San Lorenzo Fuori Le Mura: There are several churches in Rome where you can see more than one layer of history -- where subsequent churches were built atop the remains of their predecessors. There is only one where a second church was built toe-to-toe with the one that preceded it.

The basilica of is San Lorenzo Fuori Le Mura (one of several churches dedicated to the Saint in Rome) is one of the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome. The complex is located outside the eastern wall of Rome near the Campo Verano cemetery. San Lorenzo was the only church in Rome to suffer serious damage during the Second World War, when it was partly destroyed in an air raid on 19 July 1943, but it was rebuilt in 1949.

St. Lorenzo, according to pious but apocryphal legend, was slowly burned to death on a gridiron, in 258 A.D. under the Emperor Valerianus. His is often quoted as saying "Turn me over, I think I'm done on this side." (The Catholic Encyclopedia says "the details concerning the martyrdom of St. Lawrence and his activity before his death cannot claim any credibility".) Tradition says that, during the reign of Pope Sylvester, Constantine built a church on the site of Lorenzo's burial (August 4th, 258) in the Christian cemetery/catacomb of St Cyriaca and that access to the catacomb and tomb was through the Church.

Between 579 and 590, Pope Pelagius II built a new church beside Constantine's 4th century church of San Lorenzo and thereafter there were several additions. The ciborium (sometimes called a baldacchino), which was signed by stonemasons Johannes, Petrus, Angelus, and Saxo (Sasso) -- sons of master mason Paolo Romano, was installed on the high altar in 1148. Between 1187 and 1191, Clement III added the cloister, and in 1191 or 1192 Cardinal Cencio Savelli, Later Pope Honorius II, remodeled and decorated the tomb. In 1216 Honorius II demolished the apse of the 6th century church and built onto it another church, placing the entrance at the opposite end. Honorius' new basilica serves as a nave for Pelagius's old one which functions as a chancel with the tomb of St. Lawrence in a crypt chapel beneath. The Romanesque campanile dates from the 12th century.

The reconstructed 13th century narthex of six antique lonic columns has a carved cornice and a mosaic frieze. Inside are two unusual tombs, a tablet (1948) commemorating repairs ordered by Pius XII after war damage, and a monument by Giacomo Manzu to the statesman Alcide De Gasperi, the Christian Democrat who dominated Italian politics between 1943 and 1953. The 13th century narthex frescoes depict the lives of Saints Laurence and Stephen.

The interior of the cojoined basilicas is essentially 13th century and earlier. There is no transept. In the nave (Honorius's church) twenty-two diverse Ionic columns (6 cipolino marble, the others colored granites) support an architrave in the nave, and the floor is paved with a 12th century Cosmatesque mosaic. Near the entrance is the tomb of Cardinal Fieschi, a large Roman sarcophagus converted to its present use in 1256: it was rebuilt from the original fragments after the World War II bombardment. Near the end of the nave on the right are a Cosmatesque ambone and the twisted stem of a paschal candlestick. The episcopal throne dates from the 13th century.

Inside the triumphal arch connecting the two churches is a 6th century mosaic of Christ enthroned (with Saints Paul, Stephen, and Hipolytus [left] and Peter and Lorenzo [right]) and with Pelagius offering the church, which was reset during the Byzantine revival. The raised chancel incorporates the 6th century church (except for its apse, which was demolished and replaced by the joining arch,) which is on a slightly different axis. The Corinthian columns in the chancel are of precious pavonazzo marble (a creamy white to beige, with dark, often purplish, streaks, quarried in the Pietrasanto region) and support an entablature of 2nd and 3rd century fragments and an arcaded gallery.

The lower level, cloister, and catacombs can only be visited by special permission from the monastery. The level of the earliest basilica has some of the original pillars, and in its narthex is the mausoleum of Pius IX (died 1878), rebuilt by Cattaneo in 1881 and decorated by Lodovico Seitz. An undistinguished modern fountain decorates Clement III's cloister (1187-91). Off the cloister are the extensive Catacombs of St. Cyriaca where the body of St Laurence is said to have been placed after his death in 258.

Virginio Vespignani skillfully restored the churches in 1864-70, and the facade, narthex, and south wall of the church, damaged in World War II, were repaired in 1949 using original materials as much as possible.


To the right of the church is the entrance to the huge municipal cemetery called Campo Verano, on the site of the estate of the Emperor Lucius Verus. Giuseppe Valadier designed it in 1807-12, with a church and quadriporticus by Virginio Vespignani. The four colossal allegorical figures at the entrance date from 1878. Among the tombs is that of Goffredo Mameli (died 1849), the soldier-poet (first avenue to the left). On the high ground beside Via Tiburtina is a memorial of the battle of Mentana (1867). (Mentana was the battle where Garibaldi's last attempt to take Rome was defeated by French and Papal forces.) In the zone of the new plots is a First World War memorial, by Raffaele de Vico.

Internet links:

Information about the Church:, and (includes pictures), and (more information, in Italian)

Bio of St. Lawrence from the Catholic Encyclopedia: