The House and Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome

The Lateran Apostolic Palace
and the Basilica of St John Lateran

An exciting journey through the history of the Church, where art and faith are intertwined in a way that manages to transmit wonder, wisdom and beauty to the different generations. This itinerary was designed to correspond to the heartfelt desire of Pope Francis who, as Bishop of Rome, wishes to enhance this place as an expression of faith, culture and beauty.

In one of the historic districts of the city adjacent to the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano or St John Lateran “Mother and Head” of all the churches of Rome and the world, stands the Lateran Apostolic Palace.

The area and the buildings, that once belonged to the ancient Lateran family were donated by Constantine to Pope Miltiades I, following the victory obtained against his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312 AD.

With the Edict of Milan of 313, Constantine granted freedom of worship and promoted the construction of places of worship for Christians who, until that time, had professed their faith amid intolerance and persecution. The Basilica of the Most Holy Saviour, which later will be called St John Lateran, will be the only Basilica not built on the tomb of a martyr, but as an ex voto suscepto ( an ex votive offering) for graces received. It was constructed upon the remains of the Castra Nova Equitum singularium, the barracks of Constantine’s rival, Maxentius’ praetorian guard.

Il Palazzo Apostolico Lateranense e
la Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano

An exciting journey through the history of the Church, where art and faith are intertwined in a way that manages to transmit wonder, wisdom and beauty to the different generations. This itinerary was designed to correspond to the heartfelt desire of Pope Francis who, as Bishop of Rome, wishes to enhance this place as an expression of faith, culture and beauty.

In one of the historic districts of the city adjacent to the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano or St John Lateran “Mother and Head” of all the churches of Rome and the world, stands the Lateran Apostolic Palace.

The area and the buildings, that once belonged to the ancient Lateran family were donated by Constantine to Pope Miltiades I, following the victory obtained against his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312 AD.

With the Edict of Milan of 313, Constantine granted freedom of worship and promoted the construction of places of worship for Christians who, until that time, had professed their faith amid intolerance and persecution. The Basilica of the Most Holy Saviour, which later will be called St John Lateran, will be the only Basilica not built on the tomb of a martyr, but as an ex voto suscepto ( an ex votive offering) for graces received. It was constructed upon the remains of the Castra Nova Equitum singularium, the barracks of Constantine’s rival, Maxentius’ praetorian guard.

The Basilica was consecrated on November 9, 318 and was dedicated to the Holy Saviour by Pope Sylvester I. Over time, in addition to the Baptistery, the Patriarchium, known as the House of the Bishop of Rome, was annexed to the Basilica.

Through the centuries, the Lateran complex suffered damage, misfortune and looting, but it experienced its greatest splendour in the medieval period, under the Papacies of Innocent III and Boniface VIII.

The palace served as the residence of the Popes for about a thousand years.  However, upon the return of the Papacy following the so called ‘Avignon exile’ (1309-1377), the Palace was abandoned.

The Vatican was designated as the location of the Papal residence, not only for its geographical attributes that made it a safer place, but above all by virtue of its proximity to the Tomb of Peter, Prince of the Apostles and First Pontiff of the Christian Church.

The forced absence of the Papacy’s presence facilitated the process of abandonment and deterioration of the entire Lateran complex, which again succumbed to a series of raids.

The Basilica was consecrated on November 9, 318 and was dedicated to the Holy Saviour by Pope Sylvester I. Over time, in addition to the Baptistery, the Patriarchium, known as the House of the Bishop of Rome, was annexed to the Basilica.

Through the centuries, the Lateran complex suffered damage, misfortune and looting, but it experienced its greatest splendour in the medieval period, under the Papacies of Innocent III and Boniface VIII.

The palace served as the residence of the Popes for about a thousand years.  However, upon the return of the Papacy following the so called ‘Avignon exile’ (1309-1377), the Palace was abandoned.

The Vatican was designated as the location of the Papal residence, not only for its geographical attributes that made it a safer place, but above all by virtue of its proximity to the Tomb of Peter, Prince of the Apostles and First Pontiff of the Christian Church.

