The San Lorenzo in Damaso is one of several churches in Rome dedicated to the third century deacon and martyr Saint Lawrence. Other churches in the city seem to be connected to episodes in his life. For instance, the San Lorenzo in Fonte was built on the alleged spot where Saint Lawrence had baptised his cellmate and gaoler with water from a well that had miraculously sprung up after a prayer. After his execution, the saint was buried near the San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, while the San Lorenzo in Lucina claims to have the tool of his execution: a gridiron. The theory that Lawrence was roasted alive on this object is rather ridiculous – as a Roman citizen, the method of execution would have been decapitation – but he certainly existed and his martyrdom can be dated to the anti-Christian persecutions of 258.
Meanwhile, the San Lorenzo, although dedicated to Saint Lawrence, does not seem to have a special relationship with any episode from his life or death. It is closely connected to someone else, and the ‘in Damaso’ part of the name gives a clue. The church has nothing to do with the capital of Syria (‘Damasco’ in Italian), but everything with Pope Damasus, whose pontificate lasted from 366 until 384. It was important, as it was Damasus who had commissioned Saint Jerome to produce a Latin version of the Bible, which after completion became known as the Vulgate. According to tradition, the first version of the San Lorenzo in Damaso was founded in Damasus’ own home in ca. 380. It was known as the Titulus Damasi and was among the city’s oldest parish churches. But this is not the church that we see today. Let us therefore consider the church’s history.
The first San Lorenzo in Damaso was on the spot where we now find the courtyard of the Palazzo della Cancelleria. During the pontificate of Pope Adrianus I (772-795), Damasus’ relics were transferred from their original location in a family tomb on what is now the Via Ardeatina to the San Lorenzo and enshrined there under the high altar. In the fifteenth century, the church had to make way for the aforementioned Palazzo della Cancelleria, which was built between ca. 1489 and 1513. The architect involved was most likely Donato Bramante (1444-1514), who later became the first architect of New Saint Peter’s Basilica. However, other architects have been suggested as well and Bramante’s involvement cannot be proven with certainty. The commission to build the palazzo came from Raffaele Riario (1461-1521), an influential cardinal who also happened to be Pope Sixtus IV’s nephew. Sixtus made him a cardinal when he was just sixteen years old. In 1480, Riario became cardinal-priest of the San Lorenzo in Damaso, having previously served the San Giorgio in Velabro.
Since the church was formally ‘his’, Raffaele Riario could more easily take the decision to demolish the first version of the San Lorenzo in Damaso and reconstruct it a little bit further to the north by incorporating it into his newly built palazzo. So although the new church does have its own separate entrance, it is actually surrounded by the cardinal’s splendid new city palace. And a splendid palace it is. There is a popular tradition that a large part of the project was financed with money that Riario had won during one night of gambling with Franceschetto Cybo (ca. 1450-1519), a notorious card player. Cybo was the – obviously illegitimate – son of Pope Innocentius VIII (1484-1492), Sixtus IV’s successor. The Cybos – a Genoese family with Greek ancestry – would later commission one of the most spectacular chapels in all of Rome, the extravagant seventeenth century Cybo chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo.
The new San Lorenzo in Damaso was built by Bramante between ca. 1489 and 1496, and the old church was subsequently demolished in stages. Cardinal Riario then suffered a series of misfortunes. Although he refused to participate in a conspiracy against Pope Leo X (1513-1521) in 1517, he also did not inform the intended victim. When the Pope discovered the plot anyway and learned that the cardinal had kept his mouth shut, the latter’s neck was in serious danger. Raffaele Riario’s only chance to save his life was by offering his palazzo to the infuriated Leo. It was then turned into the Papal Chancery and hence acquired the name Palazzo della Cancelleria. One of the galleries of the palazzo was frescoed by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and his studio in 1546. It became known as the Sala dei Cento Giorni, since it took Vasari and his men just 100 days to complete the work. While Vasari was very proud about what he had accomplished and boasted that it had taken him just 100 days to complete the frescoes, Michelangelo is said to have remarked: “It shows”.
