San Giovanni a Porta Latina is a late 5th century (?) paleochristian basilica, now a convent church, which is hidden away behind the Rosminian college at Via di Porta Latina 17. This is in the rione Celio, the historic rione Campitelli. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to St John the Evangelist.
Also see San Giovanni in Oleo, which counts as a chapel of the church.
This church is associated with a strange legend concerning St John the Evangelist, first mentioned by Tertullian in his De Praescriptione Haereticorum c. 36. According to it, the saint was arrested at Ephesus at the end of the 1st century AD, sent to Rome for trial and there put into a cauldron of boiling oil. He emerged unhurt, whereupon he was sent into exile on the island of Patmos where he wrote his Apocalypse.
The ebullition was meant to have taken place on the spot now marked by the little chapel of San Giovanni in Oleo, or "St John in Oil".
The origins of the basilica remain a complete mystery, because no documentary evidence survives prior to the first half of the 8th century.
However, scholars suggest that the initial date of construction was around the year 500, basing their evidence on masonry analysis which places the date of construction between the years 450 at the earliest and 550 at the latest. Four roof tiles, which bear the tax stamp of the Gothic king Theoderic (495-526), provide further support for this suggested date (although tiles can be re-used).
Thus, some sources attribute the foundation of the church to Pope Gelasius I (492-496), believing that the date of construction was slightly prior to the year 500. This opinion is no more than an educated guess.
The ancient columns in the church came, according to tradition, from a local temple of Diana, but they are a mixed lot and were obviously looted from several high-status buildings. The extant fabric ascribed to the early 6th century consists of the apses and the lower left hand side wall.
The earliest certain textual reference is in the Liber Pontificalis, which states that the church underwent complete restoration on the orders of Pope Adrian I (772-795), which was begun on his accession and took three years to complete. The portico might have derived from this work.
However, a dubious reference allegedly dating to 683 seems to suggest that the church was put under the authority of the chapter of San Giovanni in Laterano by Pope Leo II. This seems to be anachronistic, and the church was actually united to the Lateran chapter in 1145 (it seems to have had its own resident college of priests beforehand). This was the year after there had been a restoration of the church from a state of dereliction.
12th century restorationEdit
In 1191, Pope Celestine III ordered another restoration. The side walls of the church seem to have been rebuilt then, and the church interior given an extensive fresco cycle of which substantial fragments remain. Also from this restoration are the surviviing areas of Cosmatesque flooring in the sanctuary. The original large apse windows were blocked, leaving small slit windows instead.
Fortunately, the epigraph commemorating the rededication survives, and reads:
Anno Dominicae Incarnationis MCLXXXX, ecclesia Sancti Iohannis ante Portam Latinam dedicata est, ad honorem Dei et beati Iohannis Evangeliste, manu Domini Celestini III p[apae et] P[ontificis], presentibus fere omnibus cardinalibus tam episcopis quam et aliis cardinalibus, de mense madiam [sic] die X, festivitatis SS Gordiani et Epimachi, est enim ibi remissio vere penitentibus AXI [sic], dierum de iniunctis sibi penitentiis singulis annis.
An interesting thing about this inscription is that the year must be wrong because Celestine had not been elected pope yet in 1190.
By this period, the area had became completely depopulated and isolated. In fact it remained under vineyards until the 19th century and, as a result, the church was to suffer bouts of neglect.
At the end of the 13th century, the Lateran chapter was divided into benefices by Pope Boniface VIII and, as a result, San Giovanni a Porta Latina lost its source of funding. It seems to have been abandoned, for at the start of the 14th century the complex was being occupied by a community calling themselves Fratres Paupertates or "Brothers of Poverty". These seemed to have belonged to the radical wing of the Franciscans, the Fraticelli, who had to be suppressed as heretics later in the century.
