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The Lateran Palace, formally the Apostolic Palace of the Lateran (Italian: Palazzo Laterano), is an ancient palace of the Roman Empire and later the main Papal residence. Adjacent to the Basilica di San Giovanni in Lateranomarker, the cathedral church of Romemarker, Italymarker, the Lateran Palace is now occupied by the Museo Storico Vaticano which illustrates the history of the Papal Statesmarker. Until 1970, the palace was home to the important collections of the Lateran Museum, now dispersed among other parts of the Vatican Museumsmarker.

The San Giovanni in Laterano square with the Palace and the Basilica

The Lateran Obelisk today.
The Leonian Triclinium.

From the fourth century, the Palace of the Lateran on Piazza San Giovanni in southeast Romemarker was the principal residence of the Popes, and continued so for about a thousand years.


The site on which the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano sets was occupied during the early Roman Empire by the domus of the Plautii Laterani family. The Laterani served as administrators for several emperors; Lucius Sextius Lateranus was the first plebeian to attain the rank of consul. One of the Laterani, Consul-designate Plautius Lateranus, became famous for being accused by Nero of conspiracy against the emperor. The accusation resulted in the confiscation and redistribution of his properties.

The Domus Laterani fell into the hands of the emperor when Constantine I married his second wife Fausta, sister of Maxentius. Known by that time as the Domus Faustae or "House of Fausta," the structure was eventually given to the Bishop of Rome by Constantine. The actual date of the gift is unknown but scholars believe it had to have been during the pontificate of Pope Miltiades, in time to host a synod of bishops in 313 that was convened to challenge the Donatist schism, declaring Donatism as heresy. The basilica of the domus was converted and extended, eventually becoming the cathedral of Rome, the seat of the popes as patriarchs of Rome: see Basilica di San Giovanni in Lateranomarker.

In the tenth Century Sergius III restored it after a disastrous fire, and later it was greatly embellished by Innocent III. This was the period of its greatest magnificence, when Dante speaks of it as beyond all human achievements. At this time the centre of the piazza in front, where now the obelisk stands, was occupied by the palace and tower of the Annibaldi family. Between this palace and the Lateran basilica was the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, then believed to represent Constantine, which now is at the Campidogliomarker. The whole of the front of the palace was taken up with the Aula Concilii ("Hall of the Councils"), a magnificent hall with eleven apses, in which were held the various Councils of the Lateran during the medieval period. The private apartments of the popes in this palace were situated between this Triclinium and the city walls.

The Lateran in disrepair

The fall of the palace from this position of glory was the result of the departure of the popes from Romemarker during the Avignonmarker period.

Two destructive fires, in 1307 and 1361 respectively, did irreparable harm, and although vast sums were sent from Avignon for the rebuilding, the palace never again attained its former splendour. When the popes returned to Rome they resided first at Basilica di Santa Maria in Trasteveremarker, then at Basilica di Santa Maria Maggioremarker, and lastly fixed their residence at the Vaticanmarker. Sixtus V, more concerned with rationalized urban planning than the preservation of antiquities, then destroyed what still remained of the ancient palace of the Lateran in 1586 and erected the present much smaller edifice in its place.

Sixtus and Fontana

The architect he employed, immediately upon his election, was Domenico Fontana, who was engaged in alterations to the basilica at the same time. Fontana's strong restrained style, influenced by Giacomo Vignola and modelled upon Palazzo Farnese for its regular and harmonious if somewhat bland major fa├žade, and Fontana's sound engineering basis and power of co-ordinating a complicated architectural program on a tightly constrained site, which Sixtus urged forward at top speed, are remarkable. A notice on 29 August 1589 announced that the work had been completed: "A great palace in Piazza Lateranese has been brought to completion by Sixtus V." Fontana reapplied motifs of the Lateran Palace in the part of the Vatican Palace containing the present papal apartments, which he undertook later, and in his additions to the Quirinal Palacemarker. The east front was finished under Clement XII, who surmounted it with his coat-of-arms in 1735.

From the old Lateran constructions three monuments survive, two of which are located in one building built by Domenico Fontana in 1589 opposite the Lateran Basilica. These monuments are the Scala Santamarker and the Chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum. Next to these is the third monument, the Triclinium of Leo III which survives as an apse lined with mosaics and open to the air. It was one of the most famous halls of the ancient palace, and was the state banqueting hall. The existing structure is not ancient, but it is possible that some portions of the original mosaics have been preserved in a three-part mosaic: In the centre Christ gives their mission to the Apostles, on the left he gives the keys to St. Sylvester and the Labarum to Constantine, while on the right St. Peter gives the stole to Leo III and the standard to Charlemagne.

Development of the modern Lateran Palace

The Lateran remained in a suburban environment, surrounded by gardens and vineyards, until the growth of modern Rome in the later nineteenth century. Its site was considered unhealthy in Rome's malarial summers, however. In the late seventeenth century Innocent XII sited in part of it a hospice for orphans, who were set to work in a little silk manufactury. In the nineteenth century Gregory XVI and Pius IX founded in it a museum of religious art and pagan culture for overflow from the Vatican galleries. In 1925 Pius XI established an ethnographic museum devoted to artifacts sent back by missionaries. On 11 February 1929 the Lateran Treaty was signed here, at last regulating the relations between the Holy See and the Italian State and establishing that the basilica and Lateran Palace were integral exclaves of the Papal State.

Pope John XXIII returned to the palace some pastoral functions by fixing here the seat of the Vicariate and offices of the diocese of Romemarker. The same pope removed the collections of the Lateran Museum to the Vatican. The Lateran Palace is now occupied by the Museo Storico Vaticano which illustrates the history of the Papal States. It was moved to the palace in 1987 and inaugurated in 1991. The Palace today still houses the offices of the Vicariate of Romemarker, as well as the living quarters of the Cardinal Vicar General of His Holiness for the Diocese of Rome


  1. Ludwig von Pastor, History of the Popes From the Close of the Middle Ages, vol. X p 616.

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