THE LATERAN PALACE, BASILICA, AND BAPTISTRY
In AD 596, Augustine, a monk in Rome, was summoned to the Lateran Palace by Pope Gregory the Great to receive his commission – to launch a mission to far-off England on the edge of the known world.
One can imagine Augustine hurrying from St Andrew’s Monastery (its original name) along a narrow street, the Clivo di Scauri, passing under the Arch of Dolabella into the equally narrow Via Santo Stefano Rotondo, and finally entering the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. This is a journey of about twenty minutes at a brisk pace on foot.
What one sees on arriving at the Lateran complex of buildings today is significantly changed compared to the sight that greeted Augustine. The ancient Baptistry is still there, but the monastic buildings and compound are all gone or significantly rebuilt. The Lateran Palace, where Augustine met with Pope Gregory, was rebuilt in 1586 after the palace was destroyed in a fire nearly three centuries earlier, in 1308.
Although there were priests hurrying in and out, the palace is not longer Vatican property, as the two policemen in the entrance office were at pains to inform me. Photographs were completely out of the question. The official position concerning photographing government buildings was, to say the least, disappointing.
It had, by late morning, already begun to drip from a leaden and threatening sky. I hastened down to the Roman Wall a few hundred yards to the west of the Lateran Basilica, to the Gate of the Donkeys ( Porta Asinaria)a minor gateway in the Aurelian Wall. Fifty years before Augustine arrived to meet with the Pope, in AD 546 to be precise, treacherous barbarian soldiers guarding the gate had opened it to the hordes of Totila the Goth. Today, nothing more serious than a flea market selling leather bags at the Gate threatens the peace of the city.
As I returned to the Lateran Basilica from the Gate the rain started in earnest, heavy soaking drops that needed the umbrella I’d bought at Gatwick Airport on my way out to Rome.
I crossed over to a building that houses the Scala Sancta, a flight of stairs brought from Jerusalem by Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother. The stairs were originally located in the Lateran Palace, and no doubt Gregory was constantly reminded of Christ’s trial and sacrifice. Augustine would have passed them, if not ascended them on his knees, as he came to meet with the Pope.
Since 1278, these steps have been housed in a purpose-built building so that others could ascend the 28 holy stairs, said to have been those ascended by Jesus for his trial at Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. What stunned me wasn’t so much that pilgrims still slowly climbed these wooden covered stairs on their knees, but that so many of those who did were young people.
This isn’t supposed to happen in a secular, savvy, skeptical society. But it does.