While St Francis of Assisi was conspicuously faithful to the Magisterium of the Church and its sacramental system, many of his followers descended into insanity. Their main line of argument was that all Christians had to live a life of poverty, and that private property was not to exist. Further, some were influenced by the writings of a Cistercian abbot called Joachim of Fiore in claiming that they were the vanguard of a new Church of the Holy Spirit, with St Francis himself having been the Holy Spirit Incarnate.
The brethren here seem to have been able to maintain a presence for several decades before being dispersed.
In the 13th century, the portico of the church was given blocking walls in which the columns were left embedded. This converted the portico into a narthex or antechamber.
On the evidence of the fabric, the tower campanile has been dated to the 14th century although an earlier date has been claimed. It was built in the left hand end of the former portico, with the left hand side entrance of the church becoming a doorway into its bottom storey. For some reason, the corresponding right hand side entrance seems to have been walled up in the following century.
In 1431, the priests of the Lateran were put under the Augustinian rule and hence became the Canons Regular of the Lateran . This meant that the complex here could be run as a satellite monastery, and so the fortunes of the church improved. The canons immediately set to work, because they restored the ruinous campanile in 1433 and the portico in 1438.
The church was made titular in 1517. This had the useful effect of providing an influential patron interested in the church's welfare. As a result, in 1566 a series of restorations was begun under the patronage of the church's cardinals. The one that year was by Cardinal Alessandro Crivelli, continued in 1570 by Cardinal Gian Girolamo Albani. In the next century, Cardinal Francesco Paolucci oversaw work in 1633, which was continued by the Lateran Chapter in 1656 when it restored the campanile again.
18th century restorationsEdit
Cardinal Sperello Sperelli ordered a restoration in 1702.
When the Nolli map was published in 1748, there was a community of Minim friars resident at the convent instead of canons.
There was another restoration at the end of the century described as being under Cardinal Jean-Baptiste de Belloy-Morangle (cardinal here from 1803-8, however). The latter also involved the rebuilding of the monastery. Before then, the monastery buildings were L-shaped, consisting of one wing running from the right hand end of the portico down to the street, and another one along the street in the direction of the city. The public access of the church was via a passageway through the latter. The rebuilding involved the demolition of the latter wing and the provision of the present driveway.
In the restoration towards the end of the 18th century, some of the ancient Roman columns re-used in the church were allegedly appropriated for use in the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano (an indignity also suffered by San Saba, although the columns taken from there went to the Vatican). If this is true, it might have been that the church once had a pair of columns in a rare stone flanking the triumphal arch, as is still the case at San Crisogono where they are porphyry.
Appearance of church at end of 18th centuryEdit
Before the 20th century, the campanile had its arches blocked up except for the topmost storey. The portico was walled up except for the central arch, and above it was a second storey with a row of four windows (the far left hand one blocked up). A facing wall had been erected which concealed all the columns except the pair at the entrance, and on this wall were painted two large frescoes featuring events in the life of the saint. The main alterations to the old appearance of the interior of the basilica were in the sanctuary. This was given a barrel vault, coffered in squares with rosettes. This rested on an entablature running round the bottom of the apse conch, and having its ends under the archivolt of the triumphal arch. The latter had a pair of Ionic pilasters with high plinths and clad in marble. The spandrels of the arch had a pair of angels in fresco, and the cardinal's coat-of-arms on the keystone.
The apse windows were blocked, as were the bottom parts of the side arches leaving lunette windows. The apse conch was provided with a fresco -it probably once had a mosaic which fell off at some stage.
The nave roof was provided with a flat coffered wooden ceiling, and the nave side walls were frescoed and given stucco embellishments.
The church and adjoining convent still belonged to the Canons Regular of the Lateran, who had rebuilt the convent later in the 18th century century.
French soldiers used the church as a barracks after the invasion in 1798. After that, it was left deconsecrated and first turned into a warehouse for wool and then into a tannery. Later in the 19th century, it was reconsecrated and became a Franciscan Capuchin friary.
