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San Giovanni in Laterano

Following the side of the Palazzo del Laterano, we arrive at the principal entrance to the church. First, however, let us take a look at the beautiful Baptistry, erected by Constantine most probably in an pond of the ancient Palazzo dei Laterani, then rebuilt by Sixtus III and restored by Urban the VIII, to be the prototype of baptistries to follow. Divided into two octagonal rings of eight porphyry columns which support the main beams, on which another set of eight smaller columns sit, its interior has a solemn pomp to it, but at the same time is supremely elegant. In the middle an Egyptian green basalt urn and circular basin are placed and here, on the night of Easter, the special ceremonies are performed in the presence of the Pope and the people. Cola di Rienzo also immersed himself in the basin before facing the public with the code of arms of the knights, calling on the Pope and the principal electors of the empire to appear before him. The pavement is composed of leftovers from the domus of the Laterans. In one of the chapels full of mosaics, two bronze doors, probably taken from the Baths of Caracalla, when turned slowly on their hinges emit a sound similar to that of an organ. Now let's enter by the main door the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. But in order not to lose the marvellous vision of Galilei's main facade let us first cross to the other side of the piazza to the beautiful monument of St. Francis in the act of his chant of love to the Creator. The facade rises grandiosely in the highest point of the vast square, crowned by gigantic statues and adorned by green lawns which bring to mind the fascinating Roman countryside. Above all in the morning hours, this cathedral of Rome and the world is filled with blinding light and against a cobalt blue sky appears to be surrounded with a glorious golden aura. We find this same blinding light in the joyful atrium where a statue of Constantine stands and where we see the bronze doors of the Roman Curia next to the stone door with a frieze of the Cross, which is opened every 25 years in occasion of jubilee years. The interior of the church is also filled with a light whiteness which alternates with a warm golden light. It is dominated by Baroque elements of a type which do not convey much solemnity to the temple, in particular in the central nave which encourages the soul to exalt in joy rather than calmly pray. More inspiring is the grandiose apse with its scintillating gold and coloured marble similar to that of a Romanesque basilica. Different in style, the apse was to be the primitive church and was frescoed by Giotto. Witness to the principal moments of the Church's history, it was built on the ruins of the sumptuous houses of the Laterans and glorified for its magnificence, but then devastated by the Vandals, destroyed by fire and reconstructed many times. Finally, Innocent X ordered its reconstruction by Francesco Borromini in the mid 1600s, and Leone XIII in 1885 had the old apse torn down and reconstructed, recreating the ancient mosaics. In addition to the magnificent ceiling, rich pavement and colossal statues of the apostles in the main nave, the present church has superb elements, including the sepulchre of Clemente XIII, in a colossal urn of porphyry. The most representative monument of the basilica is the beautiful tabernacle from the 15th century above the papal altar, in which according to legend contains the heads of the apostles of Peter and Paul in bags of silver. The altar is said to hold the table on which St Peter held ceremonies. In the confessional in front of the papal altar is a bronze tombstone holding the remains of Martin V, who is honoured in posterity temporun suorum felicitas for having ended the great schism from the West. In the chapel of the Holy Sacrament on the left of the papal altar are four guilt bronze columns which according to tradition were made with the rostras of Cleopatra's ships and were offered to Augustus at the Temple of Jupiter, or according to another version, were transported to Rome from Jerusalem after St Helen filled them with earth from the Calvary. In the transept a series of beautiful frescoes depict the episodes in the life of Constantine. Next to the church is an admirable cloister from the 1200s, a splendid example of Roman Cosmatesque art which enriched many basilicas and sanctuaries in Italy with its fascinating multicoloured pavements and twisted colonnades inlayed with gold and enamel. The current Palazzo del Laterano is where on 11 February 1929 the conciliation between Italy and the Church took place. It was built by Sixtus V and substituted the old Palazzo del Laterano, built on the location of the ancient Patriarchio, residence of the Popes until the transfer of the Apostolic seat to Avignon. It is the location of the Lateran Museums and includes the Museo Profano, the Museo Cristiano and the Museo Missionario Etnografico. The Museo Profano is also called the Museo Gregoriano Lateranense after its founder Gregorio XVI, and is of great historical and artistic interest for it holds material from the Vatican Museums and objects from excavations at Veio, Cere and Ostia, as well as a collection of pagan epigraphs and a great piece of mosaic pavement from the Baths of Caracalla with 26 busts of nude athletes and eight dressed gymnasts. The Museo Cristiano has a collection of ancient Christian sculptures and inscriptions that are unique in the world. The Museo Missionario Etnografico was founded by Pius XI with the documents and relics exhibited in Rome at the Missionary Exposition in 1925, and includes historical documents of Missions and relics from the people where these missions took place. The visit to these three museums takes at least half a day, and it is best to dedicate an entire afternoon. Across from the Palazzo del Laterano, a small building holds one of the most precious relics of Christianity: the stairway of the house of Pilate, which Jesus climbed the day of the passion and which according to tradition was transported to Rome by St. Helen. Above it, on the other side of a grate is a small chapel which was the papal chapel of the ancient Patriarchio, with the image of the Redeemer said to have been painted by the Angeles. This image the popes carried solemnly in procession to ward off great calamity from the human race. Next to the Scala Santa is a grandiose niche with a splendid mosaic: it is the only remains from the Leonian Triclinium, the old dining room of the Patriarchio. A little further attached to the ruins of the Neronian Acqueduct is the Villa Wolkonsky, once the seat of the German Embassy where in a melancholic avenue of memories Princess Zenaide Wolkonsky, romantic friend of Alexander I of Russia gathered busts and memoirs of her dead friends and acquaintances, from the Czar of the Russias to the housekeepers of her family. The vast Piazzale of San Giovanni in Laterano ends with the Porta San Giovanni, from which 9 streets radiate leading to nine very active areas and toward the beautiful Colli Albani with the sublime ruins of Tuscolo, and the pensive solitude of Grottaferrata towards the Airport, as well as to the modern studios of Cinecittà and the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematrografia and to the happy Capannelle racetrack. We will content ourselves in passing under the Porta San Giovanni to appreciate the solemn spectacle of the Aurelian Walls interrupted by the austere towers of the ancient Porta Asinaria and dominated by the crown of statues atop San Giovanni in Laterano, between two curtains of pines and century old flint stones. And if on a June evening after an excursion to the Castelli Romani (worn from the war, but equally beautiful and seductive) we return through the Porta San Giovanni, our mind still fogged by generous Frascati wine, let us not fault the wine for what we may see on the immense piazzale. It is only the night of San Giovanni, still called the night of the witches: a pagan rite which brings Romans of every rank together in a great feast of snails and Castelli wine. Let's join in on the festivities and live an hour of gay thoughtlessness. Take a blow on one of the traditional trumpets whose deafening sound is the soul of this popular Roman folk festival. And let us not be scandalized if all goes on until dawn, when the city once again will take up its regular life in the other quarters, and the sky above Rome will fill with the most beautiful colours of aurora.