St. John in the Lateran Basilica is one of the most impressive churches in Rome. As it is located a bit outside of the historic center of Rome, in the San Giovanni neighborhood of the Esquilino District, the number of tourists that venture there is significantly less than those who visit other more central churches in Rome. The result is that – especially if you go at odd hours ie very early in the morning, or around lunch time – you have the church almost all to yourself, and it’s simply blissful to explore.
Have I made you curious? Good! Continue reading, and I will share everything you should know about St. John in the Lateran Basilica, including lots of information that will help you plan your visit.
Make sure to read my post The Most Beautiful Churches In Rome.
The History Of St. John In The Lateran
The Basilica of Saint John Lateran is one of the most important churches in the whole of Rome, not least because it is the seat of the Bishop of Rome (which is the Pope). It’s a religious building of much prominence, being the oldest and highest ranking of all major Papal basilicas. It’s also the oldest public church in the city, as well as the oldest basilica in the Western World.
But this storied basilica didn’t start out as a Christian church. In fact, it was built over what were the remains of the Castra Nova Equitum Singularium – the New Fort of the Roman Imperial Cavalry Bodyguards. The fort was created in 193 AD by Emperor Septimus Severus, and was connected to the Lateran Palace, an older structure used by high ranking civil servants called laterani since the 4th century BC.
The fort was demolished – and the bodyguard abolished – following the pivotal Battle of Milvian Bridge (312 AD), which saw Emperor Constantine victorious over his rival Maxentius. The remains of the fort can still be seen in the church today, directly below the nave.
The Lateran Palace and its lands fell into the hands of Emperor Constantine – but not for long, as Constantine soon gifted the palace to the Bishop of Rome, Sylvester I (he became the bishop in 314 AD). In 324 AD, part of the palace was extended and was converted by Sylvester I, both for use as the residence of the Bishop of Rome and as a public place of worship.
Fast-forward a few hundred years, and the basilica had cemented its position as the Mother Church of the Western Christian world. In fact, a plaque on the main entrance to the church states: “Most Holy Lateran Church, Mother and Head of all the Churches in the City and the World.”
By the 12th century, it was claimed by the canons of the Lateran that the high altar in the basilica actually protected the Arc of the Covenant, as well as other holy objects from Jerusalem. The basilica therefore had the credentials to rebrand as the Temple of the New Covenant.
One of the most important things about the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is its Papal connection. In fact, starting with Pope Miltiades in 311 AD, all Popes resided at the Lateran Palace – that is until Pope Clement V transferred the seat in 1309 to Avignon in France.
On moving the Papal seat to Avignon, the Lateran Palace and the basilica deteriorated during the 14th century. Fires ripped through both buildings, causing much damage. Although money was sent to pay for maintenance and reconstruction, they had lost much of their former luster.
When the Papacy moved again to reside in Rome, the Lateran properties were deemed to be too badly damaged for the Pope to live there. This eventually led to the Vatican Palace being built close to St Peter’s Basilica: the Papal residence to this day.
There were many renovation attempts on the Lateran Palace and Saint John in the Lateran over the years, notably by Pope Sixtus V, and later Pope Innocent X, who commissioned architect and artist Francesco Borromini to renovate the interiors. Pope Clement XII launched a competition for designing the new facade for the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. The winner was Alessandro Galilei, who created the Baroque facade as it is seen today; this was completed in 1735.
Only a few remnants of the original building can still be seen, including several large decorative wall paintings that were uncovered during the 18th-century renovations.
What To See When Visiting St. John In The Lateran, Rome
Inside the basilica is a world of ornate decorations, gilded altarpieces and a number of paintings and statues for visitors to admire. Even outside the basilica, there are sights to be seen. Given the sheer number of things to check out here, it helps to have at least a little bit of understanding behind it all. Here are some highlights to look out for.
Statues of the Apostles
One of the most striking parts of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran are the statues of the Apostles. These sit within niches that were created by Borromini, but which were never filled and left empty for decades. A commission was opened in 1702 by Pope Clement XI and Cardinal Benedetto Pamphilj for the creation of 12 large sculptures of the Apostles; these had to follow sketches done by the Pope’s favorite artist of the time, Carlo Moratta.
The sculptors chosen are considered to be the best in their profession during the Baroque era. They range from French artist Pierre-Etienne Monnot to Camillo Rusconi, with seven artists in total displaying intricate, true-to-life craftsmanship with each saintly depiction.
Although St Peter’s Basilica is the final resting place of many former Popes, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran also plays host to tombs of past Popes. In total, there are six. There were formerly 12 additional tombs, but these were sadly destroyed during the fires of the 14th century.
The six tombs that remain are for the following popes: Alexander III, Clement XII, Innocent III, Leo XIII, Martin V, Sergius IV. These centuries-old final resting places are beautifully crafted and works of art in themselves.
Not situated within the basilica, but located next door, the octagonal baptistery was originally founded in 440 AD by Pope Sixtus III (however it is thought to be built on a much older foundation). Amazingly, it was the only baptistery located within Rome for centuries.
The eye-catching octagonal structure is centered on an octagonal basin where people can be fully immersed in baptism. This design became a model for baptismal fonts throughout Italy. After the plain brick exterior, the interior feels extra elaborate. For one thing, look up: you can see a grand fresco telling the story of the Battle of Milvian Bridge.
The Scala Sancta (literally “Holy Stairs”) is located across the piazza from the basilica. According to Catholic tradition, these stairs – a total of 28 white marble steps – are themselves holy relics. They were allegedly taken from the praetorium of Pontius Pilate, and were climbed by Jesus Christ himself on the way to his trial.
