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San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran), Rome: History and Guided Tour

Updated: May 7



Saint John Lateran, San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma


Saint John Lateran (in Italian: San Giovanni in Laterano) in Rome is the mother church of Catholicism and simply one of the most incredible religious buildings you are ever going to see! Monumental, bright and majestic, Saint John Lateran welcomes visitors with its white façade first, then embraces them with its breathtaking interior decorations, first of all the 12 statues of the Apostles.


Writing a guide for this landmark is not easy, but here you should find information about the history and origins of the Basilica, then everything you should see and check inside, and a complete visitors' guide.



 

In this article:


San Giovanni in Laterano: History and Why Visit

San Giovanni in Laterano: Guided Tour

San Giovanni in Laterano: Plan Your Visit


 


San Giovanni in Laterano: History and Why Visit



1. WHY VISIT


If you feel a strange sense of reverence, nostalgia and disorientation when in front of the majestic façade of Saint John Lateran and you don't know why, then your body might have perceived the power of the place you are going to visit before your mind can grasp it. You don't need to be Catholic to sense the history that has unfolded here - I am not a believer myself but I promise the impact will be strong!


Saint John Lateran may not be the most famous or central church in Rome but surely is one of the greatest. Indeed, it is the mother church of all Catholic Christianity, the oldest church of the Western World, and the first and foremost residence of the Papacy, long before St. Peter and the Vatican were even conceived for this role.


And this premise pretty much answers the question of why you should visit San Giovanni in Laterano today: Saint John Lateran is where Popes were coronated for centuries (6th-19th!), where 5 ecumenical councils were held and where some of the most important decisions and events of the past twenty centuries were made. By entering it you are veritably stepping inside an enormous portion of history, one that (like it or not) contributed to the definition of who the Westerners are today.



2. NAMES AND DEDICATION


The full name of San Giovanni in Laterano is Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran (in Italian: Papale Arcibasilica Maggiore Cattedrale Arcipretale del Santissimo Salvatore e dei Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano and in Latin: Archibasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris et Sanctorum Ioannis Baptistae et Ioannis Evangelistae in Laterano) - which is quite long and carries much meaning:


Archbasilica: a rare title given almost exclusively to Saint John Lateran, it refers to its extraordinary historic importance and relevance for the Catholic Church.

Cathedral: officially, Saint John in Lateran (and not Saint Peter) is the cathedral church of Rome, so the most important church in the city.

Of the Most Holy Savior: or of Christ, who is the Most Holy Savior. Even if the church is today known as "Saint John", its first dedication was to Christ himself, following an event that involved the Roman Emperor Constantine and that occurred at the very beginning of the church's long history. This dedication was given at its foundation in 324 BCE.

And of Saints John the Baptist: this second dedication was added in the 9th century on the occasion of the restoration of the baptistery.

And the Evangelist: with the addition of new chapels dedicated to the Evangelist, his name was included in the dedication from the 12th century.

In the Lateran: the area where the church lies is known as Lateran, a name that became custom but which origin is lost in time. The most accredited theory is that it should come from the original owners of these lands, the Laterani, a Roman family (gens) affiliated to high power and then fallen into disgrace.



3. THE ORIGINS


The origins of Saint John Lateran are almost as old as Christianity itself, at least in the West.


In fact, Christianity did not become legal until 313 CE, when the Roman Emperor Constantine officially included it among the religions of the Empire. This decision was closely linked to Constantine's own alleged conversion the year before when, after receiving a divine message in his dreams, he managed to win against his main rival, Maxentius, and became the only Emperor. This heavenly message notably came with the words "In hoc signo vinces" (Latin for: with this sign you win) and with the image of the Cross: the Emperor thus had his soldiers add the Cross on their shields and victory came.


Constantine, forever grateful for this outcome, decided to donate the lands of the Laterani (Horti Laterani) to the bishop of Rome (not yet called Pope) and allow him to build the first proper church of the Western World: the precursor of Saint John Lateran. Thanks to this primacy, this place was to become one of the most sacred places of Christianity and the natural residence of the Popes for a long time.


