Of all the 900 or so churches of Rome, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran (full name, Papal Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran) is one not to be missed out during a stay in the capital of Italy. Being one of the four major basilicas or papal basilicas (the oldest and the most important of them even) and one of the seven pilgrimage churches of the city, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran has been outranking all the other prestigious churches of the city since its construction under Constantine, in 314, until now. It is the cathedral of the diocese of Rome (contrary to most people’s opinion, who take the Saint Peter’s Basilica to be the city’s cathedral), which is why plenty of major religious services held here are presided over by the pope. Originally dedicated to Christ the Savior, the church is also dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and to Saint John the Evangelist (an association little practiced in Christendom).

The Basilica is located next to the Lateran Palace. Both of these venues have been, and still are, next to several other religious sites in Rome, under the administration of the Vatican despite the fact their geographical location is external to the confines of the holy city. The Lateran Palace, for that matter, has been the official residence of the pope since the 4th century until the moving of the Holy See to Avignon, in 1309.

Architecturally speaking, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran has undergone significant alterations in time. In fact, little of the original edifice is still standing, given that, from its origins when, by force of its wealth of precious decorations, it was dubbed the Golden Basilica (Basilica Aurea), until now, it was pillaged, burned down and destroyed in earthquakes several times (the mid 5th century, the late 9th century, the early 14th century and eventually the second half of the 14th century), and each time rebuilt following more or less accurately the structure of the ancient edifice.

Santuario della Scala Santa is one of these original elements (the stairs, though situated on the opposite side of the piazza where the basilica is located, are part of the patrimony of the church). The tradition goes they were brought by Constantine’s mother, Helen, from Jerusalem in 326, from the house of the very Pilate, these being the stair on which Jesus stepped when he first faced Pilate. It’s no wonder pilgrims come here in thousands in order to walk and kneel, at their turn, on the 28 marble steps, though the historical accuracy of the tradition which sustains the origin of the stairs has occasionally been challenged. The only changes suffered by the stair refer to their moving to the present location in 1589, under Pope Sixtus V (the sanctuary the entrance of which is marked bz the stairs is embellished with friezes by Ferrau Fenzoni).

The Lateran Cloister is, at its turn, a superb sight, a refined example of symbiosis between Romanesque touches and Gothic lines. It dates back to the 13th century, being the only remaining element of a larger and older architectural complex which also comprised a monastery. The 440 AD iconic Lateran Baptistery is also worth admiring, not only due to the fact it is an integral part of Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, but also because it is the alleged (not documented, and, in fact, highly unlikely) place where Emperor Constantine was baptized.

The 18th century facade of the basilica, which has often been criticized for its atypical character (while imposing and well balanced, it looks more like the facade of a civil building or of a palace). It was designed by Alessandro Galilei in 1735, and it is overtopped by huge statues of Christ (in the middles) and saints. The highlights of the inner artistic patrimony refer to the real life size statues of the 12 apostles, placed inside the 12 niches created by Borromini (who redesigned the interior of the church between 1646 and 1679, under Pope Innocent X). The statues were created by seven different artists, standing out as exemplary achievements of Baroque sculpture. Also of note is the papal altar, deemed a huge repository of relics, including the heads of Saint Paul and of Saint Peter. The basilica is also the place where several popes are buried (only 6 papal tombs have survived the history, whereas 15 others were destroyed in the fires during the 14th century).

Basilica of Saint John Lateran (Archiasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano)
4, Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, 00184, Rome, Italy