The Saint John Lateran Basilica (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano) is the Cathedral of Rome. Until the Pope came back from Avignon and took up abode in Saint Peter’s Basilica, it was the most important Christian church in the world. The original church was built by Constantine, who was the first Christian emperor.
Address, Opening Hours and Admission
The address of the Basilica of Saint John in Lateran is Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano – Rome (tel. +39 0669886493). Opening times: 07.00 till 18.45. Admission: Free. The cloister is open from 09.00 till 18.00 and the museum from 10.00 till 17.30. Entrance to the cloister is 5 Euros (free with the Omnia Card, which also gives you fast access to the basilica). Note that, being one of the most important churches in Rome, your bags will be checked before you enter the church.
Saint John Lateran Basilica Rome
Already in 314 a basilica was erected in the same spot, on land that at the time belonged to the Laterani family, which also gave its name to the entire area. The current basilica follows the floor plan of the original one, which had been commissioned by the emperor Constantine.
The reason it was built so far from the then center of Rome is that, although Constantine himself was a big supporter of Christianity, most of his contemporaries were not and he did not want to antagonize his people too much by building an enormous Christian church in the city center.
For almost one thousand years Saint John in Lateran used to be the Pope’s residence, the center of his power and the most important Christian church from the moment it was constructed until the Pope moved his seat to Avignon.
The basilica of Saint John in Lateran consists of five naves.
In the course of the centuries the basilica underwent many restorations, sometimes to repair damages, often in honor of a Jubilee.
The Loggia delle Benedizioni was created for the 1300 Jubilee, while Francesco Borromini was commissioned by Pope Innocent X Pamphili to reconstruct the interior of the Basilica.
Borromini remodelled the interior between the years 1645 and 1650 and later also redesigned the floor. He had also wanted to redo the 16th century ceiling, with the 12 aediculas hosting 12 statues of the Apostles and decorated with a dove, the symbol of the Pamphilj family, but in the end it was left intact.
It was Borromini‘s idea to place the funerary monuments in the side naves, between the chapels and on the inner side of the pillars.
The facade was designed by Alessandro Galilei and was erected between 1732 and 1735. The work was ordered by Pope Clement XII Corsini. It consists of a row of pillars and Corinthian semi-columns, a central tympanum and a balustrade with 15 statues of a.o. Christ and Saint John the Baptist. Pope Clement had the Corsini coat of arms as well as an inscription honouring Pope Clement placed on the facade.
The presbytery and apse were redone in the end of the 19th century.
The portico is embellished with reliefs showing scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist. The statue of Constantine was originally found in the baths on the Quirinal Hill.
The wings on the central door originally decorated the Curia in the Roman Forum.
The Holy Door (only to be opened during Jubilee years) is the last one on the right.
Works of art in San Giovanni in Laterano
The mosaic in the apse was made by Jacopo Torriti and commissioned by Nicholas IV. The present mosaic is a copy of the original and was done by Vespignani.
The Loggia delle Benedizioni: The Loggia of the Blessings, commissioned by Boniface VIII, was constructed for the 1300 Jubilee. The present loggia is a result of a late 16th century restructuring by Sixtus V however.
There are 15th century frescoes by Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello.
The transept was decorated by Clement VIII (1600).
The stucco reliefs are by Alessandro Algardi.
Giovanni di Stefano made the tabernacle at the end of the nave. Beneath it is the papal altar. Here only the Pope himself is allowed to serve mass.
The tomb of Pope Martin V was made by Simone Ghini.
Cavalier d’Arpino, Cesare Nebbia, Orazio Gentileschi, and Giovanni Baglione are some of the 16th century mannerist painters whose work can be found in the transept.
The fresco fragment in the right middle nave was originally part of the Loggia delle Benedizioni.
The far left nave shows a copy of a lying statue by Arnolfo di Cambio. (Its original can be found in the cloister.)
The mosaics in the Chapel of St. Venantius include the figure of St. Venantius himself.
Apart from the basilica itself it is well worth visiting both the cloister, which holds pieces of the original basilica, and the museum (which displays vestments, altar cloths and holy vessels). The entrance fee to the cloister is 5 Euros.
Underneath the Basilica
Six meters underneath the floor of the basilica there are ruins that partially belong to the 1st century estate of the Laterano family and partially to the 2nd century Castro Nova Equitum, the barracks of a horse brigade. The brigade, which had supported Maxentius, was dissolved after Contantine had defeated his enemy and the barracks were destroyed, its walls to be used as a foundation for the Saint John in Lateran Basilica.
According to an ancient legend on the night between June 23rd and 24th a Witches’ Sabbath used to be held near the Basilica of St. John Lateran. On of the ways Romans protected themselves from its evil was by having snails for dinner that night.
The official name of the church is Arcibasilica Papale e Cattedrale del Santissimo Salvatore e dei Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano, which would mean so much as “Patriarchal Arcibasilica and Cathedral of the Holy Saviour and of the Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in Lateran”. It is also know as “Mother of All Churches” and Basilica Contantiniana.