Why did Constantine choose the Horti Laterani? These lands had hosted the troops of his rival, Maxentius, so using them for this purpose seemed reasonable. Also, the Laterani were located outside the city center and far from the main places of political power, where too many pagans still had too much power and could be disturbed by the sight of a church.



Saint John Lateran, San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma
A 1588 view of Saint John


The First Basilica

The Horti Laterani were likely donated by the Emperor in around 314 CE and the so-called Primitive Basilica was officially consecrated by Pope Sylvester I (then known as the bishop of Rome, but we will always use the term Pope for clarity) in 324 - it only took a decade to build a magnificent building, thanks to the substantial donations made by the Emperor and other wealthy benefactors.


This first version of San Giovanni was grandiose and recalled the style of a Roman Basilica (a huge hall, a public building where functions and courts were held): it had 5 naves, one central and 4 laterals. The naves were divided by column pillars and at the end of the central nave was a fastigium - a huge 4-column structure that divided the church from the presbytery, where sacraments were officiated. The apse behind the fastigium hosted the bishopric seat and the main altar, while on the façade was a lavish mosaic.

➜ While the appearance of the church would strongly change over time, this overall structure and colossal dimensions would remain. The present Saint John still retains much of the original plan of the Primitive Basilica.


The Primitive Saint John was so splendidly decorated with gold and silver and had so many treasures as to attract the Visigoths of Alaric first (410) and the Vandals of Genseric later (455) - during the Sacks of Rome they perpetuated at the sunset of the Roman Empire, the Basilica was ransacked, severely damaged and deprived of all its magnificence.


From that moment, several Popes had to rebuild and restore it according to the fate of Rome: in fact, the Basilica would always follow the lead of its hosting city, shining bright in its golden ages and knowing decline in its darkest times. Anyway, by 774 Saint John must have been magnificent again, as it could host the baptism of Charlemagne.


The year 897 marked the end of this first version of the church: a few months after the macabre Cadaver Synod, held in the Lateran, the Pope who organized it, Stephen VI, was allegedly punished by God with a terrible earthquake that almost fully destroyed Saint John: a radical reconstruction was needed.

The Cadaver Synod is remembered as one of the most macabre episodes in the history of the Church. In 867, approximately 7 months after his death, the former Pope Formosus I (891-896) was exhumed from his tomb and subjected to a trial by his successor, Pope Stephen VI. Pronounced guilty after a terrible examination that took place in Saint John Lateran, his every action perpetuated as a pope was considered invalid. His corpse was then denied proper burial and thrown in the Tiber. Stephen VI is said to have been harshly punished for this ignominy that was supposed to favour him, his papacy brutally ending after just a few months, when he was killed. Saint John Lateran would be destroyed by an earthquake that same year.



4. THE BASILICA THROUGH THE MIDDLE AGES


Pope Sergius III (904-911) was the one to consecrate the second version of the Basilica: at this point, the Lateran had become a full-fledged citadel and the church was only one of the many buildings that lay there. The Patriarchio (house of the Patriarch, alias the Pope), the fortified residence where the Pope lived, the baptistery and several other buildings surrounded the Basilica.



The Medieval Versions of Saint John Lateran

From the time of Sergius III and until the early 14th century Saint John was often embellished and enlarged, with a peak under Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303). He was the one to announce the first Jubilee (a holy year when sins could be remitted) of Christianity in the Lateran in 1300 and to call Giotto (1267-1337) to paint an imponent cycle of frescoes to decorate the church: unfortunately, Boniface VIII's church with the cycle did not survive time, but a small portion of it is still visible in today-Saint John, behind glass, on the lateral nave on the right - it depicts Boniface VIII announcing the Jubilee.


Also, Giotto gave us good evidence of how this Saint John should have looked like in his "The Dream of Innocent III", part of his cycle of frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco d'Assisi, in Umbria:


Giotto's fresco in Assisi - It shows San Giovanni in Laterano


Other notable additions of this period were the cloister, built in 1227, and the mosaics of the apse by Jacopo Torriti (late 13th century).


