Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)

"Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)" submitted by RomeTour Editorial Team and last updated on Tuesday 10th January 2012

Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano, Italy

The cathedral, whose full name is: Patriarcal Arcibasilica and Cathedral of Holy Saviour, St. John the Baptist and Evangelist in Lateran (Arcibasilica Papale e Cattedrale del Santissimo Salvatore e dei Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano), rises from the same place where the basilica of Costantino was erected round 314. The ancient basilica had four aisles for nearly one thousand years was the most important church of Christianity, the centre of Pope's power and residence of the Pontiff. Repeatedly damaged and restored the basilica was constantly enriched along the centuries. For the Jubilee of 1300 the Loggia of Blessing was built and later changed. The frescos inside of it, by Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello (1331-32), date back to 15th century, while the decoration of the transept is of the 16th century. Foe the Jubilee of 1650 Francesco Borromini was undertaken to remake the inside. The great architect from Ticino carried out the inside layout, the flour and rearranged the funeral monuments in baroque taste.

Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)
Fig: Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano
(St John Lateran)

The basilica derives its name from the powerful patrician family of Plautius Lateranus, who having been implicated in the conspiracy of the Pisoni, was deprived of his property and put to death by Nero. Recent excavations in the neighbouring Via Aradam have revealed a large Roman building thought to be the house of the Pisoni and Laterani expropriated by Nero. The property afterwards passed to Constantine as the dowry of his wife Fausta. The Emperor presented it, together with the land occupied by the barracks built in the 2nd century for his private horse-guards, to Roman bishops, (to receive it was pope St Melchiades), for the purpose of building a church for the See of Rome. The constructions of the basilica created a real suburb occupying the territory from basilica till the Scala Santa. It was a tangle of courtyards, halls, chapels, arches and triclinia where pope was meeting clergy and popular representatives.

During the first half of 17th century the current façade was carried out. Ancient marble relieves are placed in the portico. The central door has precious leaves from the Curia of Roman Forum The last portal on the right is the Holy Door. Inside, the nave is enclosed by a wonderful ceiling of 16th century. At the end of the nave there is a beautiful tabernacle of 14th century. Under the tabernacle there is the altar where only the Pontiff can celebrate the mass; at the base of it the grave of the Pope Martino is placed. The transept is one of the most representative and complex work of the Roman Manierism of the end of 16th century with masterpieces, among the others, by Cavalier D'Arpino, Cesare Nebbia, Orazio Gentileschi, Giovanni Baglione; as for the aisle Borromini's talent of decorating is spread all around. On the right nave it is possible to admire the fresco supposedly attributed to Giotto according to some ones.

St John Lateran upper exterior. lower exterior of Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.
Fig: St John Lateran upper exterior and
lower exterior of Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.

The Lateran Hill gave birth to a legend which says that the name of the hill derives from "latitans rana", i.e. "runaway frog". All the story is about emperor Nero, who once had got a crazy idea to have a baby and be his mother, so he forced the doctors under the death penalty to make him pregnant. They made him ingest a tadpole who growing in the stomach of emperor became a frog, and thanks to the purgative was "brought forth". Nero was so happy that wanted this frog be seen by all the people sitting in the silver coach followed by a nurse and 15 Roman princes. But when this procession reached the coasts of river the frog jumped into the water and disappeared. Nero got fierce and killed the nurse and the children of the princes, who rebelled and killed emperor.

The Lateran palace (Palazzo Laterano) [also known as the Apostolic Palace of the Lateran]

The Lateran palace (pictured below) was an official residence of popes and a central seat of the Church's government till the exile of the popes to Avignon in 1305. After return from France in 1377 the official residence had to be moved to Vatican, which was more adapted to life, could be better defended and was closer to the inhabited districts of the city. Thus the basilica remained in lonely and quiet environment surrounded by gardens and vineyards till the end of the 19th century, disturbed only by pilgrims and hospices-hospitals, taverns and inns serving the regular number of faithful reaching this place of Christian cult.

Lateran palace.
Fig: Lateran palace

Sixtus V considered Lateran as one of the starting points of his new urban arrangement of Rome as a great modern city. Immediately after his elections he ordered the beginning of works to D.Fontana. The territory was cleaned from the ruins of the old constructions and the new palace adjoining basilica appeared here already in 1586. The model for it was Palazzo Farnese and in the end it came out as one of the most solemn and harmonious palaces of Roman Baroque.

The Lateran palace was probably conceived as a summer residence of the pontiffs, but it was never used as one. In the end of the 17th century Innocent XII made it the seat of the Hospice for orphans and of a little silk manufacture; a century later Pius VI developed this activity. In the 19th century Gregory XVI made it a museum of religious art and pagan culture for which could not be found the space in Vatican; and in 1926 Pius XI arranged here Missionary-Ethnic Museum.

