A few months ago, I saw the documentary St. Peter’s and the Papal Basilicas of Rome at the cinema. It was excellent, but I do have one bone to pick: the documentary suggests that there are four papal basilicas in Rome, while in fact there are five. We have Saint Peter’s Basilica, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Paolo fuori le Mura, all covered by the documentary, but the San Lorenzo fuori le Mura was omitted. This is sad indeed, as it is a most interesting church. It is located next to the Campo Verano, Rome’s largest cemetery, which was opened in 1830. I read that visits to the church are often hampered by funeral services held in the San Lorenzo, but when I myself visited the church on 6 January 2017 there was actually a celebration of Epiphany going on. Since I had walked quite a few kilometres to see this specific church, I decided to stay. After mass, I still had plenty of time to walk around and explore the treasures of the San Lorenzo.
The history of the basilica is extremely complicated and many issues are still unsolved. I will try to give a summary of what we know. Saint Lawrence, who can be considered historical, was martyred in 258 and buried in the catacombs of the Campo Verano. Tradition dictates that a widow called Cyriaca (Dominica in Latin) administered these catacombs (the church of Santa Maria in Domnica is somehow connected to her). Many Roman Christians wanted to be buried near a martyr, and Lawrence soon became one of Rome’s most distinguished martyrs. During the reign of the emperor Constantine (306-337), in ca. 330, a large basilica was built here. It does not seem to have been built over Lawrence’s tomb, but rather to the south and adjacent to it. The basilica was certainly huge, but it seems to have been a ‘funerary basilica’ rather than a proper church. In other words, the building served as an enclosure for the many tombs on the Campo Verano, but it was not – or at least not regularly – used for celebrating mass.
While images with reconstructions of what Constantine’s basilica might have looked like usually show it fully roofed, it is not impossible that it was in fact only partially covered. The basilica was clearly ‘circiform’, i.e. it had the form of a Roman circus, with a large semi-circular end running around the apse. People could walk through the aisles of the basilica in solemn procession, going around the tombs and tomb slabs in the centre. It is fairly certain that family members of the deceased organised funerary meals here as well, a tradition copied from pagan religions. This was all part of an early Christian death cult. These meals were later actively suppressed by the Church, from the fifth century onwards, and this may be one of the reasons why use of the basilica was discontinued in later centuries. At present, not a trace of the Constantinian basilica remains, although its foundations were discovered in 1950. A similar building was constructed on the Via Nomentana, near the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, and there sizeable parts of the funerary basilica can still be seen today.
The first proper church on this spot was built by Pope Pelagius II (579-590). His church was actually built directly over Saint Lawrence’s tomb, so it was to the north of Constantine’s basilica. The tomb was in the middle of the nave. Pelagius’ church more or less comprises the sanctuary of the present church and a late sixth century mosaic showing the pope and Saint Lawrence can still be admired on the triumphal arch (see the image on the left). This mosaic nowadays faces the priest instead of the congregation, so it is clear that the orientation of the church – originally south-west – was later reversed: it now faces the north-east.
There seems to have been a second church here, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, during the reign of Pope Adrianus I (772-795). This church was later abandoned, and it seems likely that this happened during the reign of Pope Paschalis I (817-824). During the latter’s pontificate, the Roman countryside was plagued by brigands, who often robbed pilgrims and made travelling very unsafe. This was the main reason for Paschalis to close down churches outside the walls – fuori le Mura – and move the relics of saints to churches in the city itself (see, for instance, Rome: Santa Prassede). But Lawrence was far too important a saint to have his church abandoned and his remains evacuated. Pilgrims were still quite willing to leave the relative safety of the city to travel to the shrine of one of Rome’s most important martyrs. The church is located about a kilometre outside the walls. It was definitely in the countryside in those days, but the distance was not prohibitive.
Pope Clemens III (1187-1191) can be credited with building the cloister and a hospice for pilgrims, making it possible for them to stay for the night so that they could travel back by day. Clemens also had the present campanile built, which is a bit strange, as it seems misaligned. Much like the San Paolo fuori le Mura, the entire complex here was once surrounded by defensive walls and turned into a small town named Laurentiopolis.
In the late twelfth century, cardinal Cencio Savelli made major changes to the San Lorenzo. In fact, it was this cardinal who was responsible for creating the present church. Savelli had the apse of Pelagius’ church demolished and a platform built over Lawrence’s shrine, thus creating a new sanctuary. A new and much longer nave was subsequently added to it. Savelli also added a portico. As was already mentioned above, the orientation of the church was reversed. Something must have gone wrong in the process, because if you look at the San Lorenzo from above, it is clear there is a misalignment at the spot where Pelagius’ old church and Savelli’s new church were ‘glued’ together: the slight angle in the roof is hard to miss. In 1216, Savelli acceded to the Throne of Saint Peter and chose the name Honorius III.
