lavori il mosaico primitivo fu talmente restaurato nel transporto, che prese tutto il suo carattere. Roberta Bernabei wrote in 2007: I mosaici ottocenteschi non sono che una brutta copia di quelli antichi.

However, Vespignani had the sense to match the new choir to the decoration of the transept. The choir triumphal arch is very similar to that at the end of the nave, with a pair of pink granite Corinthian columns supporting the archivolt on posts. The posts are continued as an entablature down the side walls, to meet the corresponding posts of the apse triumphal arch. However, the latter has no columns but a pair of piers faced with sunk panels in red marble. Two pilasters in the same style support the entablature on each side. In between these the entablature is broken for an arch, which shelters an organ (the choir has two) standing on a corbelled balcony with yellow marble baluster pins. Two smaller balconies or cantorie for solo musicians are to the sides, and these have triangular pediments over them. All six balconies have richly carved and gilded wooden neo-Baroque screens.

The side walls over the stalls of the canons are richly decorated in polychrome stonework in marble and alabaster.

Over each side wall entablature is a large fresco, flanked by a pair of windows with segmental pediments. These frescoes are by Francesco Grandi, and depict The Presentation of the Plans by Vespignani to Pope Leo to the left, and Pope Sylvester Receives the Donation of Constantine to the right. The latter work seems to be the last magisterial assertion of the Donation of Constantine, a malicious mediaeval forgery intended to back up the papal claim of complete independence from secular authority. The popes after 1870 completely refused to accept the annexation of Rome by Italy in that year, a situation that pertained until 1929. When the citizens made it clear that they rejected any possibility of a return to papal government, Pope Leo's response was to express his expectation that he would be restored to power by an invading foreign army.

The spandrels of the triumphal arches have frescoes of Doctors of the Church.

The almost square ceiling is in the same style as those of nave and transept, and has the coat-of-arms of Pope Leo in the central coffer. The floor also matches that of the transept, and has a central roundel depicting the same coat-of-arms in pietra dura inlay. This pairing of heraldry is an echo of the arrangement in the entrance loggia of the main façade. Note the circular bronze gratings, which lead into the scavi below (the excavation of the ancient remains under the basilica was begun by Vespignani).


The rebuilt apse has four registers of decoration before the conch, the topmost of which is part of the conch mosaic. The first register comprises white marble revetting with intricate Cosmatesque mosaic decoration, in panels around roundels in quincunxes. The plinth is in grey granite, with a dado in what looks like green basalt, and there is an entablature with more roundels. The floor is in a matching Cosmatesque style. This register flanks the incredibly ornate Cosmatesque episcopal throne (picture), which stands on five steps themselves having Cosmatesque decoration on the risers. The last step has the epigraph Hic est papalis sedes et pontificalis ("This is a papal and pontifical seat"). The throne stands on a white marble plinth with a relief decoration of four beasts (Adder, Lion, Dragon, Basilisk), and has a ogee arch backdrop which intrudes into the second register of decoration on the apse wall. The archivolt is supported by a pair of spirally twisted columns.

The weird thing about this spectacular throne is, that Pope Leo never even saw it. His self-proclaimed and mendacious status as Prisoner of the Vatican meant that neither he, nor his successors before 1929, ever visited the basilica. His expectation was that he would be enthroned here, once he had recovered the former papal status as sovereign ruler of Rome -a simple fantasy.

The second register of decoration is grotesque in style, and consists of stylized vine-scrolls with blossoms on a dark red background. The third register consists a long epigraph commemorating the Leonine restoration, in golden letters on a dark blue background. Above this is the lower part of the mosaic, which is interrupted by three large single-light Gothic windows.


The present mosaic, executed in 1878, is a fair copy of the destroyed late 13th century one, but not a stylistic replica which means that historical analysis of the work is mostly surmise. (This especially applies to suggestions that the 13th century work itself incorporated fragments of an earlier mosaic.) The original was executed in the year after 1291 by two Franciscan friars, Jacopo da Camerino and Jacopo Torriti, who were commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV who was himself a Franciscan. (You can see their self-portraits among the Apostles below the main mosaic.)

The conch mosaic divides into two sub-registers. The upper part depicts the bust of Christ in a dark blue empyrean with the red clouds of dawn, accompanied by four angels on each side and with a six-winged seraph above. Here, Christ is being depicted under his aspect of the Rising Sun (Malachi 4:2, Luke 1:78). It is thought that the seraph replaced a Hand of God which, with Christ and the Dove below him, would have given a Trinitarian iconography. The seraph was probably part of the Franciscan theme -the term "seraphic" has been appropriated by the Franciscans since their early days.

It has been claimed that this depiction of Christ is from before the 13th century mosaic (although a suggested date as early as the 4th century is very unlikely), and was restored and incorporated into the new mosaic. Whatever, the depiction is not merely iconic, but an allusion to the tradition that the face of Christ appeared miraculously in the apse soon after the original consecration of the basilica. The motif occurs in other places too, such as on farms in the countryside that are or were owned by the Lateran Chapter. See the fresco in the left hand side of the transept for a depiction of this event.

The main sub-register, below this, has a gilded background and focuses on a jewelled cross which is a depiction of the True Cross formerly venerated in Jerusalem. This is another part of the 13th century mosaic which might have come from an earlier work, perhaps 9th century. It bears a central medallion showing The Baptism of Christ. Above, the Dove of the Holy Spirit emits seven streams from its beak which are symbolic of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. These streams form a pool in which the cross stands, and from this flow the four rivers of the Garden of Eden, which also symbolize the four Gospels. Two deer (Ps 42:1) and six sheep drink from these, which run into the River Jordan (labelled as such), itself a symbol of Baptism. It is worth examining the little scenes of life on the Jordan, which runs along the bottom of the conch. In between the rivers is the Heavenly Jerusalem, guarded by St Michael the Archangel and ruled over by SS Peter and Paul (their busts are tiny, and hard to see). In the city the phoenix, a symbol of immortality, is perched on the Tree of Life.

To the left of the central motif, and venerating it, stand the Blessed Virgin, St Francis of Assisi and the Apostles Peter and Paul. To the right are SS John the Baptist, Anthony of Padua, John the Evangelist and Andrew the Apostle. The figures of the two Franciscans are smaller than the others, and look rather squeezed in -this is persuasive evidence that the 13th century mosaicists were copying an earlier work. The pope kneeling close to the Blessed Virgin is the Franciscan Nicholas IV, who was praised for his work at the Lateran by Dante in Paradiso. The Virgin places her hand on his head, as a sign of her protection. The saints stand on a flowery meadow.

Between the windows below are mosaics of the remaining nine Apostles, again standing on flowery grass and accompanied by stylized trees, with the two Franciscan mosaicists at their feet. The latter have their own tools, the set square, compasses and mason's hammer. This lower register is separated from the upper by a single-line epigraph recording the commissioning of the original mosaic by Pope Nicholas, and from the large epigraph below by another little single-line text which proclaims that the seat beneath is reserved to the Pope.



Before the late 19th century, the sacristy provision of the basilica was rather inadequate with the main sacristy immediately behind the Cappella Colonna (see below) and a chapter house for the canons to its west. Virginio Vespignani built a new pair of sacristies beyond this, surrounded by a little warren of useful ancillary rooms. These three sacristies are referred to as the Sagrestia Antica (or Vecchia) or the Sagrestia dei Beneficiati, the Sagrestia dei Canonici and the Sagrestia Nuova. The chapter house is also known as the Sala Clementina or the Sala dei Paramenti.

Access is only by permission from the Vatican, which has to be obtained beforehand.


Entry is via the doorway under the tomb of Pope Leo XIII. The corridor beyond runs down the left hand side of the choir and apse to access the three sacristies. It also joins up with the transverse corridor which is part of the museum.

There are several funerary monuments in this corridoio. The list given is from Diego Angeli 1902:

To the right. Pietro Francesco de Rossi 1683; Isabella Sforza 1561, with an attractive cameo portrait; Angelo Parracciani 1691, thought to be by Domenico Guidi from the style of the three allegorical figures of Fame, Time and Death; Andrea Sacchi the painter, 1661 with a portrait bust by Paolo Naldini; Cavalier d'Arpino the painter, 1640 by Niccolò Menghini; Antonio Lorenzo Ratta 1689, Angelo Picchioni 1852, Tommaso Masini 1866, Gabriele Filippucci 1706 and Gerolamo Berti 1714.

To the left. Muti Papazzurri 1607, using an ancient granite sarcophagus, and Pietro Giovanni Bernardis 1696.

Also on the right are two statues of SS Peter and Paul, carved in columnar style and dating from the end of the 13th century. These used to be in the cloisters, and spent some time flanking the high altar after the mid 19th century. It is thought that they originally came from the Loggia of Benedictions of Pope Boniface VIII, or from the Annibaldi tomb the remains of which are now in the bottom end of the outer left hand aisle.

By the entrance to the Sagrestia dei Beneficiati are two salvaged mediaeval mosaic epigraphs. One, the Tabula Lateranensis Magna, lists the relics held by the basilica and the other, dated 1291, commemorates work done by Pope Nicholas I (858-67).

Sagrestia dei Beneficiati[]

The Beneficiati were the priests attached to the basilica who were not canons, but received a salary. Their main job in former centuries was in hearing the confessions of pilgrims.

The room was originally constructed by Pope Eugene IV in 1440, and restored in 1594 by Pope Clement VIII. The latter pope features in one of several bronze busts here, which also depict Popes Paul V, Benedict XIII and Clement XII. The Pauline one is by Giorgio Rancetti 1609, who was famous in his time as a medal engraver, and the one to Clement VIII is by Giacomo Laurenziano.

Here is an Annunciation by Marcello Venusti, and also St John the Evangelist Being Boiled in Oil by Bartholomeus Spranger which was brought from San Giovanni a Porta Latina when the canons here had possession of that church.

Sala Clementina[]

Pope Clement VIII had this room fitted out. The wall and vault frescoes are by Cherubino Alberti and his brother Giovanni, but the lunettes are by Agostino Ciampelli. The latter works feature The Miracle of Spring, and The Martyrdom of Pope St Clement.

