San Lorenzo in Damaso is a 15th century parish and titular church located at Piazza della Cancelleria 1 in the rione Parione.
It has the dignity of the foremost minor basilica in Rome, and its predecessor was one of the tituli or first parish churches in Rome. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to the deacon and martyr St Lawrence,
- 1 History
- 2 Exterior
- 3 Interior
- 3.1 Layout and fabric
- 3.2 Narthex
- 3.3 Cappella Ruffo
- 3.4 Side entrance
- 3.5 Cappella Ottoboni
- 3.6 Nave
- 3.7 Sanctuary
- 3.8 Right hand aisle
- 3.9 Chapel of the Crucifix
- 3.10 Chapel of the Sacred Heart
- 3.11 Sacristy
- 3.12 Chapter room
- 3.13 Chapel of Our Lady of Pompei
- 3.14 Left hand aisle
- 3.15 Chapel of the Immaculate Conception
- 3.16 Madonna di Grottapinta
- 4 Underground
- 5 Access
- 6 Liturgy
- 7 External links
The church is believed to have been founded in the home of Pope St Damasus (366-383), by the pope himself. There is a Latin couplet attributed to him which celebrates this: Haec Damasus tibi Christe Deus nova tecta dicavi; Laurenti saeptus martyris auxilio ("This new house I, Damasus, protected by the help of the martyr Lawrence, dedicate to you O Christ God"). The entry in the Liber Pontificalis recording the foundation names the church as Sancti Laurentii juxta Theatrum, which refers to the Theatre of Pompey immediately to the east.
Its first documentary reference is in the acta of a synod held by Pope Symmachus in 399, when it was known as the Titulus Damasi. Amazingly at this period there was only one church located here in the bend of the Tiber, as the nearest other tituli were the present San Marco and San Lorenzo in Lucina. However, it should be remembered that the location only became densely inhabited from the 8th century (the conversion of the locality from an expansive and monumental civic area dominated by public buildings to a crowded mediaeval slum is very poorly evidenced).
The original church was south of the present one, under the courtyard of the Palazzo della Cancelleria. It was basilical, with a central nave and colonnaded side aisles. The central nave was paved with opus sectile, and might have had a schola cantorum as fragments of marble plutei (solid screen slabs) were found. Off the right hand aisle, next to the present left hand side wall of the church, was a frescoed room identified as a secretarium or treasury. Evidence was found for a side entrance in the left hand aisle.
The present palazzo courtyard has arcades re-using forty-four granite columns from Egypt. These probably came from the Theatre of Pompey, and it seems a reasonable supposition that they were then incorporated into the arcades of the first basilica.
By the reign of Pope Gregory the Great there was established a yearly solemn procession to celebrate the conversion of the emperor Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which started from this church, went to the bridge via San Valentino and then returned.
A restoration was undertaken by Pope Adrian I (772-95), and it was then that the relics of Pope St Damasus were brought here from his family tomb on the Via Ardeatina. They have been under the high altar ever since. This restoration project was continued by Leo III (795-816).
An old alternative name in the records is San Lorenzo in Prasino, literally "in the green". This is thought to be an allusion to the Green faction of supporters in the circus chariot races, which maintained stables near the Theatre of Pompey to the east.
There was a serious fire in the reign of Pope John XIX (1024-32), and the work needed to repair the damage was extensive enough that the church needed to be reconsecrated in the reign of Pope Stephen IX (1057-8).
In 1186, Pope Urban III published a bull with an attached list of neighbouring parish churches to be considered subsidiary to the basilica. There is an amazing total of sixty-six of these, testimony to a vast but unrecorded building project in the 9th and 10th centuries which provided the then built-up area of the city with lots of little parish churches. Many of the churches listed survive, and this document is their first historical witness. Many others have gone, because the provision of churches proved over-generous even for the Middle Ages.
The old basilica was demolished for the construction of the Palazzo della Cancelleria, which was originally built from 1483 to 1511 for Raffaele Riario and funded partially with money that Cardinal Riario had won gambling with Franceschetto Cibo. The new church, incorporated into the fabric of the palazzo, was begun in 1485 and was ready for worship in 1496 when the altars in the old church were transferred. The actual demolition of the fabric of the old basilica took place in stages between 1496 and 1503. The architect was Donato Bramante.
Unfortunately for him, the Cardinal did not pass on knowledge of a plot against the life of Pope Leo X , and surrendered the palace in exchange for not being prosecuted in 1517. It then became the headquarters of the papal chancellery, a function it retained until 1870 (it is still an extra-territorial possession of the Holy See).