However, in 1905 the Annunciation sisters (who had moved here from Santa Maria Annunziata delle Turchine) began a thorough restoration which lasted intermittently until the 1940's. This involved removing most of the Baroque interior embellishments in favour of the Romanesque style.
More controversially, the apse windows were restored to their original size and the narthex was restored to an open loggia by the unblocking of its arches and the demolition of its second storey -both these interventions involved destruction of mediaeval fabric. The campanile had its arches unblocked, too.
During the restoration work in 1913 to 1915 Fr Paul Styge and Mon. Joseph Wilpert discovered and restored a fresco above the high altar. Later, upon further renovations, they discovered an entire fresco cycle on the nave walls.
The Institute of Charity (IC) or Rosminian Fathers, founded by Bl Antonio Rosmini, took possession of the complex in 1939, and had finished the restoration of the fresco cycle by 1941. Also, they enlarged the old convent to become their Curia (central headquarters) and a Missionary College.
The cardinalate title was only created in 1517.
At the end of the 20th century the titular was Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, archbishop emeritus of Kraków in Poland, who was granted the title in 1979. He had resigned as archbishop in 2005, and died in 2016. His successor in the same year was Renato Corti.
Overall width 14.45m, Overall length (without apse) ≈36m, Apse radius ≈3m, Apse width ≈6m, Atrium length ≈9m, Nave Length 16.9m, Nave width 7.74m, Aisle width, 3.36m
Layout and fabricEdit
Apart from one peculiarity, the church has a very typical basilical plan. First comes an open entrance loggia, with the campanile in its left hand side. Then comes a nave of six bays with side aisles, and then a sanctuary of three bays. The side aisles are prolonged to create a pair of chapels flanking the sanctuary.
The oddity is that there is a main apse attached to the sanctuary, but also two little apses to the side chapels. This seems to be an original feature of the church, in which case the small apses did not belong to chapels because side chapels did not exist in palaeochristian churches. Rather, the arrangement seems to correspond to that still pertaining in the Byzantine rite. In this, the chamber to the left of the sanctuary (called the prothesis) is the place where the Eucharistic elements are prepared before Mass, and the chamber to the right (the diaconia) is the place where the sacred vessels and other precious items are stored.
Also, from outside you can see that the central apse is polygonal, forming half of a hexagon, while internally it is semi-circular. This is also claimed as a feature of Byzantine architecture; in effect, the apse is provided with internal buttressing. It has also been claimed in modern descriptions that the little side apses were polygonal but the archaeological surveys do not support this.
The main apse now has three large arched windows fenestrated with selenite (a kind of alabaster) rather than glass. There are windows at Santa Sabina treated in this way, and both sets are the result of 20th century restoration.
The exterior walls are all in brick, with the occasional stone block (hence the fabric is referred to as opus mixtum). There is one pitched and tiled roof covering the central nave and sanctuary.
The entrance faces onto an attractive courtyard, which has iron railings separating it from a quiet piazza. The latter is just north of the former convent rebuilt by the Lateran canons in the 18th century, which separates the church from the road. In the courtyard is a famous well to the left, and on the other side is a cedar tree. This looks old enough to have been planted when the modern restoration work started in 1905.
The well in the forecourt is ancient, a very rare survival of the 9th century and a witness to the collapse of the ancient aqueducts which used to supply the water to the city neighbourhoods on the hills.
It has a wellhead in white marble, shaped like an inverted tree stump and bearing naïve relief carvings of interlinked wheels. There an abbreviated Latin inscription around the rim, which reads:
In nomine Pat[ris] et Filii et Spi[ritus Sanct]i. Omn[e]s sitie[ntes venite ad aquas.] Ego Stefhanus, meaning "In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. All who thirst, come to the waters. I, Stephen." The last is thought to have been the sculptor.
This wellhead is flanked by two small ancient marble Corinthinan columns, remnants of the winding frame which has lost its crosspiece.
There is an extrance loggia, with a single-pitched tiled roof and five rather narrow arches with brick voussoirs and re-used ancient columns. The structure as it stands is essentially modern, a result of the 20th century restoration but preserving the ancient arcade.
