Minor Roman Basilicas: San Giovanni a Porta Latina

Most of the facades of the churches of Rome were given a baroque update, creating some of the most iconic and spectacular facades anywhere in Christendom. Indeed, Rome is synonymous with the baroque in many regards, but beneath that baroque veneer are frequently Romanesque bones, most frequently still seen, on the outside, in their belltowers.  In this regard, much of what we see in Rome today is certainly not what the medieval pilgrim would have themselves seen while in Rome, but fortunately we do have some extant structures which can help us to experience just the sort of things they might have been more familiar with. 

In terms of facades, perhaps one of the more impressive for retaining its Romanesque forms is the minor basilica of San Giovanni a Porta Latina (St. John Before the Latin Gate). 

The basilica itself is thought to have been constructed at the end of the fifth century on the site where it was said that St. John the Evangelist survived martyrdom under the Emperor Domitian. The basilica has undergone various renovations and restorations, the first of which took place in the eighth century which was when the belltower and portico were added to the basilica.

In the forecourt of the basilica one can find a small, ancient well that is likewise dated to the eighth century which has written upon it a Latin inscription, "In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.  Omnes Sitientes Venite ad Aquas." (In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All you who thirst, come to the water.) 

The columns of the portico of the basilica are thought to have come from a Roman temple to Diana, but whatever the case, they are certainly another instance of Roman "spoila" -- the re-utilization of earlier architectural components within a new context; one will note how they are mismatched. 

One could make entire pilgrimages to Rome just to search out the various spoila that can be found. Indeed, author Martin Mosebach provided his own insights into this fascinating aspect of Rome and its architecture in his excellent essay, Eternal Rome

Shards, fragments, and split stones determine Rome’s atmosphere. Even more than the lofty cupolas, the spoils of the defunct—and yet undying—empire cause the name “Roman” to become attached to a square, a house, or a garden. The Renaissance and Baroque mastercraftsmen planned and designed like men possessed—but what is really Roman came unplanned into being, in a second existence remote from the wide fields of antique ruins. To be really Roman, the nave of a church must have ten different kinds of pillars from long-forgotten pagan temples. Its altar, which is also the sarcophagus of a martyr, was once a bathtub of red porphyry that stood in the thermal baths of a palace. A pillar’s capital will bear the image of Osiris, and the precious floor will be covered with circular marble plates that are nothing other than ancient pillars sawn into disks. The front steps of old houses contain pieces of stone found in the grounds and given a second home: stone tablets with a couple of letters from an inscription; a fragment of a carved fruit garland; a marble head; a portion of a finely profiled ledge—the most beautiful wall-embellishment imaginable. No fresco is as exciting as these collections of spoila. 

Certainly San Giovanni is no exception to this rule with various spoila to be found within and without -- and also nearby.

The interior of the basilica is fairly typical of what one might expect of a simple, minor Roman basilica, though it is worth noting it has undergone various revisions, renovations and restorations -- at one point being given baroque decoration which was later stripped from much of the interior, the one major exception being that of the apse fresco, located just above the yellowish coloured onyx windows (which were, at one time, covered up for the most part, but later restored).

Of course the baroque age wasn't the only era when artists would impress their own time's stamp on the building. During the twelfth century that the interior was first frescoed with a cycle of painted images, some of which can be seen around the beautiful transennae windows at the entrance of the church, as well as along the nave.

Take note of the columns along the nave once again

Incidentally, if you are wondering what the "Latin gate" (Porta Latina) is -- which is referenced in the name given the basilica -- it is simply a gateway opening placed in the third century Aurelian walls that surrounded Rome.

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