Rome: San Giovanni in Laterano

The San Giovanni in Laterano.

The San Giovanni in Laterano is the most important Roman Catholic church in the world. It is the seat of the Pope as bishop of the diocese of Rome and is therefore the city’s cathedral. It ranks first among Rome’s four major basilicas[1] and five papal basilicas[2]. But more importantly for history enthusiasts, it can also be considered the oldest official Christian church in Rome. Traditionally consecrated in 324, not much of the Late Antique basilica remains today. Perhaps some of the fabric is still original, but it is invisible to visitors. The church was modified significantly in the Middle Ages, but not much of the medieval basilica survives either. The building we see today is mostly composed of elements added between the late sixteenth and late nineteenth centuries, but the adjacent cloister is thirteenth century (with a few modern additions) and also serves as a kind of lapidarium. Items from the medieval basilica – mostly sculptural works – can be found here. Let us now explore the San Giovanni in Laterano in some detail and see what we can reconstruct about its interesting, yet often sad history.

Early history

On 28 October 312, the Roman emperor Constantine (306-337) defeated his rival Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine later became the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, formally converting to the Christian religion on his deathbed in 337. We do not know – and cannot know – whether he already considered himself a Christian in 312, but it is clear that immediately after his victory over Maxentius, Constantine started favouring the Christian community in the city. Pope Melchiades (311-314) – a Berber from North Africa – must have been overjoyed when the victorious emperor donated the barracks of the defeated equites singulares Augusti – Maxentius’ elite horse guards – to the Christians. The barracks were partly demolished, the remains then filled in with earth to create a platform on which a splendid new basilica was built. This basilica was then dedicated to Christ the Saviour and – according to church tradition – consecrated on 9 November 324 (some sources give the year of completion as 318). Rome now had a cathedral, to which a famous baptistery was added some years later.

Statue of the emperor Constantine.

An ancient marble statue of Constantine can be found in the narthex, on the left. Although the statue dates from the fourth century, it is not in its original position. The statue was found on the Quirinal Hill in the early seventeenth century, among the ruins of the Baths of Constantine which had once stood here. It was not until 1737 that the statue was set up in the narthex, reuniting Constantine with his basilica after more than 1.400 years. A copy of the statue can be found in front of the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan. This was the city where, in the year 313, the emperors Constantine and Licinius reached an agreement which gave the Christian religion an official status in the Empire, the so-called “Edict of Milan”.

Constantine’s statue at the San Giovanni in Laterano has sometimes been identified as the statue mentioned by Eusebius in his Church History:

“But he, as one possessed of inborn piety toward God, did not exult in the shouts, nor was he elated by the praises; but perceiving that his aid was from God, he immediately commanded that a trophy of the Saviour’s passion be put in the hand of his own statue. And when he had placed it, with the saving sign of the cross in its right hand, in the most public place in Rome, he commanded that the following inscription should be engraved upon it in the Roman tongue: By this salutary sign, the true proof of bravery, I have saved and freed your city from the yoke of the tyrant and moreover, having set at liberty both the senate and the people of Rome, I have restored them to their ancient distinction and splendor.”

The “trophy of the Saviour’s passion”, the “saving sign of the cross” and the “salutary sign” no doubt refer to either a crucifix or the labarum, Constantine’s military standard with the chi-rho sign. Indeed, if you look at the statue and the emperor’s right hand, he must have once held an object there. However, the Baths of Constantine can hardly be considered “the most public place in Rome”, which must have been the Forum Romanum in those days. It is much more likely that the statue that Eusebius mentions was lost (if it was made of bronze, it was probably melted down).

Interior of the cathedral.

Even though it is always referred to as the San Giovanni in Laterano – Saint John Lateran in English – the edifice has always kept its primary dedication to Christus Salvator. The subsidiary dedications to the two Giovannis – Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist – were only added later, during the Middle Ages. The original cathedral was a classical Roman basilica. It had a nave and four aisles, two on either side. The internal decorations must have been splendid, but unfortunately none of these have been preserved. The fourth century apse mosaic, for instance, is gone, as the little tessarae which make up a mosaic have the unfortunate tendency to come off after a while. The basilica furthermore became the victim of systematic looting when the Goths in 410 and the Vandals in 455 captured Rome and stripped the city of its valuable objects.