Sagrestia dei Canonici[]

The first of the two late 19th century sacristies features four statues of saints dating from 1450, namely SS John the Evangelist, Jerome, Augustine and John the Baptist.

Sagrestia Nuova[]

The last of the sacristies has an altarpiece featuring The Adoration of the Magi by Nicolò Martinelli, Il Trometta. The wall frescoes were by Giuliano Fringuelli, and the majolica floor by the firm of Cantagalli in Florence.

Cappella Colonna[]

The far end of the left hand side of the transept has the entrance to the former choir chapel of the canons, which was replaced by the choir in front of the apse at the end of the 19th century. Afterwards it was often called the "Winter Choir", because it was used by the canons for the Divine Office when the main basilica was uncomfortably cold in winter. The dedication is to Christ the Saviour, the same as that of the basilica.

The large chapel is on a short rectangular plan, and was built by Girolamo Rainaldi for the Colonna family between 1603 and 1611. The superb carved walnut choir-stalls are his design, and feature a backdrop along each side wall containing a series of round-headed niches containing statues of saints. These are separated by Corinthian columns, which support a cornice on posts on which stand a row of flaming urn finials. All of this is in unpainted and varnished wood.

The floor displays the Colonna patronage by means of the rebus of a standing column in polychrome marble inlay.

The overall decorative scheme is in light and dark greys, with gilded highlights. There is an entablature from which the ceiling vault springs, which is supported by Ionic pilasters and is broken by an arch on each side which intrudes into the vault. The two larger arches on the short sides contain the entrance and the altar aedicule, while the two smaller arches at the sides cover a pair of cantorie or balustraded balconies on corbels for musicians. These four arches have large triangular lunettes in the vault above them, which meet at a central fresco panel depicting The Coronation of the Virgin by Baldassare Croce. The vault also has a pair of similar but smaller flanking lunettes in each side, and a further pair at right-angles at each corner. This total of twelve lunettes of different sizes gives the vault a pleasing stellated appearance.

The spectacular altar aedicule is in polychrome stonework, with gilded bronze devices and studs attached. Two pairs of Corinthian columns in pink alabaster, with gilded capitals, stand on four plinths with curvaceous tablets in alabaster and gilded bronze. These columns support two little segmental pediments, on which are plinths with kneeling putti. These are adoring a statue of Christ, under its own little crowning aedicule with a segmental pediment having a broken cornice. The altarpiece depicts Christ Between St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, and is by the Cavalier d'Arpino.

To the left of the altar is a rather over-the-top memorial in black marble with lots of gilding, to Lucrezia Tomacelli 1622. She was the wife of the Filippo Colonna who paid for the chapel. The portrait bust and its tondo wreath are both entirely gilt, as are the pediment, three allegorical figures and the heraldry. The design was by Teodoro della Porta, and the sculpture was by Giacomo Laurenziano. The work was only finished in 1650.

To the right of the altar is an original wooden credence table with backing panels (note the carved column), and over it a pretty little 18th century (?) Madonna and Child in a lush circular rayed frame. There are also four paintings on the side walls, at the corners. The two far ones are of SS Peter and Paul in a sort of combination of Byzantine and Grotesque styles, and the near left hand one is a 19th century St Mary Magdalen. The near right hand one is a portrait of Pope Martin V by Scipione Pulzone, Il Gaeto. The pope is here because he was a Colonna.

Altar of the Blessed Sacrament[]

The Blessed Sacrament altar dominates the left hand end of the transept. It was designed by Pietro Paolo Olivieri for Pope Clement VIII, who consecrated it in 1598. The pope's heraldry features in the decorative elements.

The actual altar aedicule is dwarfed by an enormous gilded bronze prothyrum, consisting of a triangular pediment supported by a pair of ribbed Composite columns on box plinths bearing relief coats-of-arms. The frieze of the pediment has an epigraph commemorating the pope on its frieze: Clemens VIII P. M. Anno VII, and in its tympanum is a fresco of God the Father by Cristoforo Roncalli, Il Pomarancio. Another pair of identical columns, set back diagonally, support two entablature lengths at the same height as the pediment entablature. The plinths of these are revetted in a black and white brecciated marble.

Altar of the Blessed Sacrament - Pier Paolo Olivieri c

Altar of the Blessed Sacrament - Pier Paolo Olivieri circa 1600

The capitals and bases of these four bronze columns were bronze-founded by Orazio Censore, but the columns themselves are ancient. They first emerge into history in this basilica, during the reign of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92), and formed a screen between the papal altar and the apse. Their origin is entirely unknown, and various suggestions have been made. One is that they were taken from the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline, and had been recast from the bronze prows of Cleopatra's ships, captured in the battle of Actium by Emperor Augustus.

The odd thing about the prothyrum is, that it is an add-on to the overall design. You could remove it, and not deduce its absence from what would be left behind.

The fabric of the end of the transept which is counted as the chapel has eight Composite pilasters supporting an entablature. Four of these are in the far wall, and are in yellow Siena marble. Two are folded into the corners, and two are in the side walls; these are in a grey-banded marble. Above the entablature on the far wall is a large fresco of The Transfiguration by the Cavalier d'Arpino. In between the pilasters are four white marble statues, as follows: Elijah by Pietro Paolo Olivieri, but completed by Camillo Mariani; Moses by Gillis van den Vliete (the Italians call him Egidio della Riviera); Aaron by Silla Longhi da Viggiù, and Melchizedek by Nicolaus Mostaert (Italian: Niccolò Pippi d'Arras).

The actual aedicule resembles the prothyrum in design, with four Corinthian columns in verde antico diagonally placed. The inner pair supports a triangular pediment with a broken top, into which is inserted a winged putto's head in white marble by Mariani. The frieze is in the same striking black-and-white breccia as the column piers previously noted. The four columns were originally from the side aisle colonnades of the ancient basilica, so Borromeo wasn't completely responsible for dismantling these.

The tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament is a spectacular gilded bronze work in the form of an octagonal domed temple, inset with gems and coloured stones and with little statues of saints. It was made by Pompeo Targone.

Above the aedicule is a silver-gilt copy relief of The Last Supper originally by Curzio Vanni, in a frame being held by a pair of gilded angels by Ambrogio Buonvicino. This is a reliquary containing the alleged table-top used at the actual Last Supper -the altar of the first Eucharist. Presumably the original relief was expropriated and melted down to pay Napoleon his tribute.

The polychrome marble balustrade screen of the chapel is worth examining. As well as the heraldry of Pope Clement, it features reliefs of the Pelican in Piety.

You now enter the top end of the outer left hand side aisle.

Chapel of St Hilary[]

The entrance to the cloisters is here. Inserted into the segmental pediment over the doorway is a tablet commemorating the Jubilee of 1875, and above is a large oval tondo containing an epigraph recording the silver jubilee of episcopacy (twenty-five years) of Pope Pius XII in 1942. Just to the left of the door is a wall memorial to Clemente Argevillières 1859, with a weeping putto holding a portrait medallion.

The fifth external chapel on the left hand side of the basilica is small, and corresponds to the Chapel of St John the Evangelist opposite. It is dedicated to St Hilary of Poitiers, and the large round-headed altarpiece in a red marble frame shows him having a vision of the Trinity. This is an allusion to his magisterial work on the subject, De Trinitate, which introduced the developed doctrine of the Trinity to Latin-speaking Christians. The work is by Jacques Courtois, Il Borgognone.

The reason for the dedication is that the chapel was founded in 1587 by Ilario Mauri, a nobleman from Parma. It was refitted by Borromini.

To the right of the altar here is a cut-down memorial to Cardinal Pietro Valeriano Duraguerra 1302. It now consists only of the reclining effigy on a sarcophagus in cipollino marble with his heraldry. The work has been attributed to Giovanni di Cosma or his workshop.

Beyond this chapel is a memorial to Cardinal Girolamo Casanate 1700 by Pierre Le Gros the Younger. The sculptor's reliance on Bernini is immediately obvious. The white marble effigy shows the cardinal sitting up on his deathbed to pray, while behind an angel and a putto hold a spectacular gold-fringed curtain or drape which is carved in red jasper.

Cappella Lancellotti[]

The fourth chapel on the left is the Cappella Lancellotti, and is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. It was founded by Cardinal Scipione Lancellotti, who was buried here in 1598. The original edifice was designed in outline by Carlo Maderno, but the work was executed by Francesco Capriani Il Volterra who began in 1585. The dome was finished in 1588, and the chapel was consecrated in 1590.

However there was a major restoration in 1674 by Giovanni Antonio de' Rossi, amounting to a rebuilding. His work is heavily influenced by Borromini.

The plan is often described as elliptical. It is not, but is complex and is based on an oval or egg-shape with the altar in a separate semi-circular apse occupying the pointed end. The blunt end is occupied by a large entrance arch, without imposts but flanked by a pair or ribbed Composite pilasters. Four clustered pilasters occupy the diagonals, fronted by ribbed Composite semi-columns, and these support similarly clustered posts in an entablature with a dentillated cornice. This entablature has a circular arc curve to the sides, is broken by the sanctuary arch and loses its architrave over the entrance. The cupola vault springs from the posts, and is bounded by four lunettes containing a rectangular window each. Note that the lunette over the entrance is set back slightly, so that the entablature below it is not on a smooth join with the side arcs. The vault itself is integrated with its pendentives.

The overall decorative scheme is white on pale blue, with the pilaster plinths in what looks line grey-streaked marble.

The altar aedicule is coved, and fits into the curve of the apse. Two pairs of ribbed Composite pilasters, one in front of the other in each pair, support the ends of a semi-circular entablature and are fronted by two free-standing columns in the same style which support strongly projecting posts at the ends of the entablature. On the posts and entablature are three angels and a crowd of putti. The vertically elliptical altarpiece depicts St Francis Receiving the Stigmata by Giovanni Battista Puccetti, and has its frame supported by stucco angels and putti.

Below the altarpiece is a gilded metal reredos featuring reliefs of Calvary, The Apostles and The Instruments of the Passion. To each side of this are gilded flying angels, one holding a cross and the other, a palm branch. The altar frontal features polychrome marble work on a backing of red jasper.