The columns are mismatched, being green cipollino marble, grey granite, red granite and white marble. They have Ionic capitals, except the green one which has a debased Doric one. The white marble one is fluted.
Above the loggia, the gable end wall of the nave is pierced by three arched windows in a row, with fretted marble screens called transennae. These also are a result of the 20th century restoration. Above these is a glazed oculus or round window under the gable.
Inside the loggia on the right is the original stone finial of San Giovanni in Oleo. Fragments of ancient epigraphs have been incorporated into the relaid pavement.
Also surviving are a few scanty fragments of frescoes on the front wall of the church. Above the doorway is a monochrome bust of Christ in a round tondo, and in the top right hand corner is a fragment showing a crowd wearing different coloured tunics; this is thought to have been part of a scene depicting The Preaching of John the Baptist.
The doorcase contains a frame in Cosmatesque work.
The campanile is thought to be 14th century, although it is also considered to be a result of the 12th century restoration. It was inserted into the narthex on the left hand side, an odd arrangement which has been copied at the modern church of San Giustino.
It stands six stories above the narthex roof, each storey separated from the next by a dentillate cornice. The second storey displays an arched recess, the third one has two arches separated by a brick pier and the top three storeys have triple arcades having marble columns and imposts.
The nave has six bays, and its arcades have five ancient columns on either side which display an interesting mix of types and colours of stone. There are two of grey granite, three of pink granite, two of cipollino, one of a grey marble called lumachellato and two fluted ones of pavonazzetto which are nearest the sanctuary. The capitals are all Ionic, two being ancient and the other eight dating to the 5th century church.
Above the arcades are six round-headed windows, re-opened in the 20th century restoration, which are matched by small windows high up in the side aisles. The wooden roof is now open and trussed, the ceiling having been removed in the same restoration.
The upper walls of the central nave used to have frescoes by Paolo Gismondi, but now display the fresco fragments described below.
The left hand side chapel at the end of the aisle now has its apse decorated with a seraph on a gold background, while the surrounding wall has a flower and bird motif on a dark blue background.
The right hand side chapel used to have an altarpiece of St Anthony of Padua by Filippo Evangelisti. It is now dedicated to Our Lady, and has a mediaeval fresco of the Madonna and Child above the apse.
Oddly, the aisles were allowed to retain their Baroque decoration although this was cut through when the windows were re-opened. It consists of painted arcades on Ionic columns, echoing the nave arcades. At the near end of the left hand aisle is a portrait of Bl Antonio Rosimini, and in the right hand aisle one of Cardinal de Belloy-Morangle whose memorial used to be here.
Before the 20th century, the altar was against the curve of the apse wall which then had no windows. The altarpiece depicting St John the Evangelist was by Federico Zuccari, and the frescoes on the blocking walls of the side arches (now demolished) were by Filippo Lauri. The Baroque apse fresco has been allowed to remain, although damaged by the re-opening of the ancient windows.
The modern high altar has a carved marble frontispiece having a semi-abstract vine design, and the step in front of it bears an ancient epigraph giving the name of the church, recovered in the 20th century.
Around the present altar is an area of restored Cosmatesque pavement originally dating from the 12th century. This incorporates fragments of ancient epigraphs, some of which are in Greek.
In the step leading into the sanctuary is a fragment of ancient frieze carved with vegetation and grotesque faces. To the left is displayed the 12th century dedication epigraph transcribed above, and above it one of the Theoderic tiles doing duty as a lectern.
In the central apse window is a modern wooden Calvary, doing duty as an altarpiece and carved by members of the Via Gardena studio.
The frescoes in the nave were painted by three or four artists, working on a single project during the restoration after 1191. It is thought that their work was plastered over in 1566, after having badly deteriorated when the church was neglected.