The forced absence of the Papacy’s presence facilitated the process of abandonment and deterioration of the entire Lateran complex, which again succumbed to a series of raids.

Despite its decline in prominence, the Lateran has continued to maintain its prerogative as Patriarchium because the Pope, once elected to the papal throne, must take possession of his seat at the Lateran.

The urban redevelopment of the whole Lateran complex and the renovation of various areas throughout the city was carried out during the five-year pontificate of Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590). In fact, his regeneration programme sought to transform the city and exalt the figure of the universal Church and the Papacy. He entrusted the construction of the Apostolic Palace to Domenico Fontana who definitively demolished the ancient Patriarchium that had then become completely unusable.

For various reasons, Pope Sixtus V was unable to enjoy the Palace, residing there for only a year prior to his death. In time, the other Popes chose the Vatican as their definitive seat. However, the activities related to charitable assistance and the care of the poor continued at the Apostolic Palace. This was largely thanks to the commitment of illustrious personalities such as Piero Caravita and Vincenzo Carafa.  This charitable use of the Palace became more defined when Pope Innocent XII Pignatelli, destined the entire building as a hospice for the poor.  Evidence of this is found in the formal act of donation to the Hospice of the Poor and Disabled in San Michele which became one of the most important welfare institutions in papal Rome.

Zitella del Palazzo Lateranense

In addition, in the remaining spaces of the Apostolic Palace, a branch of the Conservatory of Divine Providence was established. It was known as “delle Zitelle” or ‘of the spinsters’ and was part of the Hospice of San Michele.

The succession of different Popes led to various developments and enhancements of the Palace. During the 1800s it was used as a museum containing various Collections of Arts, Epigraphic and Archaeological works that maintained the lustre of its ancient tradition.

In 1929, the Council Hall of the Palace became the location for the signing of a historic agreement: the Lateran Pacts. The signatories of the Pacts were the then Head of the Italian Government, Benito Mussolini, and the Secretary of State for Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri.

With this extraordinary itinerary we will pass through the main rooms that characterised the Apostolic Palace right through to the private apartment of the Bishop of Rome.

We go through the Palace with its frescoed vaults and magnificent ceilings to admire the rooms decorated with exquisite tapestries, paintings by the great masters of their time and adorned with fine antique furniture.

Each room, through the stories related to the great Prophets and Apostles of the Bible, the allegories and catechetical references will reveal the stories that are hidden within. Whilst the images of the historical personalities that decorate the walls and the tapestries will recount the most important parts of history linked to the events of the Papacy and the Vatican State.

The journey continues in the private rooms of the Supreme Pontiff.  You will be moved by the austerity of these rooms that have a sober elegance which acts as a reminder that the true mission of the Bishop of Rome is to be at the service of God and His Church. He is the servus servorum Dei – the servant of the servants of God.

The journey continues by crossing the staircase that brings us into the portico of the Lateran Basilica. Walking down the central nave, accompanied by the presence of the Twelve Apostles, we will arrive at the apse, that sacred space that represents Heaven.

In a perpendicular line which joins the Face of Christ, with the jewelled Cross and the dove representing the Holy Spirit, we arrive at the precious Cathedra. It is this same Cathedra that confers to the newly elected Pope the authority as the successor of Peter and pastor, not only of the Church of Rome, but of the universal Church.

Only the Bishop of Rome can sit on this Cathedra, since, as Vicar of Christ, he shares in the Lord’s power to shepherd the flock that has been entrusted to him.

The importance of the Patriarchium, the Lateran Palace and the Basilica can be summarised with the words from the Rite of Installation of the Bishop of Rome on the Roman Cathedra:

This place, that is elect and blessed throughout the ages, has faithfully been built on the foundation of the rock. It confirms in truth the faith of all the brothers who preside in charity over all the churches and with firm sweetness guide us all on the way of holiness.” (From the Rite of Installation of the Bishop of Rome on the Roman Cathedra).

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