The vault has four stucco relief tondi, uncoloured, by Filippo Carcani, Il Filippone. They are within lush floral wreaths supported by putti, and feature: St Francis Before the Crucifix at San Damiano, St Francis in the Lateran Basilica, The Approval of the Rule of St Francis by the Pope and St Francis Dying. The vault is divided into four sectors by ribs with more stucco florals festoons, which also circle the oculus. There are stucco stars within the wreath, and the Dove of the Holy Spirit in the oculus itself.

To the left is a neo-Classical memorial to Ottaviano Lancellotti-Ginetti 1858, with a good stand-alone bust in antique style. Above is Christ Between SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist by Filippo Agricola. To the right is a similar memorial to Giuseppina Massimi-Lancellotti 1862, with another good bust showing her in her shroud. The painting above was commissioned to commemorate the chapel demolished to make way for the Cappella Torlonia, and shows the martyred St John Nepomucene about to be thrown into the river at Prague. It is by Giovanni Piancastelli.

Cappella Santorio[]

The third chapel on the left is the Cappella Santorio, named after its founder Cardinal Giulio Antonio Santorio. It was begun in 1599 by Onorio Longhi, but only finished in 1610 after the cardinal had died in 1602. The dedication is to Our Lady of Graces, who is the patron of Santa Severina where the cardinal was archbishop.

The plan is elliptical, with a rectangular sanctuary flanked by two tiny square sacristies. The dome rests on an entablature supported by tripletted Ionic pilasters, having high plinths panelled in yellow marble, and to each side is a large shallow arched recess with the keystone touching the entablature. The sanctuary has a barrel vault with three Baroque fresco panels, and over the altar aedicule is a large lunette window. The polychrome marble aedicule has a pair of pink marble Composite columns on very high plinths, supporting a triangular pediment with a broken cornice and with a small segmental pediment nested in its tympanum. The altarpiece is a crucifix attributed to Stefano Maderno, although an alternative attribution to a Florentine expatriate called Aurelio Cioli has been made which is based on the documemtary evidence. Below the crucifix and in between the column plinths is a shrine to the Madonna delle Grazie, showing the Mother and Child in between SS Lawrence and Sebastian. This is attributed to the school of Pietro Perugino.

The floor has a pietra dura inlay of the cardinal's coat-of-arms. The dome contains frescoes of The Passion of Christ by Baccio Ciarpi.

To the left is the impressive monument to Cardinal Santorio, with a very good half-length portrait bust in an arched niche over his epitaph, the composition being treated as if he were praying at a lectern. Below, the sarcophagus has a relief carving of The Pelican in Her Piety, and there is a pair of Composite columns in black marble. The sculptor was Giuliano Finelli.

To the right is a monument by Pietro Tenerani, commemorating the Papal troops killed at the Battle of Mentana in 1867.

This is the basilica's Cappella dell’Adorazione, where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration and prayers said before it for the intentions of the Holy Father. Some of the basilica's public Masses are also celebrated here, on an altar pro popolo in front of the high altar. Visitors are not allowed to enter when either of these liturgical events take place, unless you wish to participate.

This was by tradition the headquarters of the basilica's parish, which is now based in the baptistery.

Cappella Antonelli[]

There follows a memorial to Bernardino Caracciolo 1293, which is a fragment from a larger composition. Borromini salvaged the recumbent effigy and installed it on a sarcophagus of his design, which has incurved sides. Two lions are sheltering under the sarcophagus, which is flanked by two pairs of pink alabaster Doric columns supporting a red marble cornice which curves under the window.

On the pier beyond is a wall memorial to Cardinal Vincenzo Santucci 1861.

The second chapel on the left is a small one, and is the Cappella Antonelli. It is described as being dedicated to the Dormition of Our Lady, or to her Assumption. However, these are two separate events -the Dormition is the death of Our Lady, and the Assumption is the taking of her body into heaven from her tomb. Those who are familiar with Jerusalem may remember that there are two separate churches there commemorating these two events.

The confusion is reflected in the compound altarpiece. The round-headed main fresco depicts The Assumption of Our Lady with SS Dominic and Philip Neri, and was begun by Giovanni Odazzi. However, Ignazio Stern had to finish it in 1731 after Odazzi unfortunately died. At the bottom is a glazed niche which contains a fresco fragment depicting The Dormition which is of the school of Giotto, 14th century. It was repainted in the following century, and installed here perhaps in 1684 (the documentary source is ambiguous).

Here is a memorial to Cardinal Nicolò Maria Antonelli 1767, by Gaspare Sibilla. The impressive late Baroque work features a naked bearded Genius draping a yellow marble sarcophagus with a white marble curtain, and a medallion portrait of the cardinal inset into a grey-green marble obelisk above. Opposite is a monument to Cardinal Leonardo Antonelli 1811, who was his nephew. This is a simple composition, with a tondo portrait in oils over an epigraph slab. In front of it is a stucco Pietà, a copy of one kept in the crypt of the Cappella Corsini (see below).

Beyond this chapel is a memorial to Gerardo Bianchi or Gerardo da Parma 1302, the first Archpriest appointed for the basilica. It has a reclining effigy. The original tomb was next to the altar of St Mary Magdalene in the nave before its destruction.

Cappella Corsini[]

Layout and fabric[]

The first chapel on the left is the Cappella Corsini, which was designed by Alessandro Galilei and built from 1734 to 1736 for Pope Clement XII (Lorenzo Corsini before he was elected). He is buried in the crypt beneath the chapel, and is watched over there by a marble Pietà by Antonio Montauti 1733. You have already met a stucco copy of this.

Note that there seems to be some confusion in the sources over who did what in the artistic line. This especially applies to the stucco work. Modern writings are obviously relying on Nibby 1838 and Vasi 1818.

Before you go in (assuming you can), have a look at the entrance gates which are ornate examples of the blacksmith's art in wrought iron embellished with bronze. They are original, having been designed by Galiliei and wrought by Francesco and Pietro Ceci. You might ask why modern blacksmiths can't do this sort of thing -the reason is that wrought iron is now made nowhere in the world, and mild steel is simply not up to the job. Also, it rusts away in no time. This is why modern "iron" railings look stupid.

The chapel is a spectacular, no-expenses-spared example of what is usually called late Baroque (tardobarocco). However, Galilei as an architect is not easily pigeon-holed into the usual architectural styles of the period and his work here (as with the façade) can be described as very early neo-Classical or as Palladian survival. The dedication is to St Andrew Corsini, although the chapel which was here beforehand was dedicated to St Gregory the Great.

The plan is based on a Greek cross, with side arms half the length of the entrance and sanctuary arms. These arms have barrel vaulting embellished with gilded octagonal coffers containing rosettes, four rows for the main arms but only two for the side arms. These vaults define the pendentives of the dome, which has a drum having eight rectangular windows separated by pairs of ribbed Ionic pilasters. The hemispherical dome itself has seven rings of square coffers with rosettes, ascending to an oculus containing the Dove of the Holy Spirit in glory. The triangular dome pendentives are entirely occupied by intricate uncoloured stucco reliefs depicting allegories of virtues by Agostino Cornacchini -allegedly. You need binoculars to appreciate these properly.

The far walls of the cross arms each contain an arch, one for the entrance, one for the altar aedicule and the two side ones for funerary monuments. These arches have simply molded archivolts springing from Doric imposts, and with a single row of square coffers on each intrados. Each is flanked by a pair of ribbed Corinthian pilasters in white marble, and two more occupy each internal corner of the cross. Eight more are folded into the far corners of the cross arms. These pilasters stand on very high dado plinths revetted in large panels of a purplish marble, and support an entablature running round the interior which has its frieze in pavonazzetto marble. The keystones of the arches mentioned touch this entablature. The dado has its own entablature, with a frieze in black marble. The walls in between the pilasters are revetted in verde antico and red jasper.

The floor is a delight. The design reflects the dome above, and is in polychrome marbles having four rings of squares embellished with rosettes, around a bronze grating which is the oculus of the domed crypt below. The rosettes are in different designs, and are well worth examining. The side arms are paved in an octagonal pattern, also with rosettes. The artist responsible was Francesco Cerroti.


The side walls of the entrance and altar ends each have a marble statue of a female allegorical figure of one of the Cardinal Virtues, standing in a round-headed niche in verde antico marble, over a black marble sarcophagus with yellow marble legs on which a pair of putti are disporting themselves. These are memorials of Corsini family members, although there are no epitaphs visible. Over each statue is a rectangular scene in relief depicting an event in the life of St Andrew Corsini. Below the statues are doors in ebony with doorcases in verde antico and yellow marbles, the one to the left of the altar leading to the crypt.

The statues and reliefs are described in the sources as follows: Left of altar, Prudence and putti by Agostino Cornacchini, relief showing St Andrew Corsini Curing a Pilgrim by Pietro Bracci in memory of Cardinal Pietro Corsini. Right of altar, Justice and putti by Giuseppe Lironi, relief showing St Andrew Corsini Refusing the Episcopate by Sigismondo Adami in memory of Cardinal Neri Corsini the Younger. Left of entrance, Temperance by Filippo della Valle (did he do the putti?), relief showing The Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves by Paolo Benaglia in memory of Cardinal Andrea Corsini. Right of entrance, Fortitude and putti by Camillo Rusconi, relief showing St Andrew Corsini Heals a Blind Man by Pierre de l'Estache in memory of Bartolomeo Corsini.

The side vault lunettes each contain a window, flanked by two more stucco allegories each, and the entrance arm lunette has a balcony in the same style as the windows, with a further two allegories. Cornacchini also allegedly executed the ones to each side, but the ones over the entrance seem not to be by him. These eight depict allegories of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, plus obviously one allegory of some other virtue as there are only seven Gifts.

The eight stucco allegories in the lunettes and the four in the pendentives are also being ascribed on the Vatican website to Agostino Corsini (Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel and Fortitude in the pennacchi -dome pendentives?) and Bernardino Ludovisi (Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord, in the archi di scarico delle finestre). The confusion is not impressive -could the art critics actually have a look and decide, instead of copying each other?