The apse arch fresco has three registers. The topmost is a frieze with a geometric pattern, which also runs down the sides of the sanctuary. The second register contains the symbols of the evangelists (lion, man, eagle and ox), and in the middle is a pair of angels venerating something. What the thing is is unknown, because this part of the work has been lost. The third register, either side of the arch, contains a pair of standing figures which have lost their heads and most of their bodies.
The side walls of the sanctuary display the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse, which identify the whole composition as the scene in Rev 5:13. There, the elders venerate the "one seated on the throne" and "the Lamb of God" with the "scroll with seven seals". The missing central section of the fresco should show the Lamb of God, but the space is too small. Therefore, scholars suggest that the Scroll was here with a cross representing Christ. If the latter is to be accepted, it raises further questions because representing Christ by a cross instead of a Lamb was very old-fashioned in the 11th century.
Below the elders on each side are two pediments, one triangular and one segmental, but the rest of the frescoes below these are lost.
The nave frescoes form a single scheme, mostly in three registers starting at the top right hand corner and running clockwise to the top left. The top register represent Old Testament scenes, which are doctrinally related to the middle register which mostly shows the nativity cycle, and the bottom register which is to do with the Passion and Resurrection.
In the description, the linked scenes are described in turn, top to bottom.
Right hand side wallEdit
Creation of the Universe -Annunciation to Our Lady -Resurrection of Lazarus.
Creation of Adam -Visitation of Our Lady to St Elizabeth -Entry of Christ into Jerusalem.
Creation of Eve -Journey to Bethlehem -Last Supper.
Birth of Christ -Washing of Feet.
Serpent Tempts Adam and Eve -Annunciation to the Shepherds -Betrayal by Judas
Adam and Eve Judged -Adoration of the Magi -Christ Carries the Cross
Expulsion from Eden -Crucifixion.
Angel with Flaming Sword to Guard Eden -Deposition from the Cross.
On the counterfaçade, the top Old Testament register is continued but the main scene shows the Last Judgment.
The Old Testament scenes are:
Adam and Eve in exile -Sacrifices of Cain and Abel -Murder of Abel -Cain Condemned.
Left hand side wallEdit
Noah Warned of Flood -Dream of Joseph -Women at the Tomb
Noah's Ark -Flight into Egypt -Christ Appears to the Women
Abraham Receives Angels as Guests -Massacre of the Innocents -Disciples Going to Emmaus
Sacrifice of Isaac -The Boy Christ Among the Teachers -Christ Known in the Breaking of Bread
Jacob Steals Esau's Birthright -Baptism and Transfiguration of Christ -Meeting on Road to Emmaus and Doubt of St Thomas
Jacob Wrestles with the Angel and Jacob's Dream at Shiloh -The Samaritan Woman and the Adulteress -Appearance at Lake Tiberias.
There were frescoes in the side aisles as well; the right hand one has fragments which are tentatively identified as featuring SS Zechariah and Elizabeth (parents of St John the Baptist) and SS Joachim and Anne (parents of Our Lady).
How to get thereEdit
The church is located is approximately 40 m north of the Via Latina, which passes through the ancient city wall at the Latin Gate (Porta Latina).
Unusually for Rome, the church is not near a bus stop and never has been. The nearest is the Latina stop on route 360 from Termini or Porta San Giovanni (or 218 from the latter only), which entails a walk through the Porta Latina.
The walk from the direction of the city, along the Via di San Giuseppe from San Cesareo, can be very tiresome during the rush hour as the street is narrow and there is no pavement (sidewalk).
The church is advertised as open from 7:30 to 12:30 and 15:00 to 19:00. (Church website.)
Mass on Sundays and solemnities is at: 8:00. 10:00, 11:30.
There is no weekday Mass advertised, but the Rosminian brethren have a Mass in their convent chapel at 6:45, Monday to Saturday. If you ring at the front door beforehand you are welcome to join them -but not after the Mass has already started!
The patronal feast of the church is on 27 December.
The church is available for weddings, and details are on the church's website.
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