Soon after the death of Boniface VIII in 1303, the Papacy would know one of its lowest times: the Avignon Phase (1309-1376), some seventy-ish years during which the Church was remembered as depraved and far from the discipline it should have reflected. This decline had its consequences on Saint John as well: abandoned by the Popes, who were living in France, the church steadily declined and in 1360 was destroyed by a fire.


The return of the Popes to Rome marked a new building phase for Saint John, but also a few important changes: from then on, since Rome was perceived as less and less secure, the Popes would reside in the Vatican, more central and more defendable. However, the Lateran was too sacred to be abandoned, and coronations still took place there, as well as several other events such as councils and a few papal burials.


This third version of the Basilica kept the overall structure of the Primitive, but changed much in terms of style and decoration: the exterior and the façade, today fully lost, must have resembled the church of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura - you can check it (it's in Rome!) to have an idea. The interior was initially given a Gothic touch, starting from the ciborium (a freestanding covering for the main altar), created in 1370 and still visible today.


Comparison between Saint John and San Paolo Fuori Le Mura
San Paolo Fuori Le Mura - for a long time, the façade of Saint John must have been similar

More additions came over time: the Cosmatesque flooring (1421) that you can still admire, the decorations of the cloister (a few still present), a new Loggia for benedictions, ending with a Renaissance touch - the ceiling, which survived.


Unfortunately, much was also lost: for example, since the Lateran was not the official residence of the Popes anymore, the old and declining Patriarchio was demolished in 1585 and substituted by the current Lateran Palace.



A view of Saint John Lateran from the 18th century
A view of Saint John Lateran from the 18th century


5. MODERN TIMES AND UNTIL TODAY


The 17th century is known as the era of Baroque, which is particularly true for Rome, where this artistic style exploded.


Of course, Baroque fascinations revolutionized the concept of architectural and artistic beauty of the time, and the Papacy eventually felt the need to adapt their first and foremost church to the new trend: it was time for Saint John Lateran to change again, this time for good.


Works for the last version of Saint John Lateran, the one we still walk into today, began with Pope Alexander VII in 1660 and ended under Pope Clement XII (1730-1740), so they lasted for some 80 years and were the most radical and invasive of the original structure to be ever made.


Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), the great architect of the Baroque era, is renowned for the incredible job he did on the interior: he intervened on the main nave, including monumental tabernacle-shaped niches between the columns dividing the naves, with the project of adding 12 colossal statues in them. However, the statues were only added much later, in the early 18th century, and today are one of the highlights of the church. Above the niches he placed low reliefs, and over them painted ovals. The architect also created the spectacular light effects that make Saint John so nicely illuminated today: to do so, he changed the vaults and design of the lateral naves.


However, under the explicit request of the Pope, Borromini did not change the original plan and kept the 16th-century ceiling and Cosmatesque flooring.


The monumental façade, clearly the fruit of a later style (neo-classical), was the last to be made: it is the work of Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737), an Italian architect who trained in England. At his time, Baroque had long lost its grip and novelties were preferred. The façade was completed in 1734.


Finally, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came the very last changes for Saint John: first of all, Papal coronations in the church stopped - after the annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy, the Popes opted for a safer location in the Vatican. Then, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) had the apse remade to welcome an increasing number of visitors, thus losing the original version of the medieval mosaics but ordered a perfect reproduction.


Today, the church still hosts events and official occasions linked to the Catholic Church, and it's also a renowned location for concerts and solemn liturgies.




Main façade of San Giovanni in Laterano
Main façade of San Giovanni in Laterano


San Giovanni in Laterano: Guided Tour



1. THE BASICS


  • What: Archbasilica, Cathedral of Rome and mother church of Catholicism. First and oldest church in the West.

  • Where: Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano 4, Rome, Italy

  • Why: Extraordinary historic and religious importance, exceptional works of art and layers of history.

  • Who: Emperor Constantine (donator), Pope Sylvester I (first commissioner), Pope Alexander VII and Clement XII (commissioners of the current version), Francesco Borromini (architect of the current interior), Alessandro Galilei (designer of the main façade)

  • Building Period: intermittently between the 4th century and the 20th. Current version initiated in 1660 and completed in 1735, with later additions.

  • Current Status: visible is the fourth and last version of the Archbasilica (17th/18th century), with later additions and vestiges from the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era (flooring, ceiling, portions of cloister, tombs, icons, etc).