The San Giovanni in Laterano and the Lateran Palace.

Early Middle Ages

Over the next few centuries, several popes were involved in restoring the cathedral and the papal residence next door. The medieval Lateran Palace basically dates from the second half of the eighth century and was much larger than the palace we see today, which dates from the late sixteenth century (see below). One element from the eighth century palace survives, the apse of the so-called Triclinium Leoninum, the huge dining hall built by Pope Leo III (795-816). I will dedicate a short separate post to the Triclinium, but mind you, what we see today can hardly be called original. The location is wrong, the orientation of the apse has been reversed and the mosaic is an eighteenth century replica.

Frieze with a funerary procession by Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1289), part of the tomb of Riccardo Annibaldi. The frieze can be found in the cloister.

A rather curious incident happened in 897. Pope Formosus (891-896) had died the previous year. His own pontificate had been troubled, and that of his successor Bonifatius VI had lasted little more than two weeks. Some sources claim Bonifatius was murdered, but then again, he had been suffering from gout for years. The next pope was Stephanus VI, who organised the so-called Cadaver Synod, probably in January 897. Stephanus had Pope Formosus’ body exhumed, dressed in the papal vestments and put on the papal throne in the San Giovanni in Laterano. The deceased pope was then charged with several offences and put on trial. Obviously this was a mock trial by a kangaroo court. Formosus was found guilty of crimes committed during his pontificate and stripped of his vestments again. The three fingers of his right hand – used for giving a blessing – were clipped off. The body was then thrown into the river Tiber (it was reportedly recovered later and given a proper burial). Things did not end well for Pope Stephanus either. He was deposed, imprisoned and strangled later that year.

Apse of the cathedral.

The Cadaver Synod is a curious element in the basilica’s history, but of much greater importance is the heavy earthquake that struck the city of Rome either just before or shortly after the trial. The year of the earthquake is usually given as 896, so it must have preceded the Cadaver Synod, which took place the next year. However, the story that the earthquake took place after the mock trial seems to be quite popular. In this version of events, God showed his anger about the trial by causing the earth to shake and rumble. It is difficult to say which version is correct, as chronology in this part of the Middle Ages is often problematic. In any case, it seems that the earthquake seriously damaged the San Giovanni and necessitated a large restoration project under Pope Sergius III (904-911). This restoration provided the cathedral with a new apse mosaic, which is also gone. Perhaps more importantly, around this time the subsidiary dedication to Saint John the Baptist begins to appear in the sources.

Later Middle Ages

Medieval Rome was located close to the river Tiber. As the famous Roman aqueducts were no longer functioning, citizens needed to live in the vicinity of alternative sources of drinking water, which either came directly from the river (yuck!) or from cisterns. Most of the hills were either deserted or sparsely populated. As a result, the basilica of San Giovanni, although just within the third century Aurelian Walls of the city, was actually out in the countryside and surrounded by vineyards. The cathedral suffered damage from the forces of nature on several occasions. The bell-tower was struck by lightning in 1115, collapsed and damaged much of the outer right aisle. In 1277, there was another heavy earthquake. And yet the basilica and the Lateran Palace next door continued to be of the utmost religious importance. The First, Second, Third and Fourth Lateran Councils were held here in 1123, 1139, 1179 and 1215 respectively. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries can rightly be seen as the glory days of the cathedral. It seems that the dedication to Saint John the Evangelist dates back to this period (mid-twelfth century).

Side view of the cathedral, with the Lateran Palace on the left and the current Loggia of Benedictions in the centre.

Important changes were made to the cathedral during these centuries. Pope Innocentius II (1130-1143) – see Rome: Santa Maria in Trastevere – is credited with adding a transept to the basilica. Then, during the pontificate of Pope Honorius III (1216-1227), the cathedral was provided with a new portico. Spectacular mosaics were added to the facade in the later thirteenth century, but of these only a head of Jesus Christ has been preserved. It can be seen in the pediment of the present, eighteenth century facade, but I admit that it is easy to miss, as the facade is huge and the fragment is really tiny.