The altar aedicule has a pair of verde antico Corinthian columns with gilded capitals which support a triangular pediment having the Dove of the Holy Spirit in Glory in its tympanum. The pediment frieze shows scrollwork with putti, also gilded. The altarpiece is a mosaic copy of a portrait of St Andrew Corsini based on an original by Guido Reni; the cartoon was by Agostino Masucci, and the mosaic work was done by Fabio Cristofari. The revetting around the altarpiece is in yellow alabaster. On the pediment sit two female allegories of Innocence and Penitence in marble by Bartolomeo Pincellotti 1740. Above the entablature in the vault lunette is a stucco relief of St Andrew Corsini at the Battle of Anghiari by Agostino Cornacchini, which is flanked by two more allegorical female figures depicting virtues, these ones in stucco by the same artist.

Memorial to Pope Clement[]

The Corsini Family Chapel

The Corsini Family Chapel

The left hand arch contains the spectacular monument to Pope Clement XII. It was by Giovanni Battista Maini, and was completed in 1734.

The structure begins with a pair of two-storey box piers, the first with one verde antico panel and the second with a smaller one of the same together with one in porphyry. These support a pair of Corinthian pilasters in a dark grey marble, and a pair of free-standing porphyry columns which together support the ends of an apse entablature. The curved wall below this, behind the monument, is revetted in yellow marble. Above the entablature, the apse conch is coffered in octagons with rosettes and has its own archivolt, set back from that of the main arch and connected to the coffering on the intrados of the latter by a band of red marble. The coat-of-arms of the pope in relief is on the keystones of the two archivolts.

In between the piers is a porphyry sarcophagus, allegedly ancient although the feet and cover are 18th century. The original location of this is claimed as the Pantheon -Santa Maria ad Martyres- and by tradition it was the cinerary urn of Marcus Agrippa. On it is a papal tiara in bronze, and flanking it are two large marble statues of allegorical virtues, each with a putto. These are by Carlo Monaldi; Abundance is on the left, and Magnificence on the right.

The bronze statue of the pope is by Maini, and was cast by Gian Francesco Giadorni. It sits on a pedestal of verde antico, with a simple epitaph in bronze letters on a black marble tablet. The pope's vestments include scenes in gilded relief: Christ Consigns the Keys to St Peter, The Call of St Peter and Feed My Sheep.

Memorial of Neri Corsini[]

The tomb of Cardinal Neri Corsini the Elder (not to be confused with Neri Maria Corsini the Younger) is also by Maini. Neri is here because he was an uncle of the pope. The monument is very similar in style to that opposite, except that the sarcophagus is replaced by a frontal in red jasper and the statue is standing and is in white marble. There is one allegory, this one Religion, and a large weeping putto.

Annibaldi memorial[]

To the left of the chapel entrance, at the bottom of the outer left hand aisle, is a memorial to Riccardo degli Annibaldi. It is a copy of the remnants of his original tomb, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio c. 1276 and now located in the cloisters.


Layout and fabric[]

The Cloister at St John Lateran, decorated in the Cosmatesque style by the Vassalletti Family -4 (2)

The Cloister decorated by the Vassalletti Family

The entrance to the cloisters is at the end of the left hand outer aisle near the transept. There is a small fee to enter them, two euros recently (2015), although the custodian might waive this for clerics and religious dressed properly.

These cloisters were built from new and decorated in the Cosmatesque style by the Vassallettis, father Pietro and son Niccolò. The project was begun in 1222, but work stopped when Pietro died. Cardinal Guala Bicchieri put up a large sum for their completion in 1230, and the work was finished by Niccolò in 1234. He signed the work with an inscription, which was later lost but fortunately was transcribed. If you look at the second pier from the left in the south frontage, you will see a 19th century copy which reads: Nobilis et doctus, hac Vassaletus in arte cum patre caepit opus quod solus perficit ipse ("Noble and learned in craft, Vassalletto began this work with his father, which he finished alone.")

The cloisters form a perfect square, 36 metres on each side and with four interconnected ambulatories or covered walkways so that you can walk all the way round. As well a four corner bays, each ambulatory has five bays which are cross-vaulted, the vaulting being simple without ribs. At the back wall of each ambulatory the vaulting springs from four wide Doric pilasters, but at the front it springs from block imposts on ancient grey granite Ionic columns.

These columns are behind four piers without capitals on either side, which divide each ambulatory frontage into five arcades each containing five identically sized arcade arches. The middle arch of the middle arcade on each side shelters a gateway into the garth or cloister garden. Above the arcades is an ornate entablature without any breaks, and above this in turn is a black wall of rubble masonry. This is topped on three sides (not the basilica side) by glazed brick arches lacking any decoration.

The vaulting indicates that the cloisters were given a second storey after an early re-fitting. It was possibly not original, but replaced a pitched roof. This is because the entablature over the arcades contain gargoyles (water-spouts), indicating that the original roofline was just above.

The present rather top-heavy superstructure of the cloisters is later. The arrangement was in place by the 19th century, and was restored in the alterations ordered by Pope Leo XIII.

View of the basilica[]

The cloisters give a valuable view of the external fabric of the south side of the basilica. To the east you can see the large lunette window over the altar of the Cappella Lancellotti, the pepper-pot lantern of the Cappella Santorio and the hemispherical dome of the Cappella Corsini.

The most interesting feature is the end wall of the transept, which shows the evidence that it once contained a large round window or oculus. This is sufficient proof that the transept was not rebuilt in 1592 under Pope Clement VIII, only remodelled.


The glory of the cloisters lies in the arcades as viewed from the garth. Unusually for the time, the Vassalletti did not make use of scavenged ancient material for the stonework but carved the columns from new. Each arcade of five arches has four pairs of Corinthian columns standing on a continuous wall-plinth, and two pairs of semi-columns attached to the piers on each side. The capitals of these columns mostly depict acanthus leaves with the details drilled as well as carved, and no uniformity in design. However, four of the capitals depict mythological creatures including one rather alarming goat-demon. Nobody knows what these are about.

The two outer pairs of columns in each arcade are all plain, but the inner pairs and some of the semi-columns are fantastically designed with some being intertwined ("snakes having sex"), some ribbed, some twisted and some spirally ribbed. Many of these are embellished with Cosmatesque inlay. The molded archivolts spring from block imposts with decorative molding, each of which is supported by a pair of columns. The spandrels in between the arches contain decorative reliefs, mostly on plant-based themes but others with rather odd depictions of mythological events, e.g. one showing a dog-fight.

The four entrances to the garth are guarded by sculptures of lions and sphinxes, and there are little animals between the two columns in the flanking pairs.


The entablature over the arcades is continuous, without a break, and is posted out over the piers The narrow architrave has a Cosmatesque mosaic in geometric designs, except for the south side which has a damaged epigraph extolling the virtues of the cloister.

Above, the wider frieze has a design based around round and square insets. Most of these contain slabs or roundels in dark red porphyry or dark green serpentine, but some have intricate geometric designs in mosaic.

Above the frieze is a cornice with modillions (little brackets) and a thin strip of Cosmatesque mosaic, and above this in turn is a super-frieze having carved reliefs of plants interspersed with gargoyles (water-spouts). Most of the latter are masks of lions, but some are rather creepy human faces including one which looks like a vampire nun. The presence of these gargoyles is good evidence that the cloisters were originally built without a second storey.

Much of the mosaic inlay has been lost, and this is probably because the Vassalletti got the mix of the fixative badly wrong. However, you would have expected someone to take the trouble to remedy the problem when it became obvious that inlay was falling out. That no-one did is probably as a result of neglect during the period when the papacy was based at Avignon in the 14th century.


The garth or central garden has had some major makeovers in the last two centuries. In the late 19th century it was a rather lush rose garden, with climbing roses trained over the arcades in places. In the earlier 20th century it was much more formal, with low box hedges. Nowadays it is mostly under grass, with a few trees and bushes.

The central well has a well-head carved from a drum taken from an enormous ancient column. It is 9th century, and has naïve relief carving featuring crosses and birds with grapes. It now stands on two circular steps, which are modern. Before the 20th century the well-head stood at ground level, and was flanked by a pair of ancient Doric columns supporting a fragment of entablature from which hung the bucket-rope. It was a pity that these were removed.

It is thought that the well-head originally belonged to the palace, where it was venerated as the "Well of the Samaritan Woman" in the early Middle Ages.


There are many items of ancient and medieval sculptural work displayed here, which have been discarded from the basilica in renovations from the 16th century to the 19th. So, the outer walls of the ambulatories of the cloisters are serving as the sculpture gallery of the basilica's museum. Perhaps the most interesting remnants are the rather sad pieces of Cosmatesque work, giving a glimpse of how spectacular the interior of the mediaeval basilica must have been. Like the well, some of the items were venerated in mediaeval times as rather unlikely relics. There are many tomb-slabs preserved, some of them Carolingian (9th and 10th centuries); a group of very worn ones are in the west walk.

The cloisters are also the access for the museum's Sala Pio IX which is an overflow exhibition room.

Each ambulatory wall has seven bays (counting those in the corners), and the museum catalogue labels these with Roman numerals, I to VII, going clockwise. On entering from the basilica, you find yourself in Bay V North.

Bay VI North has a damaged frontal of an ancient sarcophagus with a mediaeval inscription in Gothic lettering, and also a fragmentary epigraph in marble reading Dom[inus] Sergi[us], thought to refer either to Pope Sergius III (904-11) or Pope Sergius IV (1009-12).

Bay VII North has an impressive triangular slab with Cosmatesque decoration including a central rose aperture and two heraldic shields.

Bay I East has a Cosmatesque tondo with a representation of Christ, part of a collection of items from the demolished Altar of St Mary Magdalen which used to stand in front of the schola cantorum in the nave of the mediaeval basilica. The work was by Deodata di Cosma, 1297. Also here are a pair of marble lion door stops of about the same period.

Bay II East has more Cosmatesque items possibly form the same altar (the heraldry is of the Colonna family, which sponsored it), as well as a long epigraph on a marble slab describing a restoration under Pope Alexander II (1061-73).