2. ARCHITECTURE AND EXTERIOR


The way to Saint John Lateran is a majestic one. Once you hop off the bus or exit the metro station, the stunning main façade welcomes you in all its splendour, the statues on top of it staring at you and the sun making the marble illuminate you.


Everything about San Giovanni is thought to impress, as sounds normal for the mother church of Catholic Christianity! However, even if the Basilica is the one to steal the show, there is much to check in and around it.


Saint John is located in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, in an area that used to be quite far from the core of a smaller Rome and that today is just outside the main tourist area. In this square, there are several landmarks you should definitely check: the Aurelian Walls, the Egyptian Obelisk, Porta San Giovanni, the Scala Sancta and Sancta Sanctorum, the Triclinium Leoninum, the Baptistery, and the Lateran Palace. Here in this post we cannot go through all of them and must focus on the ultra-rich San Giovanni, but stay tuned because a dedicated post will come soon!



The Main Façade

The impressive main façade of Saint John will immediately stun you with its predominant white light.


Of course, this is just the last one of a long series of façades that crowd the long history of the Basilica, but is also the most innovative of all: after centuries of medieval-like versions, this one stands out for being neo-classic (an artistic and architectural style that flourished in the 18th century).


For centuries, entrance to Saint John has been characterized by a portico with 6 columns and huge golden mosaics on the upper side. If you wish to visualize this, you can check the current façade of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura in Rome.


Then, in the 17th century the Eternal City welcomed Baroque and a Baroque version of Saint John was designed entirely by Borromini, however, while he revolutionized the interior, his project for the façade was never put into practice.


The current façade was commissioned by Pope Clement XII in 1732 and designed by architect Alessandro Galilei, then completed by 1735. Made of travertine, it has 5 portals and is preceded by a loggia, which central portion has porfido columns to signal to place from where the Pope appears to bless the believers.


On the façade you may notice the escutcheons of Pope Clement XII who commissioned it and the Keys of St. Peter (symbol of the Church). In the middle is the dedicatory effigy with the name of Clement XII and on the upper portion, inscribed in a triangle (tympanum), is an ancient image of Christ, coming from the 13th century Basilica.


On the balcony above 15 statues dominate the view - they are 7 meters / 23ft high. In the middle is Christ, on his left is St. John the Baptist and on his right is St. John the Evangelist. The other 12 figures are Fathers of the Church.



Portico of San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
The portico with a view of the statue of emperor Constantine


The Portico

The moment you pass through one of the main portals you find yourself in a monumental portico, from which you can access the Basilica.


The ceiling is barrel-vaulted and shows Pope Clement XII's escutcheon.


On the floor is again his escutcheon, a clear reminder of who commissioned the whole thing.


Five doors open on the Basilica, and one gives access to the nearby Lateran Palace. Among them, the central bronze door comes directly from the Curia Iulia, a place you can still visit today in the Foro Romano and that used to be the seat of the Senate of Ancient Rome. It was brought here in 1660 and adapted by Borromini to fit Saint John - a clear statement of where power lay in Modern Rome.


Bas-reliefs adorn the walls, depicting the deeds of St. John the Baptist.



The Holy Door of Saint John Lateran
The Holy Door of Saint John Lateran

On the extreme right is the Holy Door (Porta Sancta), a 2000 work. The Holy Door is typical of major basilicas and is only open on Jubilees: if a Christian passes through it, the total remission of sins is near.


On the extreme left is an ancient statue of Constantine, the emperor who donated these lands and legalized Christianity. It was put here by Pope Clement XII in 1735.





Lateral Façade

There is a second access to the Basilica and it stands on the right side if you are facing the main portal. It bears some similarities with the main façade but is actually more ancient (16th/17th century).


It's preceded by a portico with a loggia designed by Domenico Fontana and on top are two bell towers, the work of the 16th century.


The loggia is frescoed (1587-88) and presents the figures of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, then prophets and saints. You may also see the image of the Pope in the act of blessing the people. On the left is a statue of Henry IV, King of France (1553-1610), remembered for his important contributions to the Basilica.