John XXIII decided to restitute the palace its pastoral functions fixing here the seat of Vicariate and offices of the diocese of Rome. Under Paul VI the works of general restoration and creation of marble pavement of admirable execution were completed in 1967. The facade of the eastern side of the palace was finished under Clement XII who had his coat-of-arms attached to the top of it in 1735.

Since 1991 the Vatican Historical Museum (Museo Storico Vaticano) has been housed here. The Papal Apartments, with late mannerist frescoes by Giovanni Guerra, C.Nebbia, G.B.Ricci, Baldassare Croce, Cesare Santarell and some good ceilings, contain interesting 17th-18th centuries tapestries of the Gobelin Manufacture (partly presented by Louis XIV, the Sun King), Roman works made in San Michele and Spanish works. The historical museum illustrates the history of the papacy from the 16th century to the present day, with historical paintings and etc.; papal ceremonies of the past; and the Papal Guards disbanded by Paul VI in 1970. The most important halls of the palace bear such names as "Emperors", "Apostles", "Constantine" and one of the most important of them is named "della Conciliazione" ("of Treaty") because here on February 11, 1929 the signing of Lateran Treaty took place which regulates the relations between the Holy See and the Italian State.

The Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran) is one of the four major basilicas of Rome and was named "mother of all the churches" because it is the Cathedral of Rome. In the beginning of the 4th century one part of the Lateran Palaces assigned by Constantine as a residence of Roman bishop, was transformed in Christian basilica probably built between 314 and 318, and was dedicated to the Redeemer and later to St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. It was not of very big dimensions but still had five naves, a portico and a hall with the fountains.

Inside the Lateran palace - arranged here Missionary-Ethnic Museum ceiling in the central nave. architecture painting of basilica St John Lateran
Fig (from left):
Inside the Lateran palace - arranged here Missionary-Ethnic Museum
ceiling in the central nave and
architecture painting of basilica St John Lateran

Partly ruined by the Vandals, it was restored by St Leo the Great in the 5th century and Hadrian I in the 8th century and, after the earthquake of 896, by Sergius III in the 10th century. Nicholas IV enlarged and embellished the building to such an extent that it was considered the wonder of the age. The church was destroyed by fire in 1308 and rebuilt by Clement V and decorated by Giotto.

In 1360 it was burnt down again. Under Urban V and Gregory XI it was entirely rebuilt by Giovanni di Stefano. Martin V, Eugenius IV, Sixtus V (D.Fontana), Clement VIII (G.della Porta (1597-1601)) added to its splendour. In 1646-1649 Innocent X commissioned Borromini to rebuild the church yet again for the Holy Year of 1650. In 1735 Clement XII had A.Galilei to erect a solemn facade. The ancient apse was entirely reconstructed in 1875-1885 and the mosaics reset after the original designs.

Starting from the very beginning of the Basilica's history its prestige was superior than basilicas of St Peter and of St Paul; it was considered the real center of Christianity.


The main facade consists of a two-storeyed portico surmounted by an attic with 15 colossal statues of Christ with the Apostles and saints. On Maundy Thursday the pope gives his benediction from the central loggia. Beneath the portico, the bronze central doors were first used for the Curia, and later the church of Sant'Adriano in the Forum. On the left is a statue of Constantine, from his Baths on the Quirinal. On the right is the entrance to the Vatican Historical Museum (Museo Storico Vaticano) in the Lateran Palace.


It is 130m long, with two aisles on either side of the nave, partly preserves its original 4th century proportions, although it was entirely remodeled by Borromini in 1646-1649. Above the statues of Apostles located in the niches of the massive piers there are stuccoes designed by A.Algardi with the scenes from the Old and New Testament. Over them are paintings of prophets by Domenico Muratori, M.Benefial, Giuseppe Nasini, G.Odazzi, Giovanni Melchiorri, S.Conca, B.Luti, F.Trevisani, Andrea Procaccini, Luigi Garzi, G.Chiari and P.Ghezzi executed in the beginning of the 18th century. The rich ceiling is by Flaminio Boulanger and Vico di Raffaele, and the marble pavement is of Cosmatesque design.