Although no changes have been made to the structure of the church since Honorius’ days, the interior of the San Lorenzo has certainly been altered and restored on many occasions. Cardinal Oliviero Carafa (1430-1511), whose name lives on in the Carafa Chapel of the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, was responsible for an important restoration towards the end of the fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century. The church did not escape from the clutches of the Baroque era, but the most important renovations took place from 1857 until 1864 and were sponsored by none other than Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), the longest-reigning pope in history. Pius had a special bond with the church. His restoration involved removing the Baroque elements, including the ceiling, and executing a series of frescoes, a project led by the young painter Cesare Fracassini (1838-1868). Pope Pius IX was interred in the San Lorenzo after his death in 1878.
The church was seriously damaged during an Allied bombing raid on 19 July 1943. The intended targets were likely the railway tracks and depots south of the church, but since precision bombing was not yet possible, the San Lorenzo was hit as well. The damage was pretty bad: a large bomb fell on the piazza in front of the church, damaged the facade and blew away the portico, while a smaller bomb penetrated the roof. It destroyed parts of the Cosmatesque floor and severely damaged Fracassini’s frescoes. Restorations took place from 1946 until 1950. The result is pleasing to the eye, but some of the columns still bear the scars caused by the bomb. A fragment of the bomb is kept in the cloister.
The present facade is in plain brick. It used to be decorated with nineteenth century mosaics, but these were destroyed during the bombing raid mentioned above. The small room with the stairs between the sacristy and the cloister has some photos of what the church used to look like before it suffered major damage. The portico was restored very well. It even contains some of the original Cosmatesque decorations. These can be seen on the frieze and are thought to have been made by members of the Vassalletto family during Pope Honorius’ restoration.
Two small mosaics have survived virtually intact. One shows a Lamb of God in a tondo, the other a pope and a figure kneeling before him. The pope is usually identified as Honorius, and the kneeling figure might be Peter II de Courtenay. Peter was the Latin emperor of Constantinople. He had been confirmed as emperor in 1217 by Honorius in the San Lorenzo and the mosaic presumably refers to this historical event. Sadly for Peter, he never reached Constantinople. He was captured in Epirus and died in captivity some two years later. The Latin Empire was never a success. Founded in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, when Catholic crusaders and their Venetian allies captured Constantinople, its princes could never consolidate their rule over their largely Orthodox subjects. In 1261, Constantinople was retaken by the Eastern Romans and the Latin Empire was ended.
I was warned that the portico is crowded by professional beggars, who might harass visitors and make admiring the decorations here a challenge, but I encountered none when I visited the church on Epiphany. The portico has two interesting ancient sarcophagi and a monument to Alcide De Gasperi (1881-1954), an Italian statesman and founder of the now defunct Christian Democratic Party, the Democrazia Cristiana. The most notable decorations are the thirteenth century frescoes which depict scenes from the lives of Saints Lawrence and Stephen, two saints who are often paired. The frescoes had already been somewhat repainted in the nineteenth century restoration of Pope Pius IX and they had to be restored again after the 1943 bombardment.
The restorers knew their trade and the result is very pleasing. A complete discussion of all the scenes can be found here. I will just give a brief description, omitting the scenes on the side walls. The scenes on the left side of the central wall are about the life and death of Saint Stephen. We see him preaching and being stoned to death. His body is buried and his relics are collected and sent first to Jerusalem and then on to Constantinople and finally Rome. The lower register shows the relics arriving at the San Lorenzo, although a rival tradition claims they were enshrined in the Santo Stefano Rotondo on the Caelian Hill.
The scenes on the right side are about the life and martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. In the top register, we see Lawrence and Pope Sixtus II, who was also martyred in 258. The scenes show Lawrence washing feet and healing a blind woman, before distributing the wealth of the Church among the members of the congregation. The church treasures had been claimed by the emperor, who was obviously not pleased with Lawrence’s actions. In the middle register, we see Lawrence being tortured and ultimately roasted alive on a gridiron (the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina claims to possess this object). Lawrence also baptises a Roman soldier named Romanus, who is subsequently beheaded by the emperor. Decapitation was the usual penalty for Roman citizens who committed crimes punishable by death, and since Lawrence was a Roman citizen as well, the story of the gridiron is rather incredible. The scenes of the lower register feature Saint Hippolytus, who was a guard at the prison where Lawrence was held (see Rome: San Lorenzo in Fonte).