Head of Christ.

The exterior mosaics were presumably laid in the course of a large renovation project ordered by Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292), the first Franciscan pope in history. Nicholas had the sanctuary of the cathedral remodelled and the apse rebuilt. He commissioned Jacopo Torriti and the little-known Jacopo da Camerino – both artists and Franciscan friars – to execute the mosaics in the new apse. This was done in ca. 1291. It seems plausible that the exterior mosaics were done more or less simultaneously, which was also the case at the Santa Maria Maggiore, another one of the Pope Nicholas’ projects.

Apse mosaic.

Mind you, the apse mosaic that we can admire today is actually a nineteenth century copy. During the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), the architect Virginio Vespignani (1808-1882) and his son Francesco (1842-1899) were hired to extend the sanctuary of the cathedral by some 20 metres. This was a daring project, and unfortunately it involved destruction of the original apse and the late thirteenth century mosaic. The copy, though still impressive, is very different from Torriti’s other great apse mosaic at the Santa Maria Maggiore, which has fortunately been preserved. I much prefer the latter, which is more medieval in style and much less sterile than the one at the San Giovanni in Laterano. The warm golden glow of Torriti’s original work seems to be completely absent, which is a pity.

Left side of the apse mosaic, with Saint Paul, Saint Peter, Saint Franciscus of Assisi, a kneeling Pope Nicholas IV and the Virgin Mary; on the far left is Jacopo Torriti’s signature.

Pope Nicholas IV.

The current apse mosaic features a haloed Christ in the clouds, surrounded by eight regular angels and one seraph with six wings. Below Christ, in the centre, we see the True Cross adorned with jewels and several animals. Two deer, six sheep and a phoenix, a symbol of the Resurrection, can be discerned. If you watch closely, you will also see a depiction of Heavenly Jerusalem below the Cross, which is guarded by Saint Michael the Archangel and also features Saints Peter and Paul. Larger versions of these two important saints can be seen to the left of the Cross (see the image above). The Virgin Mary, Saint Franciscus of Assisi and a kneeling Pope Nicholas IV are also depicted here. On the right, we see the large figures of Saint John the Baptist, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Andrew, and a much smaller figure of Saint Antonius of Padova, who seems to have been more or less squeezed in. We do not know how much of Pope Sergius’ tenth century mosaic Jacopo Torriti and Jacopo da Camerino copied when they executed their mosaic in 1291. It is possible that they replicated the original scene and merely added the two Franciscan saints and the Franciscan pope.

Right side of the apse mosaic, with Saint John the Baptist, Saint Antonius of Padova, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Andrew. In the far left corner, one can see Heavenly Jerusalem guarded by Saint Michael the Archangel. Above the city is a phoenix. The True Cross features a medallion with the Baptism of Christ.

Papal throne in the apse.

The lower end of the conch features the river Jordan, and below that we see the remaining nine apostles. If you watch closely, you may notice two tiny kneeling figures at the feet of Saints James and Bartholomew. Both are wearing Franciscan habits. These are in fact Jacopo Torriti and Jacopo da Camerino. Torriti also signed the mosaic in the far left corner of the conch, and the nineteenth century mosaicists have also copied this signature. The lower part of the apse is beautifully decorated, with more mosaics and Cosmatesque elements. In the centre is the papal throne. Unfortunately Virginio Vespignani died before the remodelling was completed. His son Francesco finalised the project in 1884.

Medieval elements

The most original medieval element of the entire complex is probably the beautiful cloister south of the basilica. It is the work of Pietro and Niccolò Vassalletto, father and son. The cloister was built between ca. 1222 and 1234. The Cosmatesque decorations are very impressive, and so are the many columns: some plain, some decorated, some twisted and a few others twisted ánd decorated with Cosmatesque artwork. In the centre of the cloister garden is a well, which was made from an ancient column. The decorations, however, are from the ninth century. The cloister is a nice and quiet place, and the best location to admire the basilica from the side. More importantly, it serves as a repository of medieval decorations from the basilica which were destroyed, removed or – in many cases – both.