In 1798, the French captured Rome and sent Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) to France to live in exile. The French army used the San Lorenzo as a weapons depot and stables, and this caused a lot of irreparable damage. They even managed to steal the ceiling! The job to restore the church after the French occupation had ended was entrusted to the architect Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839). Later in the nineteenth century, another restoration had to be undertaken, between 1868 and 1882, by Virginio Vespignani (1808-1882). In 1939, the church suffered serious damage when a fire broke out in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, necessitating yet more restorations. As a result, little of the original fifteenth century church interior has survived. What we see today is mostly nineteenth century. A lot of precious art has been lost or destroyed.
The church has a lavishly decorated and gilded interior which can mostly be attributed to the Valadier and Vespignani restorations. The ceiling is twentieth century and was installed after the 1939 fire. Since it is entirely surrounded by the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the church only has windows in the left wall of the nave, near the courtyard of the palazzo. Below these windows and on the opposite wall are frescoes executed by Luigi Fontana (1827-1908). They feature scenes from the life of Saint Lawrence. Fontana’s frescoes replaced early frescoes executed by Giuseppe Cesari, also known as the Cavalier d’Arpino (1568-1640), and other artists from the seventeenth century. All of this work proved to be beyond repair after the French had left in the early nineteenth century.
Among the art that has remained is the gigantic altarpiece by Federico Zuccari (ca. 1540-1609) featuring a Coronation of the Virgin in Heaven. Zuccari is best known for his involvement in frescoing the interior of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence. His altarpiece for the San Lorenzo in Damaso is quite good, but view of the painting is obstructed by the large baldachin over the high altar and furthermore obscured by the lack of light inside the church. The high altar itself is seventeenth century and was made in 1640 by none other than Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Bernini had been commissioned by cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679) , nephew of Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644), to give the church’s sanctuary a makeover. Much of Bernini’s work was undone by the Vespignani restoration more than two centuries later. The baldachin above the high altar is Vespignani’s, and the bronze medallions are nineteenth century additions as well. They feature Pope Damasus and his predecessor Eutychianus, Bishop of Rome from 275 until 283. Eutychianus’ relics are enshrined beneath the high altar as well.
The San Lorenzo in Damaso is peculiar in that it has a narthex covering two bays. Here we find some interesting art that was fortunately spared by invading forces and over-enthusiastic restorers. Immediately to the right of the entrance is a funerary monument for Alessandro Valtrini (died 1633), executed by Bernini’s workshop (see the image on the left). The monument had been commissioned from Bernini by the aforementioned Francesco Barberini and was made in 1639. It features a full-length skeleton holding a medallion with the deceased’s portrait. Valtrini, a wealthy sponsor of churches, was buried elsewhere, so the monument is a cenotaph. It is famous enough to have the honour of a page on Wikipedia. Not far from the monument is a marble statue of Saint Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), archbishop of Milan (see the image above). It is the work of Stefano Maderno (1576-1636), a sculptor famous for his beautiful statue of Saint Cecilia in her church in Trastevere.
One of the oldest, and certainly one of the most interesting pieces of art in the church can be found at the end of the left aisle, in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception. The chapel itself used to have frescoes by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), but – you’ve guessed it – these have unfortunately not survived. What attracts our attention now is a late twelfth century icon by an unknown artist, known as the Madonna di Grottapinta; the theory that it was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist is of course untenable. Along the edge of the icon runs a text in Latin which reads:
“IN HAC YMMAGINE RECONDITAE SUNT RELIQUIAE SA(N)CTORU(M) QUADRAGINTA MARTIRUM ET FELIX PAPAE ET SANCTORUM MARCI ET MARC(ELL)IANI”
This is very interesting, as the text indicates that the icon used to contain the alleged remains of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (see Rome: Santa Maria Antiqua), of a Pope Felix – probably Felix I (269-274) – and of the rather obscure martyrs Marcus and Marcellianus. The name of the icon refers to a now deconsecrated church in the Via di Grotta Pinta, slightly to the east of the San Lorenzo. It used to be thought that the icon was originally in this church and that it was taken to the San Lorenzo some years before 1494. However, the icon came from a lost church known as the San Salvatore ad Arcum and it can now be ruled out that this was the same church as the one to be found in the Via di Grotta Pinta. A visit to this street is nevertheless recommended for another reason. This is where the Theatre of Pompeius stood in Antiquity, and the streets in the vicinity still follow the curve of this immense building and its rows of seats.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 149;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 30-32;
- San Lorenzo in Damaso on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 Some sources name a sum of 60.000 scudi, others 15.000 ducats.