Ceiling and entrance
The new church originally had no ceiling or monumental entrance. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese provided both in the mid 16th century. The entrance portal was by Vignola. The new coffered and gilded wooden ceiling had a carving of St Lawrence in the centre.
The new entrance faced onto a narrow street, until the restoration ordered by Cardinal Francesco Barberini in 1638. Then, the houses opposite were purchased and demolished.
Between 1638 and 1640, Bernini was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini to re-fit the church's sanctuary. (The cardinal was a great patron of Rome's churches.) The result included a confessio or devotional crypt in front of the high altar, which was an elliptical aperture occupying the last bay of the nave. Behind this was the high altar, standing alone without any canopy. The apse was converted from a rectangular plan to the semi-circular one that it still has, and the enormous altarpiece by Federico Zuccari was attached to the far wall with stucco angels above it. Choir stalls were erected around the apse curve for the secular canons of the basilica, and an iron railing screen embellished with the Barberini bees enclosed the choir and confessio.
The Barberini restoration also involved frescoing the nave walls. The right hand side wall was by Giuseppe Cesari, and showed St Lawrence Distributing Alms and St Lawrence at the Martyrdom of Pope St Sixtus II. The right hand side wall by Niccolò Circignani, Il Pomarancio showed St Lawrence at his Trial. The wall over the apse showed St Lawrence on the Gridiron, and was by Giovanni de' Vecchi. All this work has perished -a tragedy.
At the start of the French occupation in 1798, the French army used the church as an arms store. Hence it was desecrated, and the frescoes decorating its walls were damaged beyond repair. Also, the ceiling was stolen -which must have taken some effort. Cardinal Francesco Carafa di Trajetto ordered a complete restoration in 1807, and put the work under under the direction of Giuseppe Valadier.
The following year Rome was annexed to the French Empire, and the Imperial authorities made the church the chapel of the government headquarters. Valadier was kept on to continue the restoration, and he continued working after the he definitive restoration of papal government in 1815. Unfortunately, he died before the restoration was completed in 1820. The finishing touches were supervised by Gaspare Salvi. The second side chapel on the right was re-fitted in honour of the Sacred Heart.
Valadier's intervention was quite radical, as the Bernini confessio was eliminated, the sanctuary advanced to take up two bays of the nave with separate barrel vaults and a triumphal arch, and a square vault erected over the remaining part of the nave.
Unfortunately, Valadier's cupola-vault failed structurally in 1868 and the church had to be closed. Virginio Vespignani was appointed by Pope Pius IX to rectify matters, which he did by substituting a flat coffered ceiling for the nave which incorporated one bay of the two previously sequestered for the sanctuary. The vault over the last bay of the nave was, however, kept.
Also most of Bernini's decoration of the sanctuary was destroyed, including the stucco angels. The apse conch was then frescoed by Francesco Grandi. The nave walls received an extensive fresco cycle by Luigi Fontana. The work was completed only in 1882.
20th century restoration
On 31 December 1939, a serious fire broke out in the palazzo which spread to the church roof and caused serious damage. The restoration that this entailed continued until 1944, and resulted in the present appearance of the interior.
In the process, the vault of the triumphal arch installed by Valadier was removed, and a new ceiling installed which covers the entire central nave. The last of the Baroque stucco decorations in the sanctuary were removed.
The church has been titular since its foundation, but the first cardinal on record is Uberto Crivelli in 1185. He went on to be elected pope as Urban III, and immediately confirmed the privileges of the church as mentioned above.
The current titular of the church is Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, Archbishop of Madrid.
Layout and fabric
The plan of the church is basilical, rather short with a nave of seven bays and with aisles, and a semi-circular apse as the sanctuary. There is the unusual feature of a large narthex or entrance vestibule of two bays, on the ground floor of the wing of the palazzo fronting the church.
To the south is the arcaded courtyard of the palazzo, in the style of a monastic cloister. There is a row of four arched windows in the upper nave wall which look over this. Next to the apse is a brick campanile on a rectangular plan, with a large arched soundhole on each long face. Not many visitors know that this is there.
The church has no street presence, because it is completely surrounded by the edifice of the palace. Entry is via an unassuming doorway towards the north end of the piazza, which has a raised lintel supported by volutes. Under this is a small tablet bearing a dedicatory inscription.
The bronze door is, however, worth inspecting because of the pair of small reliefs of St Laurence near the top.
There is a side entrance on the Corso Vittoro Emanuele, but this is rarely open.
Layout and fabric
Once through the single entrance door you are in the two-bay narthex which has a low vault, because of the rooms in the palace above. The first bay has a chapel at each end. At the right hand end of the second bay is the side entrance to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and next to that on the left is a large arch which is the right hand bay of the external Chapel of the Crucifix.