Thirteenth century cloister. Note the twisted columns and the ninth century well on the left.

Beautiful Cosmatesque decorations in the cloister.

One of the most interesting items to be found here is a papal throne which is also known as the sedes stercorata in Latin and the sedia stercoraria in Italian. The Pope sat in this chair during the coronation ceremony. If you inspect the seat, you will notice that there is a small hole in it. A rather silly tradition claims that it was used to establish that the new Pope was a man. While the Holy Father sat in the chair, a young cleric would inspect his nether regions through the hole and ascertain that he had testicles. If this was the case, the cleric would shout “Testiculos habet” (“He has testicles”, in some traditions the words “et bene pendentes” are added – “and they hang well”).

The Sedes Stercorata.

This tradition is said to have arisen after a female pope – Pope Joan – had erroneously been elected in the mid-ninth century. However, the tradition of a female pope is just a popular legend with no base in history whatsoever (she did have a bust in the cathedral of Siena though). The tradition of inspecting a new pope’s genitals is equally unhistorical. Besides, all of our sources are from the fifteenth century – Adam of Usk, Felix Hemmerlin and William Brewin – and two out of three mention a porphyry (i.e. red marble) chair. This cannot be the white marble throne of the cloister. A porphyry chair, with a hole that is significantly larger than the one to be found in the cloister, can be admired at the Vatican Museums. A picture can be found here, but it does not make the legend any more true (the Vatican chair may in fact be a birthing chair).

So what does the name sedes stercorata refer to? The name is in fact a reference to 1 Samuel 2:8, which reads:

“He [the Lord] raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes and to make them inherit the throne of glory.”

A similar text can be found in Psalm 113. “From the dunghill” is “de stercore” in Latin, so the name sedes stercorata can be translated as “dung chair”. The white marble chair in the cloister is ancient. It was set up in front of the cathedral and was – according to an information panel in the cloister – used “during the long and complex ceremony of the papal enthronement”. The verse from 1 Samuel 2:8 was read during this ceremony “as a reminder of the transitory nature of earthly power and the need for humility”. The information panel claims that it was first used for the coronation of Pope Paschalis II in 1099 and last for that of Pope Pius IV in January 1560.

Pieces of the Altar of Mary Magdalene, commissioned by the Colonna family (note the coat of arms with the column).

What we also find in the cloister are some of the remains of the so-called Altar of Mary Magdalene, which was believed to have once held relics belonging to this saint. The altar was made by Adeodato di Cosma (died ca. 1332) and his name can be found on a triangular slab which is on display on one of the walls of the cloister: MAG[ISTE]R DEODAT[VS] FECIT HOC OP[VS] (“Master Deodatus made this work”). The altar was consecrated in February 1297 by Cardinal Gerardo Bianchi from Parma. It had been commissioned by Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303). Note that, no matter how spectacular the Altar of Mary Magdalene may have been, this was NOT the high altar. The addition of a new high altar to the cathedral was probably still part of Pope Nicholas IV’s project, as it was completed and set up in the basilica in 1293. Pope Nicholas was dead by that time, but the struggle over his succession was long and hard, and it took a full two years before Pope Caelestinus V could ascend the Throne of Saint Peter (and the sedes stercorata discussed above). The late thirteenth century high altar can therefore be attributed to Nicholas. Unfortunately, it no longer exists (see below).

The aforementioned Pope Bonifatius VIII not only commissioned the Altar of Mary Magdalene. He also had a loggia built, which was attached to a large meeting hall (aula concilii) which stood north of the cathedral and had been used for the four Lateran Councils mentioned above. This Loggia of Benedictions was built with a view to the Jubilee of 1300 which was rapidly approaching and which would draw thousands of pilgrims to Rome. Perhaps as many as 200.000 men and women flocked to the Eternal City to obtain a plenary indulgence. Among them was the poet Dante Alighieri. The Loggia of Benedictions allowed the Pope to bless large crowds, and the famous artist Giotto di Bondone from Florence (ca. 1266-1337) was commissioned to decorate it with frescoes. Unfortunately, neither the Loggia of Benedictions nor Giotto’s frescoes have been preserved. The loggia was demolished in the late sixteenth century (1586 to be exact), when the new Lateran palace was constructed. Only a tiny fragment of one of Giotto’s frescoes survived the destruction.