Lateral façade of San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
Lateral façade with the two bell towers on top


3. INTERIOR: THE CENTRAL NAVE AND THE STATUES


At your entrance, an imponent central nave welcomes you to Saint John Lateran. Clearly Baroque in style, it was fully designed by Francesco Borromini in the 17th century and his was the first project to profoundly reinvent the original asset of the Basilica. However, although changed, the primitive scheme was maintained, and even the great master Borromini could not modify the 5-nave, cross-shaped plan of Saint John.


Thus, the Basilica has a main, large central nave with 4 lateral smaller naves, two per side. At the end is the monumental ciborium in the apse area, where you can glimpse the golden mosaics.



Central nave of San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
A crowded central nave during a concert - at the end of it is the Gothic ciborium


The central nave is divided from the laterals by ancient columns (from the old Basilica) embedded within 5 huge pillars per side: each pillar comes with a tabernacle-shaped niche, a bas-relief on top of it, and a painted oval above. We will soon go through the content more in detail.


The flooring is mosaicked and comes from a previous version of the Basilica: made in 1421 of white and colored marble, it's Cosmatesque and has columns depicted on it. The column was the symbol of the pope who commissioned it, Martin V.

The Cosmatesque style was particularly common in medieval Italy and in Rome and consisted of a type of decoration that mixed marbles with mosaics. The style took its name from the family that made it famous (but did not invent it) and applied it to churches and religious architecture in general, the Cosmati, a Roman family active throughout the 13th century. It then became popular and was imitated by other artists, but remained a peculiarity of the Roman area and today can be found in several Roman churches.


The ceiling is made of golden wood and was one of the parts that Borromini was not allowed to change. It was made between 1562-67 by Daniele Da Volterra and includes various papal and liturgical symbols plus several escutcheons of notable popes.





The Statues

The group of monumental statues placed in the niches made by Borromini is surely one of the highlights of San Giovanni in Laterano and a sight you definitely cannot miss.


When Borromini designed the niches, he had the intention of filling them with statues, but this did not happen during his lifetime. The niches remained empty till 1702 when Pope Clement XI finally commissioned 12 statues.


He had various sculptors working on them, however, they all had to rely on some previously-prepared drawings by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), the favorite artist of the Papal court at the time.


Each statue depicts an Apostle, who comes with his distinctive element. Behind every statue is a door - together they form the 12 doors of the Heavenly or New Jerusalem, the place where all good Christians will spend their afterlife after the Apocalypse.


Here is an overview of the statues, with their respective author and with a reference to the scene depicted in the bas-relief above it and the figure in the oval:


Right side, starting from the main portal and proceeding towards the main altar:

  • Lorenzo Ottoni, St. Jude Thaddeus - Resurrection of Christ (bas-relief) - Prophet Nahum (oval)

  • Camillo Rusconi, St. Matthew - Christ in Limbo (bas-relief) - Prophet Jonah (oval)

  • Giuseppe Mazzuoli, St. Philip - Arrest of Jesus (bas-relief) - Prophet Amos (oval)

  • Pierre Le Gros, St. Thomas - The Ascent to Golgotha (bas-relief) - Prophet Osee (oval)

  • Camillo Rusconi, St. James the Greater - The Baptism of Christ (bas-relief) - Prophet Ezekiel (oval)

  • Pierre-Étienne Monnot, St. Paul - The Crucifixion (bas-relief) - Prophet Jeremiah (oval)


Left side, from the main altar towards the main portal:

  • Pierre-Étienne Monnot, St. Peter - The Fall of Man (bas-relief) - Prophet Isaiah (oval)

  • Camillo Rusconi, St. Andrew - Noah's Ark (bas-relief) - Prophet Baruch (oval)

  • Camillo Rusconi, St. John the Evangelist - The Sacrifice of Isaac (bas-relief) - Prophet Daniel (oval)

  • Angelo De' Rossi, St. James the Lesser - Joseph Sold by His Brothers (bas-relief) - Prophet Joel (oval)

  • Pierre Le Gros, St. Bartholomew - The Exodus (bas-relief) - Prophet Abdias (oval)

  • Francesco Moratti, St. Simon - Jonah and the Whale (bas-relief) - Prophet Micha (oval)




4. INTERIOR: WHAT TO CHECK INSIDE


Time to visit the rest of Saint John! Before we go, a quick premise: this place is huge and, as you may imagine, being one of the most important places of Christianity, only great artists worked here and only notable figures could have the privilege to be buried here. Of course, mentioning every single detail would be wearing and confusing, so we are going to focus on the highlights which, as you will see, are still many.