Bramante's church beyond the narthex still stands as an architectural entity, but the church was lavishly decorated in gilt and polychrome marble by Valadier and Vespignani in the 19th century restorations, and the original decorative harmony is gone. When it was restored after the fire in 1939, it was not entirely renewed in its previous state of decoration since this was inadequately documented (apparently).
The main body of the church has five bays, with arcades having square piers and imposts. The large apse has a conch amounting to a semi-dome, and to each side of the apse is a chapel at the end of the aisle.
Only the right hand aisle has external side chapels, because of the proximity of the palazzo courtyard on the left. The Chapel of the Crucifix is wide, with three bays, then comes the Chapel of the Sacred Heart of one bay, and then the sacristy.
The vaulted narthex is five compartments wide and two bays deep, with chapels in the ends of the first bay either side of the entrance. The two cross-vaults are supported by heavy square piers.
To the right immediately inside the entrance is the memorial of Alessandro Valtrini designed by Bernini 1639, with a winged skeleton holding a portrait medallion. To the left is a large seated statue of St Hippolytus, a copy executed in 1728 of one of him found on the Via Tiburtina in 1551. Also in the first bay are memorials to Giovanni Pacini 1567 and Luca Duccio 1611.
Facing you in front of the far central piers in the second bay are two statues. The one to the right is of St Charles Borromeo, in marble by Stefano Maderno but the other, of St Francis Xavier, is only in stucco.
By the side entrance in the right hand end of the second bay is an impressive monument to Camillo Massimo and his wife Cristina di Sassonia by Pietro Tenerani 1840. This work was begun by Filippo Gnaccarini.
Opposite it is a Baroque monument to Giorgio Coneo, 1640 by Lorenzo Ottoni and commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Originally from Scotland, he was a canon at the church and had been a diplomat in London as well. The likeness is of a handsome and popular man, who tragically died young.
The right hand chapel is the Cappella Ruffo, dedicated to St Nicholas and designed by Nicola Salvi for Cardinal Tommaso Ruffo (his coat-of-arms is inset in the floor). The polychrome marble work in here is rich.
The altarpiece is by Sebastiano Conca 1743, and depicts the Madonna and Child with SS Nicholas and Philip Neri. The vault has a central fresco depicting The Vision of St Nicholas by Corrado Giaquinto, who also executed the pendentives which display allegorical virtues.
This is the baptistry, and the font here was installed in 1706. It is a superbly ornate late Baroque piece, with a little marble relief depicting The Baptism of Christ.
Next to the chapel is an elaborately carved late 15th century marble doorcase, a survival from the earlier basilica. Over it is a lunette with a fresco of angelic musicians thought to be a fragment of a larger work by the Cavalier d'Arpino thought to have been at the end of the aisle.
The door leads to a passage to the side entrance of the church, which has memorials to Francesco Bocchini 14th century, Pirrino Citrario 1513 and Giovanni Laurenzi 1656.
Cappella Ottoboni 
The left hand narthex chapel is the Cappella Ottoboni, now the "Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and Five Wounds of Christ". This takes its name from a parish Eucharistic confraternity, the Confraternita del Santissimo Sacramento e Cinque Piaghe which had its own separate oratory -Santissimo Sacramento e Cinque Piaghe. (The church's actual Blessed Sacrament Chapel is at the end of the left hand aisle.)
This chapel was designed by Ludovico Rusconi Sassi, on behalf of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (who had also commissioned the statue of St Hippolytus outside and donated the font). The vault fresco of The Apotheosis of the Lamb of God is by Andrea Casali.
The altar and balustrade were restored by Valadier, who provided the altarpiece of the Last Supper by Vincenzo Berrettini (1818). This seems to be the only painting by this artist in a Roman church.
The rather heavy square arcade piers are original. The archivolts spring from projecting imposts on these, in lieu of capitals. The original entablature, with a dedicatory inscription on its frieze, runs on top of the archivolts and around the interior.
However, Vespignani divided the side walls and counterfaçade by a second entablature. Between the two entablatures are frescoes by Luigi Fontana depicting scenes from the Life of St Lawrence. There is one large one on each side wall, flanked by a pair of smaller ones in yellow ochre monochrome, and a third large one on the counterfaçade.
The right hand main fresco shows Pope St Sixtus II and St Lawrence Being Led to Martyrdom, and the side frescoes depict The Almsgiving of St Lawrence (to the left) and Pope St Damasus Consecrates the Altar of the Basilica (to the right). The left hand main fresco depicts The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, and the side scenes show Pope St Damasus Discovers the Tomb of St Lawrence (to the left) and The Burial of St Lawrence (to the right). The counterfaçade fresco shows Pope St Damasus Receives the Homage of the Eastern Bishops.