Giotto fragment.

This fragment is immensely intriguing nonetheless. It shows Pope Bonifatius VIII under a baldachin, flanked by what appear to be a deacon and a cardinal (there is a third person on the far right). The prevailing interpretation is that the fragment shows the Pope proclaiming his Jubilee for the year 1300, which happened to be the first Holy Year in history. This seems to match well with the reason why the Loggia of Benedictions was built in the first place. However, Giotto expert Francesca Flores d’Arcais mentions one dissenting opinion by a scholar who claims that the fresco refers to the Pope taking possession of the Lateran palace in late January of 1295, shortly after his coronation. Since so much of Giotto’s fresco is lost, we will never know for certain which event he depicted. Flores d’Arcais also mentions one expert who believes the fragment shows the hand of Giotto’s contemporary Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1259-1330), rather than that of the Florentine master. This is probably incorrect. Especially after the 1952 restoration of the fragment, the fresco is generally attributed to Giotto, who may of course have been aided by assistants from his workshop.

Disaster and resurrection

Rome at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century was flourishing. The city had regained much of its former splendour. Jacopo Torriti had embellished both the San Giovanni in Laterano and the Santa Maria Maggiore with spectacular mosaics, Pietro Cavallini had executed frescoes and mosaics in the churches of Santa Maria and Santa Cecilia in Trastevere and Giotto had been involved in the decoration of Pope Bonifatius’ Loggia of Benedictions. But then, on 6 May 1308, disaster struck. Both the cathedral and the adjacent Lateran Palace were severely damaged by a fire that raged for three consecutive days. To add insult to injury, Pope Clemens V (1305-1314), a Frenchman who had been born Raymond Bertrand de Got, then decided to move the papacy to Avignon. Clemens’ coronation in 1305 had already been held in Lyon and the Pope had organised his court at Poitiers. He then used the fire at the San Giovanni and the Papal Palace in Rome as a pretext for not returning to the Eternal City. This was the beginning of what is sometimes called the “Babylonian Captivity” (1309-1377), a serious misnomer, as the Popes resided in Avignon voluntarily.

High altar and baldachin.

The Popes did not return to Rome for good until 1377. In the meantime, the basilica was again damaged in a storm (1343), an earthquake (1347) and a second fire (1360). This second fire destroyed the 1293 high altar mentioned above. Pope Urbanus V (1362-1370) briefly returned to Rome in 1367, before leaving for Avignon again in 1370, where he died a few weeks later. Although his goal of moving the papacy back to Rome had failed, Urbanus had at least tried very hard and had commissioned the architect Giovanni di Stefano from Siena (died ca. 1391) to restore the basilica. Restoration work was finished around 1370. Giovanni di Stefano was also responsible for a new high altar and especially the Gothic baldachin over it. Work on this altar was also completed in 1370, and Pope Urbanus seems to have been present to consecrate the new construction. It should be mentioned that the high altar we see today is a nineteenth century replacement commissioned by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878). The same pope had the baldachin restored. The original fourteenth century frescoes have been preserved, but have been retouched and repainted in many restorations, including the one ordered by Pius IX.

Pope Gregorius XI (1370-1378), who was Urbanus V’s successor, would turn out the be the last of the legitimate Avignon popes (there were two more antipopes after 1378). Gregorius returned the papacy to Rome, but decided not to reside at the Lateran Palace, which was still ruinous at the time. The Pope instead moved to the Vatican, and has remained there until the present day. The San Giovanni in Laterano lost status because of the move, but was nonetheless somewhat reinstated by Pope Martinus V (1417-1431). Martinus’ election had ended the so-called Great Western Schism (1378-1417), which had seen one pope ruling from Rome and another from Avignon. Occasionally, there had even been three popes.

