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San Lorenzo fuori le Mura

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San Lorenzo fuori le Mura

English name: St Lawrence outside the Walls
Dedication: St Lawrence the Deacon
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Clergy: Franciscans
Built: 4th century, restored several times
Architect(s): Virginio Vespagniani
Contact data
Address: 3 Piazzale del Verano
00185 Roma
Phone: 06 49 15 11
Homepage: Official Site

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura is one of the seven great basilicas of Rome and is dedicated to St Lawrence, the 3rd century deacon and martyr. It is at Piazzale del Verano 3, near an important bus and tram station in the Piazza San Lorenzo. Bus route number 71 gets there from Piazza San Silvestro, and number 3 from Porta San Giovanni. The church is served by Franciscan Capuchins, and has a parish.


Dark AgesEdit

The first church was built possibly in the 4th century near the tomb of St Lawrence, who was buried in a field that belonged to the emperor Lucius Verus (hence Campo Verano). This was a large funerary basilica south of the present church, 99m long and in the form of an ancient Roman circus (the plan is technically called "circiform"). The west end was semi-circular. This was presumed to have been ordered by the emperor Constantine, but revisionist scholarly opinion puts it in the reign of Pope Sixtus III (432-40). What Constantine apparently had done was an excavation into the catacomb in which the martyr was buried, exposing his tomb to the open so that a shrine could be built around it. There was a staircase leading down from the circus basilica to the shrine. It used to be thought that the basilica was actually over the tomb, until remains of it were discovered in the 1940's.

There is a further recent doubt as to whether this circus basilica was a church, or a funerary enclosure. This question derives from the revision of the status of the Basilica Constantiniana at Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura. In the 5th century building campaign by Pope Sixtus which may have given rise to it, two other churches were added as well as two separate convents. One of the churches was dedicated to Our Lady. Whatever the circus basilica was, it did not last because it was completely abandoned in the reign of Pope Pelagius II (579-590), who ordered a new church to be built actually over the shrine. This has been preserved as part of the present church; it is the section beyond the altar.

Middle Ages and BaroqueEdit

During the Middle Ages, the basilica was isolated in open countryside and was only a pilgrimage destination. However, much attention was given to it. Pope Clement III (1187-91) provided the campanile, the cloister and also a hospital for pilgrims. In 1200, the complex was given a protecting wall and the resulting small town was called Laurentiopolis. This work was possibly responsible for removing the original atrium, for which there seems to be some archaeological evidence. The Canons Regular of the Lateran were responsible for administration.

Pope Honorius III (1148-1227) expanded the church by connecting one of the 5th century churches built by Pope Sixtus III, the one dedicated to Our Lady, to Pelgius's basilica of San Lorenzo. The old church became a new choir and sanctuary. This placed the high altar with the tomb of St Lawrence in the middle of the church. The orientation of the church was reversed. It can clearly be seen that the two parts do not align perfectly; this is because the basic structure of the 5th century church of Our Lady stood has a slightly different orientation, and rather than demolish it the architect decided to work within the existing walls.

The decorative marbles and columns which were placed in front of the church were looted by Pope Leo X (1475-1521) for his family's palazzo, and in 1624 the ceiling of the eastern part collapsed and was replaced. This restoration also involved repair to the catacombs. In 1704 a semicircular arcade was proposed to be built in front of the church to improve its dignity, designed by Alessandro Galli. What was put there in the event was a column supporting the heraldic symbols of Pope Clement XI.

Modern timesEdit

People started to settle outside the city walls when public security improved in the 17th century, and the defensive wall was removed. A parish was erected in 1709. In 1830 the present enormous cemetery of Campo Verano was opened for the Catholic population of Rome (formally consecrated in 1837), and the basilica has since often been known as San Lorenzo in Campo Verano. Blessed Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) had Virginio Vespagniani restore the church, and most of the Baroque decorative elements were removed at this time including Galli's entrance layout. The pope was buried in a tomb chapel built for him in the east end. Simultaneously, in this period the city of Rome started its massive suburban expansion that left the church's surroundings wholly urbanized. The original access, the Via di San Lorenzo, was the original line of the Via Tiburtina and started near the church of Sant'Antonio Abate all'Esquilino, running eastwards in an almost straight line through the Porta San Lorenzo along what is now the Via dei Rami. The building of Termini train station meant that the church lost its direct route to the Centro Storico.

In 1855, the Canons of the Lateran had to hand the basilica over to the Capuchins.

The church was damaged during World War II, the only one in Rome to suffer (apart from Santa Maria Consolatrice al Tiburtino which was not yet finished, and was damaged in the same raid). The façade was almost completely destroyed on July 19, 1943, when it was hit by a bomb during an allied air raid on the nearby railroad yards. It was subsequenty rebuilt, the work being completed in 1949.


