Tuesday: San Lorenzo in Damaso
The busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele II helps to recreate some of the bustle that must have been present in this area when this location held the stables of one of the chariot teams in ancient Rome. In time, these gave way to residential dwellings, one of which was the home of Pope St. Damasus. This holy man, famous for the epigraphs composed by him for the tombs of the various saints around Rome, converted the hall in his home into a church in honor of St. Lawrence. His devotion to the saint may have begun during his years of service at the Basilica of St. Lawrence outside-the-Walls before his election to the papacy in 366. Although he won the election by a large majority, a faction supported another candidate, and a disagreement that sometimes descended into violence began between supporters of the two men until the matter was settled in St. Damasus’ favor. While he spent much of his energy in supporting orthodox teaching against the attacks of the Arians, he also strove to adorn the shrines of the martyrs in this city, even writing verses in honor of the saints himself. He passed away in 384.
The first basilica on this site, built by Pope St. Damasus in the mid to late fourth century, had roughly the same orientation as the present one. As a result of it being near the former stables of the “Green” team of chariots, this church was also known as St. Lawrence in Prasino, this being the word for “leek green” in Latin. The basilica had a quiet history, there being some records of gifts given for the adornment of the church but not much else. This church survived until the late fifteenth century when the new papal chancellery was built on the site. Although the old basilica was demolished to make way for the new building, it was desired that a replacement be included in the new chancellery. This was constructed between 1495 and 1511, although the basilica would receive several redecorations over the following centuries. The basilica would also be damaged on various occasions, notably during the Napoleonic occupation of Rome in 1798 and in a fire in 1939. The current appearance of the interior is largely due to the nineteenth century, with two major renovations in the periods 1807-1820 and 1868-1882, both of which are responsible for practically all that we see today, though there are some smaller components from previous periods.