One odd feature is that there is a row of six round-headed windows, one for each bay above the second entablature, on the left side only overlooking the palace courtyard. The opposite wall is blank, with frescoes in arched frames where the windows should be. This is because of palace accommodation on the other side of the latter wall. The frescoes depict, from right to left: SS Sebastian and Valentine, SS Bonus and Companions, St Jerome, St Barbara and St Hippolytus. The last arched panel is blank, because this was only installed after 1939 when the triumphal arch was demolished.
The spandrels in between the windows and upper fresco panels have tondi showing portraits of saints, faked to resemble mosaics.
There are three further round-headed upper panels on the counterfaçade, which depict Pope St Leo with Charlemagne, Pope St Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV and Pope St Pius V.
The flat gilded wooden ceiling is coffered, in square panels. It is modern, installed after 1939, and has the coat-of-arms of Pope Pius XII in its centre.
The present decoration of the sanctuary is entirely 19th century, the Baroque stucco decoration having been removed. It is a large apse with a conch, with the enormous round-headed altarpiece in the back of the curve and the wooden stalls of the choir in an arc underneath it. The altarpiece is flanked by two pairs of galleries, the larger round-headed ones below with balustrades matching the apse curve and the smaller ones above in the form of a serliana -that is, having a larger round-headed aperture flanked by two smaller rectangular ones.
The actual high altar is by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and was made in 1640. However, the bronze medallions on the frontal of SS Eutychian and Damasus are 19th century. The baldacchino is also 19th century, by Vespignani. It is in the form of a low cupola, supported by four alabaster Corinthian columns and with angels at the corners. Beneath the altar are the relics of Pope St Damasus, founder of the first church here, as well as of Pope St Eutychian (died 283).
The altarpiece is by Federico Zuccari of 1568, depicting the Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven. The saints in the foreground are Lawrence, Damasus, Peter and Paul and the first-named is also depicted being martyred behind them.
The conch contains fresco roundels depicting Faith, Hope and Charity by Francesco Grandi.
Right hand aisle
The right hand aisle contains several interesting funerary monuments.
The one to Maria Gabriella di Savoia-Villafranca (1811-1837) is in an archaizing Classical style, with the deceased portrayed within a little aedicular shrine. There were lots of these in the city's suburbs in ancient times. Next to it is a memorial to her brother-in-law Cardinal Francesco Saverio Massimo, 1848 with a portrait in mosaic.
Between the Sacred Heart Chapel and the sacristy door are two important memorials. The first is a large an elaborate neo-Classical work by Luigi Prinzi in honour of Cardinal Antonio Saverio De Luca 1884. The cardinal is shown in high relief, venerating Christ in glory. The putto below is holding a bronze scroll reading Ego sum resurrectio et vita.
Next to this monument is one to Pellegrino Rossi, which is a work by Pietro Tenerani. Rossi had actually been assassinated in the Palazzo in 1848. He was the prime minister of the papal government of Pope Pius IX, and was hated by republicans because of his political ability (unusual among papal government functionaries in the 19th century, because the papacy insisted on appointing such from the clergy and Roman nobility on the basis of status rather than merit). His assassination led to the proclamation of the Roman Republic of 1849, and to the end of any hope that a papal government in Rome could function in the modern world.
Chapel of the Crucifix
Next to the the right-hand aisle near the entrance is the Cappella Massimo, the Chapel of the Crucifix. It was made out of three small chapels for the Massimo family in 1582, hence is roomy and has a width of three bays (the right hand one is next to the narthex).
The crucifix over the altar is medieval, late 14th century, and St Bridget of Sweden is known to have prayed before it. She is depicted venerating it in a fresco dating from about 1880. In the painting, she is depicted as a Franciscan tertiary. This is the result of a misunderstanding - for a long time she was thought to have been a Franciscan at some stage, but this has been disproved. Also depicted in a fresco is St Bridget's daughter, St Catherine of Sweden. She is correctly depicted as a Bridgettine abbess.
The altar itself is intricately decorated with polychrome inlay by Giovanni Domenico Navone of 1758.
Chapel of the Sacred Heart
This chapel used to be another side entrance, but was converted in 1615 and originally dedicated to St Charles Borromeo. The new patrons after 1820 were a parish confraternity dedicated to propagating the devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the side wall frescoes depict the foundation of this body. They were installed in a restoration by Vincenzo De Rossi Re in 1883.