Entrance portico and façadeEdit

The façade has restored to the architectural form thought to have been extant in the Middle Ages, but without the mosaics that used to cover the nave frontage above the portico. There is a photo of the old façade here. [3]. The external portico, originally built c1220, has a sloping tiled roof and is supported by six ancient marble Ionic columns. Unusually for Roman churches using re-used columns, these are a matched set. The two outer ones are in cipollino (light green) marble from Greece, and the four inner ones are in white marble with incised spiral decoration. The ones flanking the central portal are thicker. These columns hold up an entablature, and on the frieze of this there is Cosmatesque decoration by the Vassaletti family of craftsmen. This repays examination, as the purple porphyry and green serpentine panels and geometric mosaic decoration are enlivened by panels over the central portal which had figurative mosaics. A Lamb of God in a roundel survives, and a fragment showing what is thought to be Pope Honorius III and Peter II de Courtenay paying him homage. The latter was the Latin emperor of Constantinople, and this fragment depicts an event that took place in 1217.

Inside the portico, there are 13th century frescoes which have been reconstructed. They depict scenes from the lives of St Stephen and St Lawrence, both deacons and martyrs.

The top of the brick nave frontage above the portico is coved (the technical term is cavetto), which is unusual and looks strange. The curve is a reminder of the lost mosaics that used to cover this wall, since it ensured that the mosaics were not fore-shortened in the view of anybody in front of the portico. The church of Santa Croce a Via Flaminia demonstrates this. The row of three brick-arched windows is in the original mediaeval design, but the stone fenestration (known as transennae) pierced by circular holes in a geometric pattern is a mediaevalist guess. Before the air-raid, these windows were glazed. If one looks at the 18th century Vasi engraving, one will see that the frontage has no cove, and pilasters separate the windows. These lost mosaics, and the coved wall which bore them, were 19th century and the replication of the cove after the bombing raid was a mistake.

There are three ancient sarcophagi and bits of a fourth in the portico. Of special interest is a Christian one, possibly decorated in the 7th century by re-carving an older sarcophagus with a relief depicting putti picking grapes. Contrary to the norm, it has no obvious Christian symbols. The vines and grapes are symbols of the Eucharist, but it was usually done in a less subtle way than this, and this is a rare example of art for art's sake on a Christian sarcophagus. The legend is that Pope Damasus II was buried in this in 1048. Two Romanesque stone lions were moved here from the old entrance, and placed either side of the central door.

In the left hand side of the portico you will also find a monument over the statesman Alcido de Gaspari (died 1954). It was made by one of the leading sculptors of modern Italy, Giacomo Manzù, and is an odd combination of a polished pink granite block bearing his name sitting on top of a white marble block bearing entangled tree branches and leaves carved in high relief.

This portico has been a professional begging pitch for centuries. In fact, St Frances of Rome used to beg here for her new nunnery. Anybody wanting to be left in peace to examine it, should be prepared to part with some loose change beforehand.

Other external detailsEdit

The roof of the church is pitched and tiled, hipped at the entrance end and sweeping in one run to the other end. Thus, it includes the slight bend halfway down the church. It may be the longest tiled roof on a Roman church. There are no transepts.

The brick campanile was built in the 12th century on the right hand side, to a simple design and strangely with its axis skew to the church's major axis. It used to stand alone, but now abuts onto a modern extension next to the church aisle. Above the first elevation, as high as the church's aisle, are five further storeys separated by projecting cornices and with a pyramidal cap. There are two arches on each side of the top four storeys. The last but one storey holds a clock, and the clockfaces obscure the arches.

The little rectangular convent cloister is by the far right hand corner of the church.

The granite column in front of the portico, with a bronze statue of St Lawrence on top, is not the original Galli one but a replacement of 1865. The statue was by Stefano Galletti.



The basilical extension of Honorius now serves as the nave. It has eleven large Ionic granite columns on either side, supporting the aisle entablatures, and above them the upper nave walls are pierced by individual arched windows. The floor is 12th century Cosmatesque work of high quality. Unfortunately, its intricate figurative central mosaic panel was mostly destroyed in the bombing raid. Just inside the entrance is the tomb of Guglielmo Cardinal Fieschi, who died in 1256. He was laid to rest in an ancient sarcophagus, incidentally decorated with a relief depicting a pagan marriage feast. Halfway down the right hand side of the nave is the ambo, which has more Cosmatesque decoration incorporating large porphyry (purple) panels and verde antico (dark green) roundels, and there is also a fine Cosmatesque Paschal candlestick by the ambo stairs. The candlestick has a twisted barley-sugar stem, a motif which, by tradition, dates from the Temple of Solomon. The yellow bits in the Cosmatesque decoration are giallo antico, a coloured marble from what is now Algeria which the ancient Romans regarded as precious.

The Ionic capital on the column directly behind the ambo is interesting. It has carvings of a frog and a lizard, which you should be able to see from the floor. If there aren't too many people around, you may get permission to climb up on the pulpit to look more closely at it. A theory about these unusual carvings is that they are the signatures of two Spartan slaves mentioned by the Roman historian Pliny as the architects of the Portico of Octavia - their names, Batrachos and Sauros, meant 'frog' and 'lizard'. The capital is clearly reused from an older building, so it seems certain that it is their work.

During the 19th century restoration, the interior nave walls were covered with a cycle of frescoes by Cesare Fracassini. The post-war restoration kept one over the entrance, and also on the triumphal arch facing the entrance. The rest are lost. In the right hand aisle are some fragments of mediaeval frescoes, showing Our Lady and saints.