Bay IV East has an impressive Cosmatesque papal throne, which is known to have been in the apse of the basilica at the end of the 13th century. The throne itself is an ancient marble bath-chair, which is flanked by two pairs of columns supporting two crocketted pinnacles. One column in each pair is twisted, and the other spirally incised. At the ends of the plinth supporting these items are two spirally incised columns. Much of the inlay in the six columns has been lost.

Bay V East has more items from the Magdalen altar, including a slab signed by Adeodato di Cosma.

Bay I South has a shrine to St Helena the Empress, mother of the emperor Constantine. This looks as if it was confected in the 9th century, the possible date of the base. The torso of the bust is ancient, 2nd century, but the head is thought to be a depictoin of an empress at Constantinople of the 6th or 7th century. The citizens of Rome still considered themselves members of the Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople in those centuries, whatever modern historians may pretend concerning some fictional entity called the "Byzantine Empire", and this bust would have been sent to the city for civic veneration. In this bay also are fragments of what is thought to be a 13th century Paschal candlestick; a base with lions and two pieces of a broken column are preserved.

Bay II South has fragments of two semi-columns having palm frond carvings, which were venerated in mediaeval times as coming from the Palace of Pontius Pilate. That is, it was imagined that Pilate had a residence in Rome and this was pointed out in pilgrimage itineraries. The site of this edifice is now unknown, but seems to have been on the Esquiline north-east of the basilica.

Bay III South has fragments of the tomb of Riccardo degli Annibaldi, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio c. 1276. Extant are his prone effigy, and above it parts of a frieze carved in relief showing clerics in procession. The carving is of very high quality.

Bay IV South has another silly relic, a large marble column with a polygonal iron ring formerly venerated as a column to which Christ was fixed while in custody at Jerusalem (not the Column of Flagellation, venerated at Santa Prassede). Also here are bits of the mediaeval epigraph originally on the façade of the basilica, a copy of which is on the present 18th century façade.

Bay IV West has a horizontal marble slab supported on four small marble columns with mediaeval capitals. The mediaeval tradition was that this structure gave the measurement of the stature of Christ. It shelters a porphyry slab set into the wall, said in mediaeval times to be the stone

The 13th century Cloister at St John Lateran, decorated in the Cosmatesque style by the Vassalletti Family

The 13th century Cloister

on which the soldiers diced for Christ's robes. No ancient tradition supports this claim, which seems very unlikely.

Bay VII West has two bronze panels from the gateway doors of the Lateran Palace, made in 1196 by the same craftsmen who executed the doors of the chapel of St John the Evangelist at the baptistery.

Bay I North has fragments of Carolingian plutei or marble screen-slabs, also a fragment from a 9th or 10th century altar canopy with part of an epigraph mentioning a Pope Leo (it is uncertain as to which one).

Bay II North has a large porphyry slab with a Cosmatesque border, as does Bay IV North.



Pictures and plans on Wikimedia Commons are here.


The Lateran baptistery

In the early Church, baptism as the initiation rite of Christianity was usually given to adults by the bishop in an annual ceremony during the Easter Vigil (although infant baptism was also an ancient practice). The consensus of scholars seems to be that the norm of the rite in the 2nd century was total immersion, although affusion or the pouring of water over one only partly immersed was also used. The threefold immersion ("ducking") with the Trinitarian formula "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" became the norm for the Eastern Churches, whereas affusion became the norm in the West because of a wish not to immerse infants (there is a story that the future emperor Constantine V did a shit in the font while immersed as a baby, hence the nickname Copronymos).

Before the 4th century, the requirements of the rite of baptism meant that it was performed in a convenient place containing a plunge-pool, usually someone's bath-house. The first baptistery known, that is, a structure built for the specific purpose of baptism, is this one in Rome. It received an early apposite dedication to St John the Baptist, which was later incorporated into the dedication of the basilica itself.

You will often find the edifice referred to as San Giovanni in Fonte in the literature.


The baptistery amounts to a complex of buildings separate from the basilica, and before the late 19th century was entirely detached (although there was shoddy vernacular building between it and the Loggia of Benedictions in the 18th century). The main edifice is a perfect octagon, with a public entrance in what is actually its back wall. The original entrance is through a 5th century portico now occupied by the twin chapels of SS Secunda and Rufina and SS Cyprian and Justina, and to the right of this is the large rectangular Chapel of St Venantius accessed via a doorway in the bottom right diagonal wall. Two little chapels open off the sides, one dedicated to St John the Baptist to the left and one to St John the Evangelist to the right.

Beware of published descriptions claiming that there is only one chapel in the portico. There are two.


Ancient times[]

The area of the basilica was built up with high-status residences in the 1st century, and there was one on the site of the baptistery. This was supplanted by a large bath-house in the 2nd century, thought to have been a private establishment belonging to the so-called "Trapezoidal House" which is partly under the basilica itself. There is some surmise that this house was the original headquarters of the papacy donated by Emperor Constantine as the so-called Domus Faustae, but this is unprovable. However there is a persuasive argument that the bath-house was already being used for baptism, because of a continuity in function with the present building. The baptismal font of the original baptistry was situated exactly in the plunge-pool of one of the two frigidaria (chill-out rooms) of the original bath-house.

Constantinian baptistery[]

The latest consensus, expressed by Brandt and Guidobaldi 2008, is that the baptistery was commissioned by Constantine. Previous analyses had noted the archaeological finding that the octagonal walls stand on a circular foundation, and interpreted this to mean that the original building was circular. This led further, to the suggestion that the present edifice was entirely rebuilt by Pope Sixtus III (432-40). B&G suggest that the octagonal plan was original, and that the circular foundation plinth was for the sake of stability.

The only documentary source for the foundation is the Liber Pontificalis, first compiled in the 7th century and hence not entirely reliable. It does not actually say that Constantine founded a baptistery, but does give details of the furnishings that he donated. The details of these are used in a hypothetical layout of the original edifice, together with the evidence of blocked windows and doors in the present walls (you can see these from the piazza).

It is thought that there was a simple porch entrance where the main entrance facing the basilica is now. Then, the other seven sides also had doorways although without porches. Just above each doorway was a large window. Evidence of eight column plinths were found within the circle of the foundation, and it is suggested that the eight porphyry columns now in the interior used to stand in the corners to support eight pendentive arches and a dome entablature. There would have been a large central plunge-pool, on the rim of which stood seven silver stags and one golden lamb, from the mouths of which poured water (supplied by the ancient aqueduct Aqua Claudia via the plumbing of the original bath house). There seems to have been a single porphyry column standing in the middle of the pool, on which stood a sculpture of The Baptism of Christ in silver.

The construction is thought to have taken place after that of the basilica, between 320 and 330. The octagonal shape influenced other early baptisteries.

A mediaeval legend, narrated in the Liber Pontificalis, claimed that the emperor Constantine was baptized here by Pope Sylvester. This is not true; the Church historian Eusebius wrote that Constantine was baptized on his deathbed at Nicomedia near Constantinople by his namesake Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Unfortunately the precious items would have been looted in the Sack of Rome in 410.


The so-called imperial porphyry was sourced from a quarry in the Western Desert of Egypt, a place called Mons Porphyrites. The quarrying and transport of this very hard stone from such a remote and hostile location was a major undertaking, and the use of the stone was a monopoly of the emperor. This form of porphyry, with white inclusions, comes from the single location. The colour is not purple as understood in modern English (red mixed with violet), but a deep crimson resembling the ancient fabric dye Tyrian purple. The status of the rock porphyry was dependent on that of the latter, because this was a fabulously expensive dye which would not fade and did not require a mordent. It was a symbol of political power before the rise of Rome.

Sistine baptistery[]

The original baptistery is thought to have been free-standing, surrounded by a piazza in which crowds could assemble. However, in the 5th century there was a massive re-modelling which resulted in the present plan of the complex and much of its present appearance. It is now thought that there was one long campaign lasting about thirty years, from the reign of Pope Sixtus III (432-40) through that of Pope Leo the Great (440-61) and ending in that of Pope Hilary (461-8).

Pope Sixtus was certainly responsible for the present interior arrangement, where eight porphyry columns support an open entablature on which the doctrine of baptism as spiritual rebirth, and the sacrament's connection to the sacrifice of Christ, is set out in eight inscriptions. If it is correct that these eight columns used to stand in the corners to support the dome vault, then the pope must have demolished the dome and rebuilt it in a similar format to that now pertaining (with a second set of columns above the first). This is obvious because the walls of the baptistery are too thin to support any load or thrust. The interior of the new dome and the interior walls were decorated with mosaics.

He also added the portico, with an apse at each end, and it is now thought that he built the present chapel of St Venantius as an ancillary church (if si it was remodelled in the 7th century, which is the period of construction usually quoted).

It is also claimed by Brandt and Guidobaldi 2008 that Sixtus blocked all the windows, and replaced them by higher ones which were originally round-headed (they were made smaller in the 17th century). Also, he blocked up the doors on the diagonal sides, leaving the back one and the two to left and right as entrances to proposed chapels.

These chapels are on record as having been built by Pope Hilary. The surviving ones are dedicated to SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, and the lost one at the back was dedicated to the Holy Cross. This latter was on the plan of a Greek cross within a chamfered square, and was accessed via a little colonnaded atrium.

Another mediaeval tradition is that it was here that Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604) first transcribed the Gregorian chant used in choral liturgical offices in western Europe from the early Middle Ages (in actual fact, the developed monophonic chant familiar still in some monasteries was a later development).

Pope John IV (640–642) either built or remodelled a chapel in honour of St Venantius of Salona and other martyrs of Dalmatia (the southern part of modern Croatia). Pope John was a Dalmatian himself, and when Slav barbarians overran his homeland he brought the relics of some of the more important Dalmatian saints here.

Middle ages[]

The next major intervention, apart from maintenance work, was by Pope Anastasius IV in 1154. He ordered the Sistine portico to be converted into two chapels, with altars occupying the apses at each end. The portico was originally open, with three huge portals divided by a pair of porphyry columns, but this remodelling involved the insertion of stone screen walls in the two side portals and an entrance door with doorcase in the central one.