Frescoes on the baldachin. The Latin text mentions Pope Pius IX and the year 1851.

Now that the Catholic Church had been put back in order, Pope Martinus decided that Rome needed to become a beautiful city once more. While the arts flourished in cities like Florence, Rome was a provincial backwater with a population of little more than 25.000. The Pope therefore ordered Masaccio (then working on the Brancacci Chapel in Florence), Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello to come to Rome to work for him. The latter two provided the cathedral with frescoes, which – SIGH! – have all been lost. Pope Martinus also commissioned a Late Cosmatesque floor for the basilica, which – HURRAH! – has partly been preserved.

Sixteenth and seventeenth century

Pope Pius IV (1559-1565) ordered a new and very fine ceiling for the basilica, which was completed two years after his death, in 1567. The ceiling has been preserved. The most important sixteenth century changes to the complex were then made during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590). The old Lateran Palace had been used to house a church council – the Fifth Lateran Council – for one more time between 1512 and 1517. In 1586, it was all over. The Pope commissioned Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) to demolish it and then rebuilt it on a much smaller scale. The Lateran Palace we see today, completed in 1589, is Fontana’s work.

The Lateran Palace (left), the obelisk and Loggia of Benedictions (centre) and the baptistery (far right).

Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano.

Fontana was also responsible for the creation of the current Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano and set up the huge Egyptian obelisk here, the Obelisco Lateranense. The obelisk dates from the fifteenth century BCE and is therefore almost 3.500 years old. It stood in the Precinct of Amun-Re, part of the Karnak Temple Complex. The emperor Constantius II (337-361) had it shipped to Rome in 357, which happened to be the only time that the emperor visited the former capital of the Roman Empire. It was set up on the spina of the Circus Maximus, but later collapsed during an earthquake and broke into three pieces. These pieces were excavated by order of Pope Sixtus, who then asked Fontana to reassemble the obelisk and re-erect it on the new piazza. This was done on 9 August 1588.

Finally, Fontana designed a new Loggia of Benedictions in 1586. This loggia is attached to the right (i.e. north) side of the transept (see the image above) and has nothing to do with Pope Bonifatius VIII’s medieval loggia, which was in a different location. The painters Giovanni Guerra (1544-1618) and Cesare Nebbia (ca. 1536-1622) led a team of artists that provided frescoes for the new loggia. It used to be possible for visitors to enter the cathedral from the loggia, but unfortunately the only entrance is now at the front of the building because of security reasons (your bags will be scanned there).

Altar of the Blessed Sacrament.

The most drastic changes to the interior of the cathedral were made in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century, when the basilica was given a Baroque makeover. Pope Clemens VIII (1592-1605), anticipating the Jubilee of 1600, hired Giacomo della Porta (1532-1602) to remodel the transept. Pietro Paolo Olivièri (1551-1599) designed the so-called Altar of the Blessed Sacrament here, while Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640), known to his contemporaries as the Cavaliere d’Arpino, led a team of fresco artists. But in spite of all these changes, the basilica was still in a pretty rotten state overall and there was even a fear that it might collapse. Another Jubilee had been called for 1650, so Pope Innocentius X (1644-1655) turned to one of the most important Baroque architects of the seventeenth century to save the oldest church in Rome. The name of this architect was Francesco Borromini (1599-1667).

Borromini has certainly left his mark on the San Giovanni in Laterano. The interior that we see today in the nave and the aisles is basically his. The restoration process commenced in 1646 and was only completed in 1660. Borromini then continued to work on the baptistery next door until his suicide in 1667. Even though some might dislike the result of Borromini’s Baroque makeover, the architect should be credited for preserving most of the Cosmatesque floor. Interestingly, Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) ordered Borromini to install new doors into the main entrance. These were scavenged from the ancient Curia Julia or Senate House in the Forum Romanum. The bronze doors may be the oldest elements in the entire basilica, certainly predating its foundation. They seem to date from a restoration of the Curia during the reign of the emperor Domitianus (81-96). This restoration had been necessitated by a great fire which destroyed or damaged parts of Rome in 80.