The right hand aisle ends with the chapel of St Tarsicius, a Roman martyr also probably a deacon. This was created by Vespagniani, and contains the Burial of St Laurence by Emilio Savonanzi of 1619. At the end of the left hand aisle is the entrance to the small underground chapel of St Cyriaca (not to be confused with the catacombs), who was a wealthy widow featuring in the legend of St Laurence. Its present decoration is Baroque, of the 17th century, and includes two funerary monuments by Pietro da Cortona. It is very rarely to be found open.


The nave and choir are separated by what was the triumphal arch of the church of Pelagius. Facing the choir is a large Byzantine-style mosaic from the 6th century, depicting Christ with saints and made during Pope Pelagius II's reign. The Pope is depicted without a halo, holding a model of the church. The other persons are SS Lawrence and Stephen, the Apostles Peter and Paul and the Roman martyr St Hippolytus. Only the figures of St Lawrence and Pope Pelagius II are in their original state; the others are the results of later restorations. The two cities on either side are Bethlehem and Jerusalem. This mosaic was meant to face the congregation before the church's orientation was reversed.

The huge fluted Corinthian columns of the choir are of pavonazzetto (yellow) marble, and have interestingly carved capitals. Above them are entablatures made up of miscellaneous antique carved fragments, and above those are arched galleries with smaller columns and windows with transennae.The choir is unusual in having these galleries, which were either built for the use of women as in the Eastern tradition, or to provide an entrance from a higher level since the original church was built against the side of a hill.

The confessio is below the high altar, and can be entered from the nave. Here, St Lawrence and St Stephen are enshrined. The latter was brought here from Constantinople by Pope Pelagius II when he restored the church. On either side of the entrance to the confessio are steps that will take you up to the oldest part of the church.

Directly above the tomb is the high altar. Above it is a baldacchino with an inscription naming the makers, of the Cosmati family, and dating it to 1148. Four of the Cosmati signed it: Giovanni, Pietro, Augusto and Sassone, all sons of Paolo. This is one of the oldest signed works by the Cosmati. The four matched columns of porphyry have intricately carved bases and sit on more superb Cosmatesque paving. The corona of the baldaccchino was restored in the 19th century.

The episcopal throne at the end of the choir and a screen near it have more Cosmatesque decoration, and date from 1254.

Beneath the floor of the choir is the original floor level of the first church, and at the far end is the original porch which was adapted as a chapel for the tomb of Blessed Pope Pius IX, who died in 1878. The tomb can be reached from the old narthex, behind the wall that the episcopal throne stands against. The architect was Raffaele Cattaneo, and the mosaics were executed by Ludovico Seitz. The work was completed in 1881.

On the right hand side of the confessio is the sacristy, where there is a small shop selling postcards and guide-books. Walk through the sacristy, and you'll reach a 12th century Romanesque cloister. Around the walls are fragments of sculpture and inscriptions from the catacombs below. Part of one of the bombs that hit the basilica is also kept here.

Catacombs, and Basilica of St HippolytusEdit

The entrance to the Catacombs of St Cyriaca is in this cloister, and they descend to five levels. Most of the inscriptions found are on view in the cloister, and there is apparently little of interest left underground. This is for the best, since the catacombs have been badly damaged by excavations in the adjacent cemetery and are, in effect, abandoned. (There are recent stories of individual friars giving impromptu tours for personal friends, however.)

There is another, separate set of catacombs nearby, dedicated to St Hippolytus. They are described as being on the other side of the Via Tiburtina, and seem to have been lost to view for the time being. They are certainly not open to the public. There used to be a palaeochristian basilica here dedicated to the saint, which had a nave and side aisles in the 7th century and ranked with San Lorenzo as a place of pilgrimage back then. It was destroyed by marauders in the 9th century, and there is nothing to see of it now. The site was about where the Instituto Superiore di Sanità in Via del Castro Laurenziano now is.

Special notesEdit

Because the church lies at the gates of the Campo Verano, one of Rome's active cemeteries, funeral services are frequently held here.

Recently there have been some issues with the opening times of the church. It used to be open all day, but is now closed during the early afternoon. Current opening hours are posted on the diocesan web-page. Many guide books and online tourist pages list the church as open at 15:00. This is wrong; it is now open at 16:00.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

English Wikipedia page.

Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons.

Church's website

Historical article in Italian

18th century Vasi engraving

"Sacred destinations" web-page

Large photo gallery

SPQR article, with groundplan (in Italian)

"L' Angelo di Hermes" article, with photos (Italian)

Photo of ambo

"" photo gallery (high quality photos)

"Gogoroma" photos and video

"Archeoguida" article

Aerial photos

Italian Wikipedia page on the catacombs of St Cyriaca

Italian Wikipedia page on the catacombs of St Hippolytus

The Seven Churches
San Pietro in Vaticano | San Paolo fuori le Mura | San Giovanni in Laterano | Santa Maria Maggiore | Santa Croce in Gerusalemme | San Lorenzo fuori le Mura | San Sebastiano fuori le Mura

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