The Lateran in 1600: Christian Concord in Counter-Reformation Rome

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JACK FREIBERG The Lateran in 1600: Christian Concord in Counter-Reformation Rome New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 350 pp.; 8 color ills., 143 b/w. $75.00

The Roman basilica of S. Giovanni in Laterano is one of the oldest, largest, and most opulently decorated churches in Christendom. Its relics--the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, the Table of the Last Supper, and the Ark of the Covenant--are among the most prestigious. It is the seat of the bishop of Rome, and within its walls five major church councils have been held. An adjacent episcopal palace was the official residence of the popes for almost a millennium-from the 4th century until the departure for Avignon in 1306. Many times destroyed and rebuilt, its survival physically exemplifies the perennial endurance of the papacy and the universal Church. The history of Western Christianity is perhaps more closely tied to this building than to any other single ecclesiastical structure. It is, officially, the "mother and head" (mater et caput) of all the churches of Rome and the world. In confirmation of this status, each new pontiff, after coronation at St. Peter's, must ceremonially parade to the Lateran to take formal possession of the Holy See.

Traditionally believed to have been the gift of Constantine the Great (the first "Christian" emperor) to Pope Sylvester I, the Lateran embodied the triumphant moment when the Roman Empire changed from persecutor of Christianity to its official secular sponsor. Not incidentally, Constantine's "donation" was held by successive papal ideologues to form the foundation of papal claims to temporal as well as spiritual authority.

Notwithstanding this preeminence, the Lateran's role in the history of the Church is still underappreciated by nonspecialists. The basilica's dusty site, with the principal facade turned away from the city, is somewhat neglected, especially by American visitors to the Eternal City, who focus their time and attention more on St. Peter's and the Vatican. (Teachers of undergraduate art-history courses must take care always to explain to their surprised students why St. Peter's is not a cathedral.) The Lateran is also relatively little studied by scholars addressing themselves to an English-speaking readership. at least in comparison with St. Peter's, where the allure of Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini has attracted much art-historical interest from a distinguished series of international scholars, many Americans among them.

Jack Freiberg's impressive new book does much to correct this imbalance The focus here is not on the entire building. Galilei's 18th-century facade is not mentioned, and Borromini's restructuring and redecoration of the principal nave with its four side aisles and ancillary chapels is described only briefly in the short final chapter. Freiberg, instead, concentrates on the great north-south transept of the church. This is a study of the redecoration accomplished there during the reign of Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) specifically for the jubilee year of 1600. Freiberg's assessment of that project is, however, so rooted in the historical, ecclesiological, and iconographic context of the entire church and its meaning that the reader gains a new understanding of the complete building and its glorious past.

The ensemble of painting, sculpture, and architecture comprising the nave clementina, as it came to be designated, cannot easily be attributed to the orchestrating mind of any one artistic genius. It is difficult here to discern the directorial hand of a Bernini who made entire teams of artists and craftsmen submit to a single, monophonic aesthetic will at St. Peter's. The Lateran transept nevertheless constitutes an easily perceptible whole made up of many distinguishable but organically related voices--a polyphonous Gesamtkunstwerk.

Just as any pilgrim or observer entering the basilica through the portal facing the city would sequentially experience them, Freiberg begins his analysis with a discussion of the preexisting loggia and towers of the northern arm's facade and Giacomo della Porta's restructuring of the transept's floor and walls. …