The right hand chapel was originally dedicated to SS Andrew the Apostle and Lucy, but was re-dedicated to SS Cyprian and Justina when their alleged relics were enshrined under the altar. The left hand one is dedicated to SS Rufina and Secunda, local Roman martyrs who used to have a basilica in what is now the western suburb of Silva Candida (the location is lost). Pope Anastasius also enshrined their relics here.

Pope Adrian IV, who succeeded Pope Anastasius, oversaw the restoration of the Aqua Claudia aqueduct water supply to the baptistery (which had been relying on well and cistern water ever since the ancient aqueducts collapsed).

Not much happened here architecturally for the rest of the Middle Ages.

16th century[]

Problems arose with the structure at the start of the 16th century. Pope Leo X (1513-21) ordered repairs to the outside of the 5th century dome, but this seems to have failed completely and it was demolished in 1540 under Pope Paul III (1534-49). This meant the loss of the 5th century mosaics that it contained, which apparently had already started to fall off in the early part of the century. A ceiling was provided around the new dome, in gilded wood with carved figures of Christ, Our Lady and SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) commissioned a carving of The Assumption of Our Lady as the dome centrepiece in 1574, and provided a roof in lead. He also had a new ceiling provided for the Chapel of St Venantius, in the previous year.

The same pope also ordered a major re-ordering of the baptismal arrangements. The ancient plunge-pool was replaced by the present basalt basin (itself ancient, from an unknown bath-house), which was surrounded by a balustrade. The atrium of the Chapel of the Holy Cross was removed, and the present entrance doorway from the piazza inserted.

In 1587, Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) authorized Domenico Fontana to demolish the 5th century Chapel of the Holy Cross as part of his scheme to improve the access to the basilica. This resulted in the present piazza. This was a real tragedy, as the chapel and its atrium were highly decorated. The original access door from the baptistery was then turned into the main public entrance of the latter, which it remains.

17th century[]

The present interior appearance of the baptistery is basically 17th century. Pope Urban VIII (1623-44) began a massive restoration project in 1625, and you can spot the bees from the heraldry of his family, the Barberini, infesting the interior in several places. Supervision was by Domenico Castelli Il Fontanino from 1629 to 1635.

The 16th century ceiling and dome were remodelled. The walls of the baptistery and the dome interior were frescoed by a team of artists under the supervision of Andrea Sacchi. He did the dome frescoes himself, finishing in 1645, and his team did the main wall frescoes which took another three years. This work entailed the loss of all the mosaics remaining from the 5th century.

From 1655 to 1667 Borromini continued restoration work, involving the balustrade and floors and also covering the roofs of the dome and portico with lead in 1657. He also added a roofline frieze with heraldic emblems of Pope Alexander VII. The interior of the portico was restored, and given a Baroque makeover. Fortunately one of the two ancient conch mosaics had survived, although damaged, and this was left alone.

In 1674, the Ceva family commissioned Carlo Rainaldi to restore the Chapel of St Ventantius, replacing the old altar in the process. In 1689, Ciro Ferri provided the font with an ornate bronze cover.

18th century[]

The 18th century saw certain noble families sponsoring renovations in the chapels. In 1757 the Lercari family restored the Chapel of SS Rufina and Secunda as a mortuary chapel, and about ten years later the same was done for the Chapel of SS Cyprian and Justina by the Borgia di Velletri family.

In 1780, the Chapel of St John the Baptist was remodelled by Giovanni Battista Ceccarelli.

Having the exterior walls in naked ancient brick has led to a long-term problem. The ancients could not fire bricks at a high enough temperature to guarantee them to be watertight, so their bricks are slightly porous. Here, very slow damp penetration has led to damage to the frescoes and this was first addressed in 1785 when Cristoforo Unterperger was commissioned to restore them. This took ten years.

Modern times[]

The next hundred and fifty years seem to have been uneventful.

There was a restoration of the chapels of St Venantius and St John the Evangelist in 1967, on the orders of Blessed Pope Paul VI. Unfortunately this involved the removal of 18th century decoration from the latter, and a rather violent scraping of the former. The pope also commissioned two sculptures of deer for the baptistery. After this work, the Chapel of St Venantius became the main place of worship for the basilica's parish.

The bomb that detonated in the piazza on 27 July 1993, as part of a Mafia bombing campaign, damaged the public entrance to the baptistery. It also seems to have moved the edifice very slightly on its foundations, because the Vatican website reports the loss of the famous musical sound produced by the moving of the bronze doors of the chapel of St John the Baptist. This had been noted for centuries.

The wall frescoes have recently been restored again.


Piazza side[]

The view of the baptistery from the piazza is of a rather grim octagonal brick box, with the first two corners to the right of the door being chamfered. If you look at the visible sides flanking the door, you will notice that each has the outline of a blocked door with an arc lintel, over which is the outline of a blocked round-headed window. These features are thought to be Constantinian. Each side now has an extant 17th century rectangular window, which is set in a larger partly blocked round-headed window which is 5th century and which is thought to have replaced the window below.

The simple entrance has a molded doorcase, flanked by pilasters strips supporting strap corbels which in turn support a triangular pediment. Over the lintel is the simple epigraph Gregorius XIII Pont. Max. The late 16th century wooden doors were destroyed by the Mafia bomb.

The edifice was almost certainly not in naked brick originally. It is uncertain as to whether the Constantinian baptistery was rendered in plaster or clad in stone, but the Sistine baptistery was clad in large marble tiles about a centimetre thick and fixed with cement rather than being nailed on.

The roofline frieze bearing the heraldic emblems of Pope Alexander VII is by Borromini. The shallowly pitched and tiled roof is in trapezoidal sectors meeting at the low octagonal dome, which has a circular window (oculus) in each side and a cap with eight tiled sectors.

To the left of the baptistery is the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, on the plan of a very small Greek cross with a transverse vestibule. The chapel wall has an attractive little Baroque marble wall-fountain, bearing the heraldic symbols of Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605). Behind this chapel looms the larger Chapel of St Venantius.

To the right is the oval Chapel of St John the Baptist.

Main entrance[]

You have to go through the baptistery to view the exterior of the main entrance.

The rectangular portico is 5th century. It originally had an enormous portal divided into three rectangles by a pair of monumental porphyry Composite columns. The decoratively molded bases and the capitals of these two are matching, and are ancient. The bases are especially worth examining, as each has five bands of delicately carved decoration.

The columns support a horizontal entablature spanning the portal, made up of three large blocks of stone. The architrave and cornice each consist of several rows of decorative molding, but the frieze has shrunk to a narrow, plain band. (A similar style has been noted in the Temple of Hadrian.) Apart from its lowest row of molding, the cornice is extended across the width of the façade below the actual roofline.

Affixed to the wall just to the left of the portal are the remnants of a ribbed Corinthian pilaster in white marble, supporting the end of the entablature. This is the sole survivor of the 5th century cladding of the baptistery and portico.

The screen walls and large entrance doorcase inserted into the portico are originally 12th century.



The font is an ancient green basalt bath-tub on a polychrome marble plinth, itself on a circular polychrome marble base. It is in a circular depression which is a reminder of the original baptismal plunge-pool before the re-ordering by Pope Gregory XIII in the latter part of the 16th century. The void is surrounded by a balustrade with two entrances, one facing the public doorway and the other opposite, and these are flanked by ball finials. The polychrome marble cladding of the walls and floor here are by Borromini.

The font has an elaborate bronze cover with gilt detailing by Ciro Ferri 1689. This has two reliefs, one showing The Baptism of Christ and the other, The Baptism of Constantine.

To the sides are two modern bronze sculptures of deer, commissioned by Pope St Paul VI (1963-78). The scriptural allusion is Ps 42:1.


The famous set of eight columns in imperial porphyry which surround the original plunge-pool are not matching, but are of slightly different lengths. Two are Ionic, two Corinthian and two Composite. The pedestals are all the same, having base-slabs in grey marble each of which has a Barberini bee in gold. These are evidence that Pope Urban VIII had the colonnade dismantled and re-erected in his restoration.

The columns support an octagonal entablature, which is spolia from an ancient building. The molded decoration is similar to that on the entablature of the portico portal, and faces inwards. On the outer faces Pope Sixtus III had a set of Latin texts carved, which reads:

Gens sacranda polis hic semine nascitur almo, quam fecundatis spiritus edit aquis. Mergere peccator sacro purgande fluento, quem veterem accipiet, proferet unda novum. Nulla renascentem est distantia quos facit unum, una fons, unus spiritus, una fides. Virgineo fetu genitrix Ecclesia natos, quos spirante Deo concipit amne parit. Insons esse volens isto mundare lavacro, seu patrio premeris crimine seu proprio. Fons hic est vitae qui totum diluit orbem, sumens de Christi vulnere principium. Coelorum regnum spreate hoc fonte renati, non recipit felix vita semel genitos. Nec numerus quemquam scelerum nec forma suorum, terreat hoc natus flumine sanetus erit.

("Here a people and city, intended to be sacred, is born from a nourishing seed, which the spirit brings out from fertile waters. The sinner is immersed in the sacred cleansing flow, the billow which takes him as old and presents him as new. The one reborn is at no separation from those made one; one fountain, one spirit, one faith. By a virginal reproduction Mother Church has new-borns, who are conceived by the spirit of God and born by means of the river. You wish to be guiltless through being cleansed by this washing, whether oppressed by the parental [Adamic] sin or your own. This is the fount of life which sets all free, taking its origin from the wound of Christ. Those reborn by this fountain hope for the Kingdom of Heaven; the happy life does not receive those brought forth only once. Let not the number or type of his sins frighten the one born in this flow, he will be saved".)

The Latin is wonky here and there.

The entablature supports eight light grey marble Corinthian columns, which in turn support the wooden dome entablature. It is thought that these columns are 17th century replacements.

Wall frescoes[]

The eight walls display frescoes mostly dating from the 17th century.