The interior of the church is fairly plain. The walls used to be covered with frescoes by Fracassini and a few others, but these were all lost as a result of the 1943 bombing raid. Much of the original thirteenth century Cosmatesque floor of the nave has fortunately survived and it is truly superb. The central panel, however, was beyond repair as this was precisely where the bomb that penetrated the roof fell. This part had to be completely re-laid during the 1946-1950 restoration.
If you are interested in medieval decorations, there are a few things that you should really check out. First, there is the tomb of Cardinal Guglielmo Fieschi (died 1256) against the counter-facade. The sarcophagus is clearly ancient; it depicts a traditional Roman wedding feast. Unfortunately the monument was blasted to smithereens in 1943 and had to be re-assembled after the war. The Cosmatesque decorations on the architraves survived, but sadly the fresco embellishing the tomb was lost.
On the wall of the right aisle there are a few fragments of frescoes that used to be on the counter-facade. Like the floor, they can be dated to Honorius’ renovation, so they are likely early thirteenth century. The best preserved fresco shows four saints. The one on the right is clearly Saint Lawrence, since he is standing on a gridiron. He is holding a book with the words DISPERSIT DEDIT PAUPERIBUS, “he has dispersed, he has given to the poor”. These words are from the Book of Psalms (Psalm 111:9 of the Latin Vulgate) and obviously refer to Lawrence distributing the wealth of the church among the members of the congregation rather than turning it over to the emperor. The others saints are Saint Catherine of Alexandria, an unknown saint (perhaps Saint John the Evangelist?) and Saint Andrew.
In the nave are two pulpits. The one of the left is quite nice, but the one on the right is truly magnificent, with superb Cosmatesque decorations. The large round slabs in serpentine green combine well with the triangular and square slabs of porphyry red marble. I have not been able to find the identity of the artist who made the pulpit, but he (or they) may very well have been involved in the Vassalletto workshop. The pulpit and especially the colour combination bears strong resemblance to the former schola cantorum in the church of San Saba on the Aventine Hill. Near the top of the pulpit is a sculpture of an eagle holding a prey in its talons. To the left of the pulpit is a dazzling Paschal candlestick.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the church is the raised platform of the sanctuary. As stated above, this part of the San Lorenzo is the former church founded by Pope Pelagius II. When mass had finished, we were allowed to go up here to feast our eyes on the beautifully decorated baldachin over the high altar and the bishop’s throne at the end of the platform with a marble screen, again closely resembling the schola cantorum in the church of San Saba, on either side. The throne was made in 1254, but the baldachin is more than a century older. It was made in 1148 by four members of the Cosmati family, who even signed their work in Latin: Iohannes, Petrus, Angelus and Sasso, sons of Paulus. The name of the abbot who commissioned the work is also mentioned: he was named Hugo.
There a few things to note about the baldachin. The first is that, having been made in 1148, it predates the Honorian expansion. It must have already been used in the original Pelagian basilica and was later re-used (and no doubt turned around) in the enlarged church. The second is that the top part, the canopy, is not original. In 1624, part of the ceiling collapsed and seriously damaged the baldachin. The top part was replaced with a Baroque canopy, which was in turn removed during Pope Pius IX’s restoration in the nineteenth century. The aim was to replace it with a proper ‘medieval’ canopy, but since no one knew what the original canopy looked like, the result is based on guesswork.
For me, the best part of the San Lorenzo was the mosaic on the triumphal arch, which can be dated to Pope Pelagius’ pontificate. Although it was restored substantially in later centuries, it is still an impressive example of late sixth century Roman art (see below). We see Christ in the centre, seated on a blue globe. Apparently, this imagery was popular in Italy at the time, as we have also seen it in the San Vitale in Ravenna and even in the small church of San Teodoro in Rome itself. Christ is flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. On the left, we furthermore see Pope Pelagius II holding a model of his church and Saint Lawrence holding a book with – again – the text DISPERSIT DEDIT PAUPERIBUS (see above). On the right are Saints Stephen and Hippolytus. The text in Stephen’s book reads AD(H)ESIT ANIMA MEA and is from Psalms 62:9 in the Vulgate. The saints are depicted between Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 265;
- Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 282-284;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 173-175;
- San Lorenzo fuori le Mura on Churches of Rome Wiki.
Update 10 March 2022: new images have been added.
 The San Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna suffered a similar fate in 1944.
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