Quick tip: even if you are not able to read every image or symbol, note that being this a major basilica and the mother church of Catholicism, references to the Trinity, Christ, Mary, to the Apostles, Evangelists and main Prophets or Church Fathers are normally prefered. You will hardly find minor saints or icons.


After you finish the tour of the statues, go over the main nave again and head towards the baldachin ciborium (that high Gothic building you see), in the direction opposite to the main portals. You are reaching the most sacred and important portion of the Basilica, which comprises the Confessio, the ciborium with the high altar, the transept, and the apse. Let's take a look at them singularly:



The Confessio in San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
The Confessio


CONFESSIO (Italian: Confessione): once you reach the end of the main nave and get closer to the high altar, you should see two rounds of bronze and marble stairs: that's the Confessio, or the most sacred spot in the church. The Confessio is where precious relics are placed to lie and to be venerated and here in San Giovanni there are many. ➜ The first version of this place was made as early as 844, while the current one was commissioned in 1857 by Pope Pius IX. ➜ Pius IX wanted the tomb of Pope Martin V (1369-1431) to be moved here to praise the deeds of this pontiff, who was highly committed to the welfare of the Basilica and of the Church. The closer a person's remains stood to important relics, the more chances of salvation that person had. You should see his gravestone and in front of it a 16th-century statue of St. John the Baptist.



Gothic Ciborium with high altar in San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
Gothic Ciborium with high altar


CIBORIUM: the ciborium is a freestanding covering for the main altar of a church, and the more important the church is, the more splendid the ciborium appears. Here we see a Gothic-styled baldachin structure.

➜ This is not the first version but was re-made after a fire by Giovanni di Stefano in 1370-1.

➜ Here are conserved some of the most important relics of Catholicism: the supposed heads of St. Peter and St. Paul. You can see their reliquaries behind the bars, on the upper side. ➜ Decorations on the ciborium and frescoes depict scenes from the New Testament and the Evangelists.


HIGH ALTAR: it lies under the ciborium, protected by the baldachin. Originally, only the Pope was allowed to officiate on it and the first version of it might have even comprised the wood panel used by St. Peter himself to say mass. ➜ What you see today was made in 1851 under Pope Pius IX.



The transept of San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
The transept with the tomb of Innocent III and a scene from the life of Constantine as seen from the lateral naves


TRANSEPT: the transept, alas the transversal part of the church that crosses the naves, was heavily modified over time and often remade. The last major works took place under Pope Clement VIII, on the occasion of the Jubilee of 1600. It was designed by Giacomo Della Porta (1532-1602). ➜ It has a wooden ceiling that recalls that of the main nave. ➜ On the walls are marvelous frescoes with the Apostles, Biblical scenes and scenes from the life of Emperor Constantine: these are clearly recognizable for their massive dimensions and tapestry-like appearance and are 8 in total. Artists who worked on them include Cavalier d'Arpino (1560-1640), the Pomarancio (1553-1626), and Giovanni Baglione (1573-1643). ➜ Within the transept is the Altar of SS. Sacramento (16th century), which includes portions of the ancient Basilica and the relic of the table used by Christ during the Last Supper. ➜ On the right in the transept, more or less near the apse, are: a grandiose organ (16th century), the magniloquent tomb of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), depicted in a potent pose and standing right on the entrance to the sacristy; the Cappella Colonna with its wooden choir, colourful marbles and rich golden decoration; lastly, the tomb of Innocent III (1198-1216), one of the greatest pontiffs of the Middle Ages. His tomb was not originally here but in Perugia, Umbria - it was moved where it is now in the 19th century. Behind his tomb is the entrance to the bookshop.