The entrance from the piazza is flanked by a pair of monochrome depictions, of the emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester, of SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. The window above has a winged putto's head inserted into a split segmental pediment, as do the other seven windows, and contains stained glass showing the coat-of-arms of Pope Pius XI (replaced after the Mafia bomb of 1993).

The subsequent walls feature fresco depictions from events in the career of Constantine, helpfully labelled. Going anticlockwise from the piazza entrance, the panels show The Vision of the Cross by Giacinto Gimignani, The Battle of the Milvian Bridge and The Triumphal Entry into Rome both by Andrea Camassei. Above each panel and flanking the windows, two monochrome tondi display a bust of Constantine and one of the churches that he founded in Rome, and this theme is repeated on the other upper walls.

Then comes the portico entrance. Below the little triangular pediment surmounting the doorway is a short epigraph commemorating the restoration by Pope Urban VIII Barberini 1625, and over the pediment is his monochrome coat-of-arms. Above this in turn is a blocked window displaying the Barberini bees again. This window is flanked by late 18th century frescoes which commemorate the restoration sponsored by Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico.

Next is a monochrome fresco featuring the heraldry of Pope Innocent X with two allegorical female figures by Carlo Maratta, which is above the doorway of the Chapel of St Venantius. There follows The Overthrow of the Idols by Maratta, The Burning of the Heretical Books by Carlo Mannoni and finally The Council of Nicaea by Mannoni again.

The fresoes are separated by Siamese-twin pilasters in the corners, which have recessed panels in a grey marble (or what looks like it). The ones in the first storey have block capitals featuring reliefs with ribbons, swags and Barberini bees, while the second storey ones are topped with what look like miniature ancient Roman aqueducts. These pilasters support the ceiling entablature, which has a frieze with frescoes vine-scrolls and a gilded cornice with modillions.


The richly gilt coffered 16th century ceiling includes carved figures from the previous 15th century one. Four of the eight sections contain the coat-of-arms of Pope Urban VIII, with the bees again. The corner coffers have the Sun in Splendour, or an oak tree with yet more bees. The other four sections have representational carvings in natural colour, each flanked by two narrow coffers containing angels: St John the Evangelist; Christ in Majesty; St John the Baptist and The Assumption of Our Lady.


The drum of the dome has eight frescoes by Sacchi: The Visitation, The Apparition of Gabriel to Zechariah, The Birth of St John the Baptist, The Naming of St John the Baptist, St John the Baptist in the Desert, The Preaching of St John the Baptist, The Baptism of Christ and The Beheading of St John the Baptist.

These frescoes are separated by ribbed Corinthian pilasters folded into the corners, which support the entablature of the cupola. This is decorated in blue and gold, and is separated into eight sectors by wide ribs. Each sector has a round window in a lunette, then more bees with a Sun in Splendour symbol. The sectors meet at a large oculus containing the Dove of the Holy Spirit in glory, surrounded by a text which reads: Spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas ("The spirit of God moved around over the waters") -Genesis 1:2.

Chapel of St John the Baptist[]

The two little 5th century side chapels have very similar entrances. Each has a pair of porphyry Corinthian columns supporting a horizontal entablature in grey-veined marble.

The chapel of St John the Baptist is on the right as you enter from the piazza. Its entrance entablature bears two inscriptions: Erunt aspera in vias planas ("The rough places will become level ways") -Lk 3:5, and Hilarus episcopus plebi Dei ("Hilary bishop to the people of God").

The doors to the chapel are contemporary with it, and are said to be made of an alloy of bronze, silver and gold. They bear a dedicatory inscription: In honorem beati Iohannis Baptistae, Hilarus episcopus, Christi famulus offert. The top half of the doors is decorated in a network, the bottom with a cross. Famously, they used to give a pleasing sound when they were moved on their hinges and this used to be a tourist attraction for centuries. Unfortunately, the sound vanished after the 1993 bombing.

The chapel's interior was entirely remodelled by Giovanni Battista Ceccarelli in 1780. The altar aedicule has a pair of spirally fluted green serpentine columns with gilded bases and capitals, which flank a bronze statue of the saint by Luigi Valadier. He was the father of the more famous Giuseppe Valadier. The statue replaced a wooden one, which is now in the confessio of the basilica.

Side wall frescoes depict The Baptism of Christ and The Beheading of St John the Baptist.

Chapel of St John the Evangelist[]

Like the previous one, this chapel was built by Pope St Hilary (461–468), and the dedicatory inscription can still be seen on the entablature above the door. It reads: Liberatori suo, beato Iohanni Evangeliste, Hilarus episcopus, famulus Christi ("To his liberator, blessed John the Evangelist, Hilary the bishop, slave of Christ"). Below this is a later inscription Diligite alterutrum ("Love one another"), from the First Letter of St John.

The panelled bronze doors date from 1196, and were made by Uberto and Pietro of Piacenza. (They also made a set of doors for the palace, which have survived and are kept in the basilica's cloisters.) To the top right there is a dedicatory inscription: Anno V pont. domini Coelestini III papae, Cencio cardinalis S. Luciae et domini papae Camerario iubente opus istud factum est. To the top left there is a relief of a pope holding a globe and standing in front of a Gothic façade with two towers -thought to be a representation of the mediaeval basilica.

The little chapel is on a Greek cross plan, with a vestibule. The floors and walls display polychrome marble work of a high quality, some dating from a restoration ordered by Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) for the Jubilee of 1600. His coat-of-arms is displayed in gilded bronze reliefs on the flanking piers in between the vestibule and chapel proper, and his heraldic emblems are inlaid into the floors. There were further restorations by Domenico Castelli and Borromini in the 17th century, and again in 1772. A recent restoration was in 1967, when unfortunately 18th century decorations were removed.

The vault is decorated with a surviving 5th century mosaic of the Lamb of God, surrounded by a wreath of flowers with two birds. This is a good example of an early Christian mosaic in the Classical style. Otherwise, the vault displays grotesque decoration by Giovanni Alberti, and angels by Giacomo Stella. Other fresco work is by Agostino Ciampelli, who depicted scenes from The Apocalypse, and Antonio Tempesti, showing scenes from the life of the saint.

The altar aedicule has two Ionic columns of oriental alabaster, supporting a triangular pediment with a broken cornice into which a gilded bronze eagle is inserted. The bronze altarpiece is of the saint, and is by Luigi Valadier again 1772 (not Taddeo Landini, as has been claimed).

The side altar to the right, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, is claimed to be the oldest Cosmatesque work in Rome. To the left is a late 15th century marble relief by Luigi Capponi, showing Giovanni Rossi (bishop of Alatri) with St John.

Chapel of St Venantius[]


The chapel of St Venantius is a large rectangular room, accessed via a short passage from a doorway in the far left diagonal side of the baptistery. It is 7th century, although a recent case has been made that it was originally built in the 5th. The present edifice was commissioned by Pope John IV (640–642) in honour of St Venantius of Salona and other Dalmatian martyrs. Pope John was a Dalmatian himself, and seeing that the Slavs where overrunning his country he brought the relics of the more important Dalmatian saints here and enshrined them. The project was completed under Pope Theodore I (642-9), and involved an impressive sanctuary mosaic.

A carved wooden ceiling was inserted in 1593, as part of a restoration ordered by Pope Clement VIII. In 1674, the Ceva family commissioned Carlo Rainaldi to restore the chapel, which involved the replacement of the old altar with a Baroque aedicule. In 1967, there was a rather destructive restoration which left the interior mostly in bare brick. The chapel is now, in effect, the parish church of the basilica's parish although it does not have the formal dignity of a church.


The interior is now grim, a rectangular box in naked red brick with a polychrome marble floor having a central roundel commemorating Blessed Pope Paul VI. To the side are voids left after excavations under the chapel, which allow you to see the original mosaic pavement of the 2nd century bath-house which was here before the baptistery.

There are five large round-headed windows on the right hand side. The left hand side is a puzzling architectural palimpsest, encouraging the theory that the chapel by Pope John was not the first building here. Two brick arches of unequal widths are separated by an ancient Corinthian column in a pale brown marble. The wider arch to the left shows evidence of a former door and window in its blocking wall, while the narrower partly blocked arch to the right has two arched niches under the present large plate-glass window. These niches were blocked up and covered by plaster bearing painted decoration imitating polychrome marble work, and this looks 7th century.

The counterfaçade has a stucco relief coat-of-arms of Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) over the door, and to the right is a 14th century aumbry or holy-oil cupboard, featuring a pair of angels in relief venerating the actual cupboard. Above is a little relief of Christ in a scallop-headed niche.

The ceiling is coffered, and is unpainted. The oval central coffer contains a carving of The Assumption of Our Lady.


The left hand wall nearer the altar has a side door with a marble Baroque doorcase, and above this is a black marble tablet in a yellow Siena marble frame which commemorates Cardinal Francesco Adriano Ceva, who died in 1655. His memorial is the left hand one of the matching pair that flank the altar. These were designed by Rainaldi, and sculpted by Giacomo Antonio Fancelli. Each has a white marble effigy in high relief, of the deceased kneeling at a prie-dieu, flanked by a pair of dark grey marble Composite columns supporting an omega cornice. The latter shelters a family coat-of-arms, and has a pair of putti sitting on it by Pietro Paolo Naldini.

The identity of the other deceased is the subject of serious confusion online and in the sources. It is not "Cardinal Carlo Ottavio Ceva", who never existed, but seems to be Carlo Francesco Ceva who was a bishop of Tortona and died in 1700.


The altar aedicule by Rainaldi unfortunately impedes the view of the mosaic. It has four black marble Corinthian columns set diagonally, the back pair supporting entablature ends and the front pair a triangular pediment. The entablature frieze looks as if it is in Sicilian jasper. The altarpiece is a 14th century fresco fragment of the Madonna and Child, set in a verde antico frame surrounded by gilded floral festoons and putti. Two of the latter are holding a crown at the top.

The altar frontal is intricate polychrome stone pietra dura inlay work. It surrounds a quatrefoil oculus with a bronze grille in the form of a crown over crossed palms, a reminder that the Dalmatian martyrs are enshrined here.

Rainaldi had the sense to keep the four columns of the 5th century altar aedicule that he replaced. These are ancient Corinthian columns in pavonazzetto marble, spirally fluted -very high status items originally.


