Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano ☆☆☆

The 400-foot nave, San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome, Italy (Photo by Tango7174)
The 400-foot nave

Contrary to popular belief (which wants it to be St. Peter's), the Cattedrale di San Giovanni in Laterano (Cathedral of St. John Lateran) is the cathedral of Rome

Perhaps the most notable thing about this massive, basilican church is as an answer to the Roman trivia trick question: What's the cathedral of Rome? (Hint: It's not St. Peter's, which is merely a holy basilica on Vatican property.)

Yes, this is where the Pope holds down his day job as bishop of Rome. (Being the pontifex maximus, or head pontiff, of the entire church and sovereign head of state for the theocracy known as the Vatican is merely a perk for the priest who holds the Rome bishopric.)

Why the cathedral is not very famous (at least to tourists)

The cathedral of Rome is, oddly, one of the least interesting of the city's grand churches. San Giovanni in Laterano has an illustrious history—founded by Constantine himself as the first Christian basilica in Rome in AD 313, and the model for all Christian basilicas.

However, after going through some seven cycles of destruction and rebuilding (due to fires, earthquakes, barbarians, or simple wholesale remodeling), today's basilica is primarily a Borromini construction of the 1640s—and even parts of that were destroyed and had to be restored following a 1993 bombing.

A quick tour of St. John in Lateran

The massive facade by Alessandro Galilei is made of stacked porticoes with a line of colossal saints, apostles, and Christ standing along the top.

The large main bronze doors were taken from the ancient Roman Senate house in the Forum

The gargantuan interior (230 feet long) has a unified decorative scheme designed by the noted baroque architect Borromini—lined by statues of the Twelve Apostles by the school of Bernini (look for St. Bartholomew holding his own flayed skin)—and a fine medieval Cosmatesque floor of marble and stone chips inlaid in geometric patterns.

On the aisle side of the first pillar on the right is a fresco by the proto-Renaissance genius Giotto—all that survives of a series of frescoes the master painted here in the early 14th century (in ths photo gallery is a 17C drawing showing the extent of the lost fresco).

The scene shows Pope Boniface VIII proclaiming the first Jubilee Holy Year on this very spot in 1300. This is significant not only because Giotto was a contemporary of the pope's, but also because that event pretty much kick-started modern tourism to Rome (pilgrims came first; sightseers followed), leading to a boom in taverns, inns, and souvenir stalls that really hasn't abated ever since.

The cloisters off the left transept are a peaceful oasis amid the bustle of Rome, a quadrangle of twisty columns inlaid with Cosmati stoneworks and the walls lined with fragments from earlier incarnations of this cathedral.

...Don't forget the holy steps

Across the street from the cathedral and to the left a bit is a small chapel-like structure housing the Scala Santa, the legendary staircase Jesus descended after being condemned by Pontius Pilate. » more

Photo gallery
  • The 400-foot nave, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Tango7174)
  • The facade, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Maros M r a z)
  • The choir and apse, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Stefan Bauer)
  • St. Bartholomew, holding his own flayed skin, by Pierre Legros, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
  • The cloisters, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Alfonzo Buscemi)
  • Pope Boniface VIII proclaims the first Jubilee in 1300, the only remaining fragment of what once one a vast fresco by Giotto, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • A 1622 painting by Jacopo Grimaldi showing how the full lost fresco by Giotto once looked, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The Cosmatesque floor, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
  • The cloisters, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Abraham)
  • The bronze doors from the Senate house in Rome, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by antmoose)
  • St. Andrew by Camillo Rusconi, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5)
  • The baldacchino, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by BRUNNER Emmanuel)
  • St. John the Evangelist by Camillo Rusconi, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The entrance atrium, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Mister No)
  • Twisty columns in the cloisters, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Joonas Lyytinen)
  • The lapidarium in the cloisters, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Szilas)
  • The Cosmatesque floor, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Lhimec)
  • Monumento to the Cardinal of Portugal Antonio Martino de Chaves (1447) by Isaia da Pisa, San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • , San Giovanni in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
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How long does San Giovanni take?

You can wander the cathedral in a quick 20–30 minutes, but it is kind of out in the sticks—at the southern edge of the city center, by the San Giovanni Metro stop—so add another 15 minutes each way to get here and back. Add another 15–20 minutes to see the nearby Scala Santa across the street. 

Attending Mass

You can attend services at St. John Lateran Monday to Saturday hourly from 7am to noon, plus 7:20am and 5pm (6pm July-Aug); Sundays hourly 7am–noon and at 6pm (plus at 5pm except in July and August, and Saturdays at 4:30pm except in August)

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).