The majestic apse of San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
The majestic apse with golden mosaics and the Cathedra

APSE: the colossal apse of San Giovanni in Laterano will have you look up to admire the golden mosaics - they are a reproduction of the 13th-century originals made by Japoco Torriti. Unfortunately, in the early 20th century this area of the church needed an expansion and Pope Leo XIII opted for a demolition of the old apse with the mosaics and their reconstruction based on exact drawings. ➜ The mosaics were quite innovative for their time, as they included relatively "new" saints such as St. Francis and St. Anthony from Padua, who had been only recently proclaimed saints. However, if look closely, you will notice that their figures are smaller than the others. ➜ The mosaics have a bust of Christ in the middle top and on a golden background is the Cross portrayed as the Tree of Life, symbol of the Resurrection. At its base are 4 rivers, symbols of the 4 Gospels. Drinking from the sacred waters are deers (pagans and Hebrews) and lambs (Christians). Under the cross is a phoenix, symbol of eternity. At its sides, St. Paul, Peter, John the Evangelist, John the Baptist, Andrew and the Virgin Mary introducing the small, kneeling figure of Pope Nicholas III. Below, between the windows, are the Apostles. ➜ The apse is flanked by a wooden choir and lavishly decorated with all sorts of marbles, frescoes, stuccos and more. ➜ In the middle is the Cathedra, or the throne of the bishop of Rome, the Pope. It still retains its ancient basement, despite having been remade several times over the centuries.



Lateral Naves

Time to take a quick look at the 4 lateral naves, two per side.


They, together with the central nave, were also designed by Borromini, who was able to create beautiful games of lights and effects with Baroque architectural elements and the use of white, giving the whole Basilica a perfect illumination.


On both sides are chapels of important Roman families of the past, tombs and gravestones (including those of cardinals, benefactors and popes), frescoes, and several medieval elements that Borromini kept but modified to give them a Baroque fascination and blend them with the overall vibe. Checking everything in these naves would be impossible, but here are the main highlights I selected for you:


RIGHT SIDE: here lie the chapels of the prominent families of Orsini, Torlonia, Massimo and Farnese.

➜ Look for the tomb of Pope Sergius IV (1009-1012): an important medieval pope, he was one of the first promoters of the Crusades.

➜ Check the tomb of Pope Alexander III (1159-1181): a pope every history student from Europe would know: he founded the Lombard League against Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa and held the 3rd Lateran Council (1179) here, in Saint John.


Sylvester II's cenotaph in San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
Sylvester II's cenotaph

➜ Find the cenotaph of Pope Sylvester II (999-1003): the pontiff who accompanied the Christian world through the year 1000, Sylvester II was the first French pope and after his death was said to have been involved with magic. Moreover, his tomb used to be in another place in Saint John until, in 1684, it was opened and his body found intact (sign of sanctity). It dissolved soon after (normally considered a bad sign) and a cenotaph was placed here instead. Several legends and stories surround him and his burial.

➜ Search the fragment of Giotto's frescoes possibly depicting Boniface VIII announcing the Jubilee. It lies inscribed in a tabernacle, behind a glass.



Fragment of Giotto's frescoe depicting Boniface VIII in San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
Fragment of Giotto's frescoe depicting Boniface VIII


LEFT SIDE: among the many chapels once owned by Roman families are several medieval elements with Baroque additions. Cappella Corsini: this beautiful neo-classic chapel was designed by Alessandro Galilei, the architect of the main façade. Inside, among shiny marbles and pompous decorations, you should see the tomb of Pope Clement XII (1730-1740) who commissioned the main façade and the portico. He is here because member of the Corsini family (real name was Lorenzo Corsini).


Detail of Cappella Corsini in San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
Detail of Cappella Corsini | Image credits: michelangelolupo.it

Sanseverina Chapel: focus on the altar - it is actually a 3rd-century Roman sarcophagus that belonged to a soldier. The painting on the altar is a work attributed to Perugino (1446-1523) and depicts the Virgin Mary with the Child and Saints.


5. THE CLOISTER


From the Basilica (on the left side if coming from the main portal, between the transept and the lateral naves) you can access the cloister, a beautiful area that will catapult you back to the Middle Ages - a rarity for Saint John, this place was hardly modified after the 13th century.