The apse nave of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran). Papal of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)
Fig: The apse nave of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran) and
Papal of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)

In the left nave the statue of the lying Riccardo Annibaldi made by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1276 can be appreciated. It is worth a visit to the museum containing precious liturgical furnishing and the Cloister, masterpiece of cosmatesque (The Roman marble workers were so called Cosmati. Architects, sculptors and above all decorators that used to work on marquetry. The name is due to the fact that many of them signed with the name of Cosma) art where architectural details, sculptures, embellishments of the ancient basilica are preserved.

nave of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran). another apse nave of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran) sculpture of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)
Fig: (from left)
nave of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)
another apse nave of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran) and
sculpture of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)

The aisles

The aisles contain: a fragment of fresco attributed to Giotto Boniface VIII proclaiming the Jubilee of 1300; tombs of cardinal Ranuccio Farnese (by Vignola), cardinal Antonio de Chaves, cardinal Casati (1290), cardinal Giulio Acquaviva (1546-1574), Paolo Mellini (1527), Archpriest Gerardo da Parma (1061), cardinal Bernardo Caracciolo (1255), cardinal Girolamo Casanate (1707). Over the window-screen outside of the Cappella Massimo is a fragment of the original altar with a statuette of St James, attributed to A.Bregno; the Cappella Torlonia, richly decorated by Raimondi; a sarcophagus of cardinal Riccardo Annibaldi (1276) by A.di Cambio; Cappella Corsini (18th century) by A.Galilei; a porphyry sarcophagus from the Pantheon; Cappella Lancelotti by F.da Volterra.

Lateran Cloister of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)
Fig: Lateran Cloister of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)

The transepts

The transepts were built under Clement VIII by G.della Porta and contain: the large frescoes depicting the conversation of Constantine, his gift to the pope, and the building of the basilica, completed in 1600 under the direction of C.d'Arpino by G.B.Ricci, P.Nogari, Pomarancio, O.Gentileschi, C.Nebbia, G.Baglione and Bernardo Cesari; (in the center) the papal altar, reconstructed by Pius IX, containing many relics, including the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, and part of St Peter's wooden altar-table; the Gothic baldacchino by Giovanni di Stefano (1367), frescoed by B.da Siena; kneeling statue of Boniface IX; the Altar of the Holy Sacrament, by P.Olivieri; Cappella del Coro.

The apse

The apse (pictured above and below) was reconstructed by Francesco and V.Vespignani in 1885 when the fine apse mosaics were destroyed and replaces by a copy. The original mosaics were designed by J.Torriti and J.da Camerino (1288-1294).

peaceful cloister
Fig: peaceful cloister

The sacristy

The sacristy contains the tombs of A.Sacchi and C.d'Arpino; and two statues of St Peter and St Paul by Deodato di Cosma.

There are six tombs of popes inside of basilica: Alexander III (right aisles), Sergius IV (right aisles), Clement XIII Corsini (left aisle), Martin V (in front of the confessio) by Simone Ghini; Innocent III (right transept); Leo XIII (left transept), by G.Tadolini (1907).

In the left aisle is the entrance to the peaceful cloister (pictured), the masterpiece of Jacopo and Pietro Vassalletto (1215-1232). It was the only thing left after a Benedictian monastery which once stood between basilica and the city walls.

Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)
Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano 4
00184, Rome, Lazio, Italy
Zone: Rione Esquilino (Termini - Via Nazionale) (Roma centro)
Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran) is Shown By "Map L Zone" As "12"
Hours: Every day 7am - 6.30pm. Services hours: Week days: 07:00am - 08:00am - 09:00am - 10:00am - 11:00am - 12:00am - 05:00pm - 06:00pm, Holidays: 07:00am - 08:00am - 09:00am - 10:00am - 11:00am - 12:00am - 05:00pm - 06:00pm. In July and August: Week days 07:00am - 08:00am - 09:00am - 11:00am - 06:00pm, Holidays 07:00am - 08:00am - 09:00am - 10:00am - 11:00am - 12:00am - 05:00pm - 06:00pm.
Getting to Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran):
Get off Manzoni Station (2nd stop from Termini, Subway Line A) or San Giovanni Station (3rd stop from Termini, Subway Line A), and walk a few minutes from either station. The site is the west of the "Palazzo Laterano" (Lateran Palace), and the north of Bacilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, which was the center of the medieval Catholicism. Ask anybody with saying "Lateran Obelisk (Obelisco Lateranense)" if you don't know the direction. It's right is the Bacilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.
Bus: 16 - 85 - 87 - 117 - 186 - 218 - 714 - 650 - 673 - 850
Tram: 30b
Metro: Metro A San Giovanni
Telephone: 0039 06 69886493, 06 77 20 79 91
Parish Office Tel: 0039 06 69886433
Fax: 0039 06 69886493
Also See:
An excellent virtual tour of Basilica of St. Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran) By University in Pennsylvania (USA)
The Baptistery of St John Lateran
Pilgrim’s Guide to San (St.) Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran)

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