The mosaic occupies the upper part of the far wall, and the conch of the little apse of the sanctuary. It appears to have been made by local artists, influenced by the newly developed Byzantine tradition of iconography. Overall the background is in gold.

The triumphal arch has no pilasters, imposts or molded archivolt but the latter is embellished by bands of intricate geometric mosaic decoration. The wall above it has three windows, a small one above the keystone and two larger ones flanking it. These are screened by transennae, pierced stone slabs. In between the windows are two rectangular mosaic panels, showing the symbols of the four Evangelists, and between the outer windows and the corners are two panels showing the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The lower register has two panels flanking the arch. These have figures of saints, who are unfamiliar Dalmatian ones, from left to right: Paulinian and Attelius (Telio), soldiers; Asterius a priest; Anastasius a nobleman (?); Maurus a bishop; Septimus a deacon, and Antiochanus with Gaianus who are soldiers. Their names are given as labels.

The conch of the apse is dominated by a bust of Christ emerging from red and blue cloud, flanked by angels. Below hims is the Blessed Virgin standing in prayer, with hands outstretched in the orans position. She is flanked by (left to right) St Venantius (holding a model of the chapel), St John the Evangelist, St Paul, St John the Baptist, St Domnius and Pope Theodore I in whose reign the mosaic was finished. You need to peer behind the aedicule to see these figures. At the bottom of the conch is an original dedicatory epigraph of Pope John.


Main space[]

The 5th century entrance portico was remodelled by Pope Anastasius IV in 1154, when the two transverse apses were converted into chapels and the portals given two screen walls and a doorcase. However, the interior has always been open to the elements through the portal voids above these.

In the 17th century the roof was provided with a coffered ceiling, having a central oval quatrefoil coffer containing the title of the basilica. This indicates that the Chapter paid for it. Radial ribs from this coffer define the other main coffers, while the short ends have a lunette coffer each flanked by a pair of quarter-circles in the corners. The decoration involves grotesquery in dark grey and white.

Above the door into the baptistery is a white marble Crucifixion is of the school of Andrea Bregno, 1482. Up in the top corners of the wall either side of this are remnants of intricate painted decoration of the 5th century, in grotesque style -but this by survival, not by revival as with the ceiling.

The marble floor is in white and grey trapezoidal tiles.

Chapel of SS Cyprian and Justina[]

The right hand chapel was originally dedicated to SS Andrew the Apostle and Lucy, but was re-dedicated to SS Cyprian and Justina when their alleged relics were enshrined under the altar. In 1767 the Borgia family of Velletri restored the apse as a mortuary chapel for themselves, but preserved the 5th century mosaic. This is thought to be the oldest apse conch mosaic in Rome. It has weathered quite badly, and the 16th century repainting of lost bits has itself faded. The design is of green branching vine-scrolls on a blue background, with flowers and an ascending line of four little jewelled crosses within mandorlas in the centre. The semi-circular panel at the top features a very small Lamb of God and four doves.

The late Baroque re-fit left the apse wall clad in polychrome marbles. The triumphal arch is supported by a pair of Ionic piers in yellow Siena marble, and on the archivolt are two stucco angels holding a banner that proclaims the presence of the relics of the martyrs under the altar. The archivolt springs from posts, which are continued as an entablature around the curve of the apse. This has a verde antico frieze in between yellow marble cornice and architrave. A pair of shallow intermediary pilasters break the curved wall into four sections having panels in Sicilian jasper, having molded black marble frames within purple-veined marble surrounds below red marble sub-friezes. A further two pilasters flanking the altarpiece are tripletted, with matching posts which support two fragments of a broken and separated segmental pediment. More angels and putti disport themselves on these. These pilasters have panels in alabaster.

The altarpiece depicts The Martyrdom of St Justina. The altar frontal is a slab of verde antico, in which is an oculus with a bronze grille surrounded by palm branches.

The chapel is enclosed by a polychrome marble balustrade and wrought iron railings, on an ogee curve plan. Outside these, to the left, is the fine Baroque monument to Alessandro Borgia 1767 by Tommaso Righi in the style of Bernini. An angel and a putto in white marble support the large medallion portrait, below which is the epitaph flanked by a pair of gigantic fronded curlicues. The deceased was an archbishop of Velletri. Unfortunately the outdoors conditions have caused many of the lead insert letters of the epitaph to fall out.

Chapel of SS Rufina and Secunda.[]

The left hand chapel is dedicated to SS Rufina and Secunda, local Roman martyrs who used to have a 4th century cathedral basilica on the Via di Boccea near what is now the western suburb of Selva Candida.

Pope Anastasius IV enshrined their relics in the chapel in 1153. This is a probable witness to the final loss of the old basilica, which was the one of the first two cathedrals of the diocese of Porto-Santa Rufina (which used to be two separate dioceses). For more on this building, see Sante Rufina e Seconda a Porcareccina.

In 1236, Pope Gregory IX issued a Bull confirming that the shrine-chapel of the two saints was to be regarded as under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Porto-Santa Rufina. In other words, this chapel is not part of the Diocese of Rome!

In 1757 the Lercari family restored it as a mortuary chapel for themselves. Apparently the 5th century apse conch mosaic had already fallen off, which was a pity as it was more interesting than the surviving one. It had scenes of rural life. The conch now has diapered coffering in three sectors, separated by a pair of wide ribs with rosettes.

The Baroque refit here is similar in style to that of the chapel opposite, although the polychrome marble colour scheme is different and the pilasters and columns are Composite. Tommaso Righi was responsible for it. A pair of columns in a bright red mottled stone flank the altarpiece and support posts which bear angels and putti adoring the Dove of the Holy Spirit in a gilded glory. These heavenly beings are by Giacomo Monaldi. The round-headed altarpiece in a yellow marble Baroque frame depicts Christ crowning the two martyrs.

The altar is flanked on the apse wall by two pictures in elaborate, billowing putti-inhabited white stucco frames. The one on the right depicts St Philip Neri by Guido Reni, and the left is an icon of the Madonna and Child by Giovanni Battista Salvi, Il Sassoferrato.

Outside the railings there are two very good polychrome marble Baroque memorials by Righi showing the deceased at prayer and venerating the altar. One is to Nicola Maria Lercari 1767, and the other to Nicola Lercari 1784.


The basilica's website gives the following daily opening times:

Basilica: 7:00 to 18:30 (Tel. 06.98.86433).

Sacristy: 8:00 to 12:00, 16:00 to 18:00 (Tel. 06.698.86433).

Cloisters: 9:00 to 18:00 (there is an entry charge of two euros).

Museum of the Basilica: 10:00 to 17:30 (Tel. 06.698.86409).

Historical Archives: 8:30 13:00 Monday to Friday only (Tel. 06.698.86580).

The Baptistery is open each day from 09.00 to 19.00.



Mass is celebrated in the basilica itself, according to the basilica's website in June 2018, as follows. There has been a reduction in the number of Sunday Masses recently.

(The Diocesan web-page for the basilica has some differences.)


7:00 (Altare del Santissimo Sacramento)

7:30 (Cappella Massimo) (Not July and August)

8:00 (Cappella dell'Adorazione)

9:00 (Cappella Massimo)

10:00 (Cappella Massimo) (Not July and August)

11:00 (Cappella Massimo) (July and August, Cappella Adorazione)

12:00 (Cappella dell’Adorazione) (Not July and August)

17:30 (Cappella dell’Adorazione) (Not Saturdays; 18:00 during Daylight Saving Time in summer).

Sundays and Solemnities:

16:00 SATURDAY OR VIGIL (Altare Papale)

18:00 SATURDAY OR VIGIL (Altare Papale)

7:00 (Altare del Santissimo)

8:00 (Cappella dell’Adorazione)

9:00 (Altare Papale)

10:30 (Altare Papale) 

12:00 (Altare Papale) 

17:30 (Altare Papale)

Confessions are heard: 7:00 to 12:00, and 15:30 to 18:30.

There is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament from 8:00 to 12:00, and 15:30 to 17:30. Only those taking part are allowed in the Chapel of Adoration in these periods.

The Divine Office is celebrated with Lauds at 7:40 on weekdays in the Chapel of Adoration, but at 9:45 at the High Altar on Sundays. Rosary and Vespers is at 16:30 (17:30 Sundays), but at 17:00 from March to October.


The baptistery functions as the parish centre and the parish office is here, but obviously it is also the venue for the celebration of baptisms. Masses are celebrated in the Chapel of St Venantius.

The diocesan web-page for the parish advises:

Mass on weekdays 7:50 (not July or August) and 18:00;

Mass on Sundays and Solemnities 11:00 and 18:00;

Baptisms are celebrated on Saturdays at 11:00 and 16:00, also Sundays at 9:30 and 16:00;

Rosary on Wednesday at 18:30.

HOWEVER, the parish web-site as at May 2018 advises that Mass is celebrated in the the baptistery daily at 18:30, with an additional Mass on Sundays and Solemnities at 11:00.

Also, baptisms take place in this period on Saturdays 10:00 to 11:00 and 16:00 to 17:00, also Sundays 10:00 to 12:30 and 16:00 to 17:00.


The feast-day of the dedication of the basilica, celebrated by the entire Church, is 9 November and for its liturgy the basilica should be referred to simply as dedicated to Christ the Saviour, as laid down in the revised Roman martyrology.

The official name of the basilica in Italian is Santissimo Salvatore e Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano. However, this full title is not used for liturgical purposes.

The celebration has a rank of "Feast of the Lord" in the General Calendar, which means that it replaces any Sunday on which the date falls (most Feasts in the General Calendar of the Roman Catholic Church are supplanted by a Sunday, but Candlemas and the Transfiguration are other examples of Feasts of the Lord). It is a Solemnity in the Diocese of Rome.

External links[]

The Seven Churches
San Pietro in Vaticano | San Paolo fuori le Mura | San Giovanni in Laterano | Santa Maria Maggiore | Santa Croce in Gerusalemme | San Lorenzo fuori le Mura | San Sebastiano fuori le Mura