The cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano, or St John Lateran, dates back to the fourth century and was the first church to be built in Rome. These days it is also the cathedral of the bishop of Rome, namely the Pope, and is known as the Cathedral of Rome and of the World.
The cathedral is dedicated to John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, and is the first of the four important basilicas in Rome. The church was commissioned by Constantine the Great and today contains several important relics, including a 13th century cloister and San Giovanni in Fonte, the ancient baptistery.
Before the church was constructed the land was owned by the estate of the Laterani Family of Rome, but the land became the property of Constantine I when he married into the wealthy family. He actually donated the land to the building of the church. The earlier structures which sat on the site were destroyed by fire, earthquake sand war; the church that stands today was commissioned by Pope Innocent X back in 1646. Designed by the architect Francesco Borromini who was commissioned to restore the collapsing basilica.
The 16th century redesign gave the basilica a Baroque look, it was far removed from the old basilica, and in fact only the Cosmatesque floor remained. In the 18th century the southern façade was added, designed by Alessandro Galilei.
However, it’s the eastern facade that is most recognisable today, having been used in several films, including Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
What to see
The two-storied portico dates back to the 18th century and is where the Pope gives his benediction on Maundy Thursday. Here you will see large statues of Christ and the saints, which also date back to the 18th century.
Although the Cathedral San Giovannia Laterano has undergone major redesign and reconstruction over the centuries it still retains much of its original plan; the central bronze doors are Roman originals from the Curia (Senate House) in the imperial forum, and to the left of the portico is the Roman statue of Constantine the Great, which wase xcavated from the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.
The nave is framed by two aisles, which come together to make a semi-circle apse to the west. Some of the original decoration has survived the centuries, although much has been moved.Parts of the original 4th century nave colonnade now support thebeautiful triumphal arch, which encompass the Altar of the Holy Sacrament andthe statues of the apostles in the nave. The statues date back fromthe 17th century, from the time of Pope Clement XI and illustrate the twelve apostles. There is also fragments of a 14th century fresco of Pope Boniface VIII and a wooden table at the papal altar which is said to have been used by St Peter to celebrate the Eucharist.
There are six papal tombs inside San Giovanni Laterano, but after Pope Leo XIII, Popes were then buried at St Peter’s Basilica.
The Baptistery is separated from the main basilica and was founded by Constantine I in 315 A.D. It was the first of its kind in Rome. Its current octagonal design was constructed during the papacy of Pope Sixtus III and has been used by many other baptisteries as an example.
Adjacent to the cathedral is the Lateran Palace which was originally the residence of the Pope, until in the 13th century it was moved to Avignon in France. When Popedom moved back to Rome, it settled at the Vatican, the basilica however has remained Rome’s principal cathedral.
The San Giovanni in Laterano Cathedral is located at the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano 4, you can take the Metro to San Giovanni and several buses will also take you there. Entrance is free, but there is a small donation charge to visit the cloisters.
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