Bronze doors of the Curia Julia.

What is interesting, is that Borromini preserved some of the (late) medieval funerary monuments in the aisles and added Baroque elements to them. A good example is the monument for the Milanese Cardinal Conte Casati, who died of malaria in the summer of 1287 (an epidemic which claimed the lives of other cardinals as well, which in turn made the election of a new Pope more difficult). The monument can be found in the right aisle (see the image below). The epitaph is clearly medieval in style, and so are the Cosmatesque decorations, the Gothic arches and the sculptures of the deceased cardinal, John the Baptist and Christ. It has been claimed – with some justification – that all of these elements save the epitaph are actually from the Altar of Mary Magdalene and have nothing to do with Casati. Certainly not part of the original monument are the elements in grey marble, the caryatids and the flaming vases. These were added by Borromini.

Another composite monument can be found further up the right aisle. The original monument was set up for cardinal António Martins de Chaves, bishop of Porto in Portugal. According to the epitaph, the cardinal died in Rome on 11 July of the year 1447 (and not 6 July, as many Wikipedia articles claim; the epitaph reads XI and not VI; the Portuguese got it right). The original work is attributed to the fifteenth century sculptor Isaia da Pisa. Apart from the effigy of the deceased, he sculpted the statue of the Virgin Mary and the four other statues of the group. Borromini later put the monument inside a beautiful aedicule made of red and green marble.

Monument of Cardinal Conte Casati / monument of António Martins de Chaves, bishop of Porto.

Saint Bartholomew by Pierre Legros the Younger.

Later centuries and present

In the early eighteenth century, large statues of the twelve apostles were set up in the niches in the nave. One of the best is that of Saint Bartholomew, the apostle who was skinned alive. It was made by the French sculptor Pierre Legros the Younger (1666-1719) and completed in 1712. The statue shows the apostle with a knife in his left hand and his own detached face and skin in both hands. Fortunately, the statue is not as macabre as that by Marco d’Agrate (ca. 1504-1574) in the Duomo in Milan. Legros also made a sculpture of the apostle Thomas.

The most important addition of the eighteenth century is arguably the present facade of the cathedral. In 1732, a competition was held for a design to provide the basilica with a new one, to be completed before the Jubilee of 1750. The surprise winner was a dark horse from Florence named Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737). Galilei got the commission and completed the new facade in 1735 (a small piece of thirteenth century mosaic was incorporated into the design; see above). It is often described as early Neo-classicist. Galilei indeed had anti-Baroque tendencies, although he did not completely break with the style. The facade of the San Giovanni in Laterano features another loggia for giving blessings and features gigantic statues of Jesus Christ, the two Giovannis and several other saints.

Bronze head of Constantine (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

The two interventions in the nineteenth century by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) and Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) have already been mentioned above. In 1870, Rome was annexed by the Italian state and became the capital of a unified Kingdom of Italy. As a result, Pius and his successors chose to languish at the Vatican and never visited the San Giovanni in Laterano anymore. The problematic relationship between the state and the Vatican was not resolved until the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929. A fortunate consequence of the return of the popes to the Lateran was that it led to excavations beneath the San Giovanni in 1934-1938. The archaeologists discovered the remains of the barracks of the equites singulares Augusti. I started this post with these elite horse guards and now I will end it with them. We have come full circle.


  • Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 178-179 and 182-183;
  • Francesca Flores d’Arcais, Giotto, p. 110-118;
  • John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapters VI-VII and XIV-XVI;
  • Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 278;
  • Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 245-251;
  • San Giovanni in Laterano on Churches of Rome Wiki.

Update 20 March 2022: images have been updated.


[1] Apart from the San Giovanni in Laterano, these are – in order of precedence – the San Pietro in Vaticano, the San Paolo fuori le Mura and the Santa Maria Maggiore.

[2] Apart from the San Giovanni in Laterano, these are the San Pietro in Vaticano, the San Paolo fuori le Mura, the Santa Maria Maggiore and the San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. There are two more papal basilicas in Italy, both in Assisi: the San Francesco and the Santa Maria degli Angeli.


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