It’s said that they were brought to Rome in the 4th century by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. In 1589, Pope Sixtus V moved the Holy Stairs to their current location. Since the early 1700s, the marble staircase has been encased in wood, so to protect it – it was briefly exposed in 2019.
Because of their importance in Christianity, the stairs themselves have attracted many pilgrims, some of whom crawl up them.
This is the building that the Scala Sancta leads to. This is a small chapel that’s part of the Lateran Palace, and was once the private chapel of the Pope before the Papal Seat moved to Avignon (and then to the Vatican).
This is the only building in the whole of the palace that was not completely destroyed during its reconstruction. The chapel itself is fairly compact and rectangular in shape. The main altar is said to contain the bones of 13 saints inside a wooden reliquary box, representing the Ark of the Covenant in Solomon’s Temple.
One of the most notable elements of the chapel is the floor. Dating from 1278, it is done in the opus sectile style, which uses tiny pieces of stone and other material cut, polished and inlaid into floors or walls. This was the work of the well-known Cosmati family – a skillful clan of stonecutters. The style was much imitated throughout Rome in the 13th century.
Nobody is certain when the small chapel was founded, or who founded it, but it was first mentioned in 772 AD, making it at least 1,500 years old.
The Lateran Cloister
The 13th-century cloister or inner courtyard area of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is a peaceful part of the structure that has withstood fire damage and earthquakes over the centuries. The only surviving part of a monastery that was once situated here, the cloister is surrounded by ornate loggias with twisting columns with inlaid marble, Cosmatesque or Cosmati-style (that’s ornate geometric) stonework and precise archways.
In the center of the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, just across from the basilica itself, is the astounding Lateran Obelisk. This is the largest ancient Egyptian obelisk still standing in the world. Weighing in at around 300 tonnes, it was originally made in 1100 BC in Karnak, Egypt, and was made over the reign of two pharaohs, Thutmose III and Thutmose IV.
It was Emperor Constantine II who, in the 4th century AD, moved the structure from Alexandria in Egypt. Though originally intended to be erected at Constantinople, it was instead shipped to Rome, where it was put up in the Circus Maximus.
As time wore on, the obelisk was abandoned and left completely buried by mud by the 5th century AD. It wouldn’t be a monument again for many centuries. It wasn’t until 1588 that Pope Sixtus V ordered the excavation and restoration of the obelisk. It became the final ancient Egyptian obelisk to be erected in Rome. Topped with a cross, it took the place of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which itself had been moved in 1538 to the Piazza di Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill (and later to the Capitoline Museum).
Check out my post The Obelisks Of Rome.
Practical Info About Visiting St. John In The Lateran
How to fit St. John in the Lateran in your itinerary
If you think that a trip to this part of town to visit just one church is not worth your time, you will be happy to know that there are lots of other interesting places to visit in the neighborhood.
Not far from St. John in the Lateran, close to Vittorio Emanuele square, Vecchia Roma is one of the best trattorie in the city and incredibly budget friendly. You could consider having lunch there before making your way to the Basilica. Once you are done visiting St. John in the Lateran, a further 10 minutes walk towards the Colosseum, you’ll find San Clemente Basilica, one of Rome’s oldest churches.
St. John In The Lateran opening hours
The Basilica of Saint John Lateran is open every day from 7:00 am to 6:30 pm, while the Lateran Cloister is open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. and the Sancta Sanctorum is open from 9:30 am to 12:40 pm and from 3:00 to 5:10 pm daily.
There’s also The Museum of the Basilica, which is open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm.
Daily masses can also be seen throughout the day. Times for those can be seen here.
Best time to visit St. John In The Lateran
It’s possible to go to the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in time for a service, which is a good way to experience this historically important building. More information on this as well as contact details for the basilica can be found on their official website.
St. John In The Lateran tickets
No tickets are necessary, and the basilica is free to enter. However, if you’d like to visit the Lateran Cloister the admission costs €2. Admission to the Sancta Sanctorum, where the Scala Sancta is located, is €3,50.
Should you get a guided tour?
You don’t need a guided tour to be impressed or amazed by the architecture and history of this building. In fact, there is the Museum of the Basilica where you can go to learn more about the basilica and its heritage.
However, it is possible to find tours online that will guide you around the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. This may be a good idea for history buffs and art lovers looking for a deeper insight on their visit.
You can book your guided tour of St. John in the Lateran here.
For a more affordable way to learn more during your trip to the basilica, you could also opt for an audio guide. When you enter the basilica, there is an information booth where you can rent out audio guides; this is available every day, except for Sundays when the booth is not open. This audio guide costs €10.
You can also get an audioguide online – also for €10. For more information, click here.
Much like in St. Peter’s Basilica, you have to go through an airport style security check in order to access St. John in the Lateran church. This church is lesser visited compared to St. Peter’s, and depending on the time you visit the checks will be very swift and you will be able to walk in within minutes.
Make sure to also read my post A Complete Guide To St. Peter’s Basilica.
Is photography allowed?
Yes – and I recommend it. There are some beautiful things to see here, not only inside the basilica itself but also the geometric patterns at the Lateran Cloister and the Sancta Sanctorum.
There are modern restrooms located at the Basilica of Saint John in the Lateran.
There’s both ramp and elevator access for visitors who need them, though not all buildings in the vicinity are easily accessible for those with wheelchairs.
How to get there
The official address of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano, 4, 00184. The closest metro station is San Giovanni (Line A), which is a short walk from the piazza. You can also stop at Vittorio Emanuele or at Re di Roma metro stations and walk from there – they are also on Line A circuit.
A number of buses also stop close to the basilica, including numbers 16, 81, 85 and 850.