Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lateran Makeover

I hadn't decided ahead of time where to go first, once I was free to go wherever I wanted in Rome, but somehow on that first morning I didn't hesitate about getting into a taxi and asking the driver to take me to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome and "mother church of the world" as the Latin inscription above declares it to be. Its venerability and significance as the former crowning-place of the Popes made it sort of interesting, but what I really cared about was the architectural melodrama created by Francesco Borromini's massive renovations of the 1640s.

Essentially Borromini replaced the soaring side walls and aisles -- creating rhythm and movement with his arches and windows and niches – while leaving the stiff flat gilded 16th century ceiling in place.

Most wonderful to me are the twelve sculpture niches he conceived, causing them to pivot diagonally away from the flat planes around them and all but leap into the nave.

Borromini reused ancient Roman columns in green marble to support the niches and a dark gray marble for their curved bases and pediments, "so that they stand out in strong contrast to the white of the piers and pilasters," as our dear departed friend Anthony Blunt once wrote.

The statues of the twelve Apostles could not be completed and installed before Borromini's death, so he never saw how perfectly they succeeded. Together they are a wonderful example of the strength of the Baroque as a style – executed by a whole team of sculptors and none of them claiming to be great individual masterpieces, yet each of them completely convincing in the urgency of its emotion. And the effect of the whole far greater than the sum of the parts.

Since the Lateran church is the mother of all (Catholic) churches, it is proper that the Lateran obelisk is the biggest one in all the world and the oldest of any in Rome. It is also more picturesquely situated than the more frequently photographed (and slightly smaller) obelisk in front of St. Peter's.

Does the early March weather look as if it was perfect? Every time I emerged from inside I saw this same fact outside. The weather was perfect.