By any standards, the Archbasilica of St John Lateran in Rome is a remarkable place. The world’s first cathedral, and the seat of the Pope; it is known as the mater et caput, the mother and head, of all churches in the Catholic World. This status comes as a surprise to the many who assume the primacy of St Peter’s in the Vatican. Yet the Lateran Basilica, survival of Gothic sackings, earthquakes and two devastating fires, is of greater antiquity even than its better-known counterpart.
The Lateran quarter of south-east Rome took on a vital role in the growth of Christianity in the immediate aftermath of Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in AD 312. Within months, the land of former imperial horse guards had been given over to the Church for its first Cathedral, even as work on the building progressed, the first Church synod called. From then on, until the Avignon Papacy of the fourteenth century, the Lateran remained the unrivalled centre of Roman Christendom. In later centuries, the adaptations made by the Archbasilica and its community to a changing world and the growing profile of the Vatican, have only added to its fascination.
As researchers in archaeology, art history and topography, the three of us have engaged with this exceptional complex in different but overlapping ways. Integral to our story, and the bigger tale of the Lateran, is the archaeological labyrinth that lies beneath the floor of the Cathedral worshippers and visitors see today. Successive investigations, by cathedral architects, clerics, antiquarians and archaeologists have generated a bewildering complex of passageways and spaces, which between them have exposed traces not only of the earliest phases of the Basilica and it Baptistery, but also the fort of the horse guards that proceeded it, together with its contemporary buildings, amongst them a fine bath complex, and below that again, traces of lavish Roman housing of remarkable splendour occupied in the first century AD.
Paolo began his long association with the Archbasilica while working with the Vatican Museums, producing a major study of the artefacts, inscriptions and artwork recovered from in and around this complex over the centuries. Ian subsequently joined Paolo to launch the Lateran Project, the first comprehensive survey of the archaeology, launching a fundamental reappraisal this remarkable body of evidence for the changing face of Rome from the time of Augustus onwards. Lex with his expertise in the history of spoliation, had undertaken extensive study of the use and re-use of architectural materials in the Basilica – drawing on the knowledge that multiple key elements of the original Constantinian fabric endured. Together, joined by other colleagues from the Lateran Project, including architectural visualisation expert, Iwan Peverett, we set about creating a compelling model of what Constantine’s first basilica, the world’s first Cathedral, looked like at its inception. Further plans are now underway, this time through the support of the ERC-funded, Rome Transformed Project, to make the detailed analysis that underpinned this exercise more widely available.
The inherently interdisciplinary aspect of our work, and its resonance for study of the Basilica over time meant that we warmly welcomed the opportunity, proposed and facilitated by Professor Christopher Smith, then Director of the British School at Rome, to launch both a conference on the Lateran to 1600, and subsequent publication. The large and international cast of contributors has taken the story well beyond our original scope of enquiry, and offers, we believe, a resource to all those fascinated by this unique place.