Why a cloister in San Giovanni? Cloisters are for monasteries and Saint John ain't one. Yes, this is true but it hasn't always been true. In fact, Saint John di per se has never been a monastery but had hosted one in the past: Benedictine monks used to live here and help the popes take care of the Lateran complex. Their spaces were right here where the cloister - the only survivor - is now.



Cosmatesque art in the cloister of San Giovanni in Laterano - Saint John Lateran, Rome
Cosmatesque art in the cloister

A perfect Cosmatesque work, the cloister in its current form was designed by Pietro Vasselletto and his family in the early 13th century, but works would continue throughout the entire century. The well in the middle is more ancient (8th/9th century).


A quadriportico with 5 arches per side and 125 smaller arches with tiny columns in different shapes, it contains the works of Arnolfo di Cambio (1245-ca. 1302) in the form of cardinal Riccardo Annibaldi's tomb (1289) and a fragment of the great Humanist Lorenzo Valla's (1407-1457) tomb. Several other gravestones are visible (brought here from the Basilica when its medieval version was turned down), along with a portion of a stone seat that should have been used by the popes in the past.


➜ The stone panel with a long inscription you may notice is a copy of the Papal Bull from 1372 emanated by Pope Gregory IX and stating the primacy of Saint John Lateran over all churches.


With its 36-meter (118ft) long sides, it is the largest cloister in Rome.



Tomb of Cardinal Riccardo Annibaldi, Arnolfo di Cambio's work
Tomb of Cardinal Riccardo Annibaldi, Arnolfo di Cambio's work



 


San Giovanni in Laterano: Plan Your Visit



1. HOW TO REACH





San Giovanni in Laterano is easily reachable from the main tourist attractions and is well-served by public transportation.


By metro: Metro lines A and C reach Saint John. Hop off at stop San Giovanni.


By tram: Lines 3, 8 stop near Piazza San Giovanni In Laterano (look for stops called Porta S. Giovanni/Carlo Felice).


By bus: several buses stop in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano or close to it. Among them: 16, 81, 85, 87, 665, 714, 792. Stops always have a reference to San Giovanni.


On foot: you can easily decide to walk your way to Saint John and I recommend doing so on sunny days. The Colosseum lies 20 minutes from the Basilica and so does the whole Celio and the Fori Romani area. Other places such as the Pantheon, the Fountain of Trevi and St. Peter are more distant.



2. OPENING HOURS AND TICKETS


San Giovanni in Laterano is open every day from 7:30AM to 6PM


The cloister is open daily from 9AM to 5PM


Note: the Basilica may host major masses, concerts and various events throughout the year. In case you are in Rome during Christian festivities, try to go there very early in the morning or check the official website (in Italian) to see if something is scheduled for that day. Regular masses take place often during the day but are normally confined to a specific side of the church.


Saint John Lateran is free entry to all visitors.


The cloister can be visited by purchasing a 4€ (adults) or 3€ (children) ticket. You can also opt for a ticket+audioguide option for 6€ (adults) or 5€ (children).



3. USEFUL INFO


How much does it take to visit San Giovanni in Laterano? It really depends on how much you wish your visit to be detailed. I would recommend spending at least 1 hour here: the first impact might be overwhelming and you could spend the first half an hour walking around the church in awe - it's monumental. If you plan to visit the cloister, keep at least 2 hours. If you wish to explore the surroundings (baptistery, Scala Sancta, Triclinium, etc) keep a few hours for your tour.


Should you add Saint John Lateran to your travel plans if you are a first-timer in Rome? Yes! Churches are a must for visitors in Rome for the extraordinary works of art they contain - San Giovanni should definitely be one of the firsts on your list.


Where can you find more information for your visit? Check the official website of Saint John Lateran for many more details. It's in Italian only. On this specific page, you can even have a virtual tour of the Basilica, just in case you have missed something or wish to get there well prepared. The page is in Italian, but it can be easily accessed by anyone.


Is it possible to book a guided tour of Saint John? Yes, you can book a guided tour through the Basilica or purchase an audioguide in English here. If you are interested in the whole Lateran complex, you can check here.





 


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