The 15th century molded marble doorway beyond this chapel near the end of the aisle has the inscription on its lintel Sacrorum Custodia. It leads into the sacristy. The altarpiece here used to be Our Lady with Angels by Cristoforo Roncalli, Il Pomarancio, but this was transferred to the memorial to Cardinal Luigi Traglia when he was buried in the church in 1982 (he had died in 1977).
Older sources mention two silver statues here by Ciro Ferri, of SS Lawrence and Damasus. They are probably kept locked away in the following location.
Above the doorway is a tablet recording the restoration under Pope Pius XII.
Beyond the sacristy is the Chapter Room of the secular canons, which has an elaborately decorated ceiling of the early 16th century. The lunettes of this are decorated in grotesque style.
Here is a memorial to Paolo Goddi, 1535.
Chapel of Our Lady of Pompei
The chapel at the end of the right hand aisle is now dedicated to Our Lady of Pompei, and a copy of the famous icon venerated in a shrine near Naples is the altarpiece. The altar aedicule of two Corinthian columns in green marble supporting a segmental pediment is echoed in the frame of the icon, itself in the form of an aedicule with a pair of cute putti sitting on the pediment.
Left hand aisle
The left hand aisle also contains many interesting funerary monuments. Before the 20th century restoration there used to be two side altars here, one dedicated to Our Lady and the other to St Andrew Avellino.
The tomb floor-slab of Giuliano Galli, 1488 with a recumbant effigy has been set into the wall under his separate memorial which involves putti.
That to Nicola Scagliosi, 1895 has a good bust. The dove and anchor to each side are ancient motifs from the catacombs. He is giving you the greeting of the Sign of Peace ("Pax tecum"), hoping that you will give the appropriate reply; Et cum spiritu tuo.
The large and impressive early Renaissance monument to Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan 1465 has a recumbant effigy, over an epigraph in Greek which roughly translates "Always live life agreeably, so that when you die you will die well".
Chapel of the Immaculate Conception
The Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at the end of the left hand aisle was originally frescoed by Pietro da Cortona, but his fresco work has perished. There used to be an Eternal Father in the vault. However, the stucco angels in the arch intrados are thought to be his.
The chapel is embellished in polychrome marble work, and its aedicule has a pair of ribbed Corinthian columns in red and white portasanta marble. These support a split segmental pediment on which a pair of stucco putti sit, and into the split is inserted a tablet with the Dove of the Holy Spirit in glory.
Madonna di Grottapinta
The altarpiece of this chapel is an old icon of Our Lady, allegedly brought from Santa Maria di Grottapinta some time between 1465 and 1494 -that it ever was in this church is disputed. The enshrinement was by the Arciconfraternita della Santissima Concezione della Beata Vergine Maria, which was in charge of the Grottapinta church at the time.
The icon was in the lost church of San Salvatore ad Arcum by the end of the 13th century, and it has been thought by historians that this church was identical to the Grottapinta church. However, a 1561 source lists both churches and describes San Salvatore as in arco unito alla fabrica di San Lorenzo in Damaso. This is good evidence that these two latter churches were in the same city block. What then happened to San Salvatore is entirely unknown.
A 1575 source alleged that the icon was found in a "painted underground chamber" under the Grottapinta church in 1468 and then enshrined in the Damaso church. It is just possible that the icon had been taken to a cellar at the former for storage after San Salvatore was shut down, and then forgotten about.
The icon is late 12th century, although by tradition it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist. Very interestingly, it shares a peculiarity with other icons in Rome sharing the same tradition -it is actually a fragment of a Deesis. Our Lady is pictured gesturing towards a lost figure of Christ (see a website here for more on this point). Restorers discovered that the icon had a little round cavity on the left breast of Our Lady, with the depiction of a golden plaque embossed with an image of Christ next to it. The cavity once contained relics, which a unique border epigraph states to have belonged to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, Pope St Felix I and SS Marcellinus and Peter.
The icon was damaged in the French occupation, when it was robbed of its silver cover and gold crown. The crown was replaced, but removed again when the icon was thoroughly restored in 1968.
The underground tunnels dug by the archaeologists under the church and couryard of the palazzo are accessible, but not open to the public.
The parish has put a gallery of photos of them online, to be found here.
The church is open (parish website, June 2018):
Weekdays 7:30 to 19:30;
Sundays 9:00 to 19:30.
An audio guide is available to visitors inside the church.
Note that the church interior is short of natural light, and the artificial lighting is not very good. It can get very gloomy inside, especially on winter afternoons. Please don't use a camera flash inside the church!
Mass is celebrated (parish website, June 2018):
Weekdays 18:30 (the morning Mass is defunct, apparently).
Sundays 10:30, 18:30.
There is Rosary at 18:00.