The San Lorenzo in Lucina is one of many churches in Rome dedicated to Saint Lawrence. Lawrence was a church deacon who was martyred in 258 during the persecutions of the Roman emperors Valerianus and Gallienus. He can very well be considered historical, much unlike the many legends that surround him. Tradition holds that when asked by the city prefect to turn over the riches of the Church to the emperor, Lawrence instead divided these riches among the poor and presented the prefect with a collection of poor, blind and crippled people, claiming these were the true riches of the Church. He was subsequently roasted alive on a gridiron, at least that is what tradition wants us to believe (as a Roman citizen, he would have been decapitated, like Saint Paul the Apostle). The church of San Lorenzo in Lucina claims to have the original gridiron.
In the third century, there was an insula or block of apartments at this location. At an unknown date between 350 and 500, the church of San Lorenzo was built into the ruins of this insula. It became known as the Titulus Lucinae, a name that seems to refer to a lady named Lucina who may or may not have owned the apartment complex or what was left of it.
The church is just a stone’s throw away from the Via del Corso, the ancient Via Flaminia which had been built in 220 BCE by the censor Gaius Flaminius. Between 13 and 9 BCE, the Roman emperor Augustus built his Ara Pacis – the Altar of Peace – directly on this Via Flaminia (or the Via Lata, as its urban section was called). Pieces of it were found near the San Lorenzo in 1568, and the entire altar was extracted from under the Cinema Nuovo Olimpia, just south of the San Lorenzo, in the late 1930s. The Fascists reassembled what was left of the Ara Pacis and moved it to a location near the river Tiber, next to the Mausoleum of Augustus (which is a sorry heap of rubble nowadays). A little bit further to the south of the San Lorenzo we can find the Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Camera dei Deputati, the Italian House of Commons.
The Paleochristian church of San Lorenzo was restored on several occasions. Pope Paschalis II (1099-1118) ordered the church to be rebuilt after it had been damaged by the Normans during the Sack of Rome in 1084. This rebuilding was started in 1112 and led to the addition of the present campanile. When the church was completed, it was consecrated by Pope Anacletus II (1130-1138), who despite his popularity in Rome has gone down in the history books as an antipope (for the full story of his struggle with Pope Innocentius II, see Rome: Santa Maria in Trastevere). Anacletus’ consecration was ultimately felt to be invalid, and the church had to be re-consecrated in 1196 by the octogenarian but legitimate Pope Celestinus III (1191-1198).
In 1650, the San Lorenzo in Lucina was given a Baroque makeover. The project was entrusted to the architect and sculptor Cosimo Fanzago (1591-1678), who was mainly active in Naples. Fanzago turned the aisles of the church into chapels, which were subsequently leased and decorated by noble families in Rome. The most famous example is probably the Chapel of the Annunciation or Cappella Fonseca (see below), which was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).
The church acquired its present appearance in 1858, when Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) hired the architect Andrea Busiri Vici (1818-1911) to give the interior of the San Lorenzo a major overhaul. Much of Fanzago’s Baroque work was undone. The church facade is supposed to have a genuine ‘medieval’ look, but it is in fact the result of a 1927 restoration by the Italian national authorities. On the outside, the San Lorenzo bears a striking resemblance to the San Giorgio in Velabro, although its campanile is on the other side and it has some more columns and windows.
The most important work of art in the church can be found above the high altar. It is an impressive painting of the Crucifixion by Guido Reni (1575-1642). The painting is perhaps not Reni’s best known work, but it is horribly realistic. Christ is depicted just before breathing his last breath. Reni’s rivals allegedly spread the rumour that the painter had some of his henchmen snatch a homeless man off the streets, who was nailed to a cross so that Reni could accurately paint the man’s death struggle. The story is no doubt a myth. The painting was not originally painted for the San Lorenzo, but placed here in 1669 in an aedicule designed by Carlo Rainaldi (1611-1691). Unfortunately it can be rather dark inside the church, so the details may be difficult to see.
The French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) was buried in the San Lorenzo. A monument to him can be found between the second and third chapel on the right, placed against a pier. The monument was erected by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), who was ambassador to the Holy See in 1828-1829. The text below the bust of Poussin is in French, and the Latin text on the lower part of the monument reads:
PARCE PIIS LACRIMIS VIVIT PUSSINUS IN URNA
VIVERE QUI DEDERAT NESCIUS IPSE MORI
HIC TAMEN IPSE SILET SI VIS AUDIRE LOQUENTEM
MIRUM EST IN TABULIS VIVIT ET ELOQUITUR
(“Don’t shed your pious tears, for Poussin lives in this urn,
who not knowing how to die himself had given to living.
Here he is however silent, and if you desire to hear him speak,
it is wonderful that he lives in and speaks through his paintings”)
The fourth chapel on the right is the Chapel of the Annunciation, also called the Fonseca Chapel. Gabriele Fonseca was personal physician to Pope Innocentius X (1644-1655). The chapel was designed by Bernini, who personally sculpted the bust of Fonseca (see the image above). Not much is known about Fonseca himself, other than that he was a devout Catholic from Portugal and quite wealthy. It appears the marvellous bust is more famous than the man himself.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 112;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 297-298;
- San Lorenzo in Lucina on Churches of Rome Wiki.
Update 13 January 2018: pictures have been updated.