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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano

What is the San Giovanni in Laterano?

The San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome is the oldest Christian basilica in the Western world first constructed in the 4th century AD, which was rebuilt four times in the space of ten centuries.

Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano

San Giovanni in Laterano History

As well as being one of the four major papal basilicas, Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano also happens to be the oldest public church in Rome, indeed the oldest Christian basilica in the Western world. First constructed in the 4th century AD, the basilica was rebuilt no fewer than four times in the space of ten centuries due to fire, earthquake and plunder. San Giovanni houses the cathedra, or raised seat, of the Bishop of Rome, i.e. the Pope, therefore ranking it superior to all other Roman Catholic churches, even including St Peter’s in the Vatican. On the lower sides of its entrance, is a Latin inscription encircled by a laurel wreath and crowned with the papal tiara, proclaiming: ‘The sacrosanct Lateran church, mother and head of all churches in the city and the world’.

Our story begins not with the church itself, but with the building to the right of the basilica as you face it. Although its appearance has clearly evolved over the centuries, this was once an ancient palace that belonged to the noble Plautii Laterani family, imperial administrators and descendants of Lucius Sextius Lateranus, who was said to have been the first ever common man to achieve the rank of consul, the highest position in the ancient Roman Republic. However, this once influential family were reduced to disgrace when a member was accused of conspiring against Emperor Nero, resulting in the confiscation and redistribution of all their properties. Passed down and enjoyed by successive imperial households, the palace was finally donated to the Bishop of Rome in the 4th century.

A thousand years passed before the church’s magnificence began to deteriorate. Due to factionalism in Rome and pressure from the King of France, the papal capital was moved away from Rome to Avignon in Provence. Seven successive popes took up residence there, and it was during this period that both the palace and basilica sadly fell into ruin. Fires ravaged the buildings on two separate occasions, and despite the use of papal funds for reconstruction, both palace and church lost the splendour and charm they once had. There were a number of unsuccessful attempts to raise the basilica to its former glory, before Pope Sixtus V, in the 16th century, established a definitive program for its repair.

The basilica’s interior, by now dilapidated and in dire need of reconstruction, was finally entrusted to Francesco Borromini in the 17th century, a prominent figure of the Baroque period with an idiosyncratic and imaginative style. Borromini needed to respect the original features of the basilica, particularly the glorious 16th-century ceiling, creating a design that balanced novelty and tradition. His inclusion of twelve giant niches, the alcoves you see on either side, is a testament to this ingenuity, although they were widely denounced by conservative critics at the time. The statues of the Apostles were a later addition, crafted by some of the most esteemed sculptors of the period.

With the interior now renovated, Pope Clement XII had an ambitious vision to reconstruct the churches’ façade, launching a design competition entered by over 20 of Rome’s leading architects. The role was awarded to Alessandro Galilei, a mathematician, architect, and relative of the great astronomer and physicist Galileo. He transformed the basilica’s façade, moving it away from its previously decorative Baroque style towards the grand Neo-classical features on show today. The church is crowned with an imposing statue of Christ the Redeemer at its centre, to whom the basilica was originally dedicated, and either side of him stand two St Johns, the Baptist and the Evangelist, after whom the basilica is named.

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