Borromini’s Restorations in Saint John Lateran, Rome

In preparation for the Jubilee of 1650, Pope Innocent X commissioned a restoration of the mother church of Christendom, St. John Lateran, from the 38-year-old Francesco Borromini. Rome’s first Christian church, the Lateran had withstood marauding Visigoths, earthquakes, devastating fires, and a lightning strike that sent the bell tower crashing down through its nave. Whether he knew it or not, Borromini had been commissioned to restore a structure from Rome’s late medieval period rather than a relic of the age of Constantine. His designs paid homage to what was left of the old building by reusing surviving pieces and repeating many of their motifs. His perennial rival Gian Lorenzo Bernini criticized the results as “Gothic” rather than classical, with good reason. Borromini’s work stretched the definition of classical architecture to its medieval extremes, and elevated the ancient—indeed, classical—art of pastiche to new heights.