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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in August 2009.

Battisterio Lateranense (Book 6) (Map A4) (Day 1) (View C9) (Rione Monti)

In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Today's view
The Baptistery

The Plate (No. 101)

Battisterio Lateranense

This is one of three views of Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano; the others are plate 34 (named after the piazza) and plate 172 (Spedale di S. Giovanni). The focus of this plate is on the Baptistery, but Vasi takes the opportunity for showing the hieroglyphs of the obelisk.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Obelisco Egizio; 2) Spedale di S. Giovanni; 3) Battisterio. 1) and 2) are shown in detail in other pages. The small map shows also 4) the location of Roman baths found inside some old buildings.

Small ViewSmall Map

Today

The Baptistery today
The view in July 2009

In the XVIIIth century Piazza S. Giovanni in Laterano was a busy place only during possessio the ceremony by which a newly elected pope took possession of his charge as Bishop of Rome, and other religious processions. Today it usually has very heavy traffic as it is located between the city centre and the southern suburbs of Rome, including EUR.
The monuments shown by Vasi have not been modified, but the opening of a modern road between the Baptistery and Spedale di S. Giovanni revealed that some houses incorporated the remains of ancient (private) Roman baths.

The Baptistery

The Baptistery
(left) Entrance from Piazza di S. Giovanni; (upper right corner) heraldic symbols of Pope Alexander VII on the cornice; (lower right corner) the sun of the Barberini on the floor of the baptistery

For centuries the main entrance to the Baptistery was from the opposite side: it was preceded by a Vth century small portico with two porphyry columns. In 1575, in the frame of the redesign of the whole Lateran area, Pope Gregory XIII opened an entrance from the square; it was the beginning of a series of modifications/restorations which lasted for almost a century until they were completed by Pope Alexander VII.

Details
(left) View of the Baptistery and of a hall of ancient Roman baths; (right) small fountain adjoining the Baptistery (it is decorated with the heraldic symbols of Pope Clement VIII)

The Baptistery was built by Emperor Constantine and it probably had a circular shape which was turned into an octagon in the Vth century. According to Liber Pontificalis, a medieval chronicle of the lives of the popes, the Baptistery was provided with facilities for administering baptism by immersion. The official name of the building was S. Giovanni in Fonte (spring/fountain).

The Baptistery
The Vision of the Cross by Giacinto Geminiani; (inset) Ponte Milvio

Throughout the Middle Ages Emperor Constantine was regarded as almost the co-founder of the Church; during the Renaissance his figure was shadowed by interest and admiration for his predecessors, chiefly emperors Augustus and Trajan.
In the XVIIth century the Roman Church started to emphasize again the importance of Constantine; it was a period of religion wars and he was regarded as the example of a king who embraced the true faith.
Pope Urban VIII promoted the decoration of the interior of the Baptistery with large frescoes portraying events of Constantine's life; in Rome there were several statues portraying the emperor and it was known that he was clean-shaven, how his hair was combed and other aspects of his face. The true objective of portraying Constantine, however was that of representing a XVIIth century king who supported the Roman Catholic faith: in this fresco Constantine has light beard and moustache and he wears the crown of a "modern" king (see Bernini's statue of Constantine).

The Baptistery
(left) Interior; (right) ceiling decorated with the Barberini heraldic symbols; inscription: "Spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas" (the Wind of God swept over the water) - Genesis LXX

Battisterio Lateranense was for a long time the only baptistery in Rome and its octagonal shape provided a model for many others in Rome and elsewhere in Italy (Florence, Parma).

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:


Fonte Battesimale
Intanto volendo noi con brevità, e con puntualità ancora osservare le antiche, e moderne cose, che appartengono a questa Basilica, bisogna cominciare dal Battisterio, o vogliamo dire Fonte battesimale. Siccome gli antichi Padri ebbero somma cura nell'amministrare i Sagramenti, così il Pontefice s. Silvestro, veduta stabilita la pace alla Chiesa, pensò di edificare presso alla basilica Costantiniana un magnifico Fonte, che per la liberalità di Costantino fu guarnito tutto di porfido, e da ogni banda fu ricoperto di tre mila e otto libbre di argento; in mezzo al Fonte si alzava un vaso di cinquanta libbre di oro, in una lucerna con li stoppini di amianto sì abbruciava balsamo; vi era un agnello di trenta libbre di oro, che gettava acqua, alla cui destra era una statua di cento settanta libbre di argento rappresentante il ss. Salvatore alta cinque piedi, ed altra simile di s. Gio: Battista con in mano l'iscrizione: ECCE AGNUS DEI, ECCE QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI Vi erano ancora sette cervi ciascuno di libbre ottanta di argento, che spargevano acqua; ed un vaso da profumi di dieci libbre di oro, guarnito da circa 42. tra smeraldi, e zaffiri. I1 Medesimo Costantino aveva fatto condurre in Roma alquante maravigliose colonne di porfido per adornare il fonte: ma non essendo state messe in opera, e restando pel corso di tanti secoli devastate, e derelitte quelle magnificenze, Sisto IV. ne drizzò otto, e sono quelle, che ora reggono la cupoletta ottangolare, nella quale si vedono i bei quadri dipinti da Andrea Sacchi. Vi si conservano le due cappellette, una di s. Gio: Evangelista, e l'altra di s. Gio: Battista in memoria dell'oratorio, che da s. Ilario Papa vi era stato fatto, e sono ornate di mosaici e statue di metallo. Nel giro d'intorno sonovi delle pitture a fresco, fra le quali, quella , in cui si rovinano gl' Idoli, è la prima pittura a fresco fatta da Carlo Maratti. Sieguono due celebri cappelle, una eretta l’anno 1253. da Anastasio IV. dedicata alle ss. Ruffina, e Seconda, nella. quale sono i corpi delle ss. Titolari, e di altri Martiri, e vi si vedono quattro grosse colonne di porfido con alcune anticaglie; l'altra eretta fu l’anno 640. da Giovanni IV. per collocarvi il corpo di s. Venanzio con altri santi Martiri, che si vedono rappresentati nel mosaico della tribuna; in oggi evvi un nobilissimo altare dedicato alla ss. Vergine, ornato con depositi di marmi, e di sculture secondo il disegno del Cav. Algardi.

Next plate in Book 6: S. Maria in Campo Corleo
Next step in Day 1 itinerary: Porta S. Giovanni
Next step in your tour of Rione Monti: Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano