St. Lawrence outside the Walls can be considered the last of the shrines related to events in the life of the saint: while his condemnation traditionally took place at St. Lawrence in Miranda in the Forum, his imprisonment at St. Lawrence at the Fount, and his martyrdom at St. Lawrence in Panisperna, it was here that his charred remains were brought by the grieving Christian community for internment. At the time of his burial the surrounding landscape was far different. Catacombs had been dug into the hill which once stood on this site, and at the time of St. Lawrence’s death, their owner, the Christian matron St. Cyriaca, brought his remains here for burial. Just over fifty years later the Edict of Milan was issued, and the continuing popularity of the saint led to a basilica being built here in his honor, either by Constantine late in his reign, or possibly by one of his sons. This stood to the right of the current basilica and faced the opposite direction, being somewhat larger as well, and was connected to the tomb of the saint in the catacombs by two long ramps which projected from its side. At first this basilica, like that of St. Peter, was more a covered cemetery than a structure built for liturgical worship, though it soon became primarily used for such. The constant stream of pilgrims to the site led to the erection of another basilica over the tomb itself, with most of the construction taking place under Pope Pelagius II (r. 579-590). Although smaller than the other basilica, this provided a more fitting setting for the shrine around the saint’s tomb, which was further enlarged in the early ninth century. Pope Pelagius also brought here the relics of St. Stephen, the first martyr, and put them in the tomb where the relics of St. Lawrence were already kept. There is a legend that when the body of the protomartyr was brought here, the body of St. Lawrence moved to the side to make room for him in the tomb. Gradually the newer basilica became the primary one on the site, the older one being rededicated to the Blessed Virgin soon hereafter. Shortly after this it disappears from record, falling prey either to fire or to neglect.
The early medieval period saw a renewal of the complex. Around 1200 a wall was constructed around the basilica and its connected buildings, the resulting small city being called Laurentiopolis. The apse of the basilica itself was removed and a large addition was built by Pope Honorius III (r. 1216-1227), which in effect re-oriented the church so that the previous façade was now the back wall. The decoration of the church according to the style of the time followed, of which significant portions remain. Decoration was complete by 1254 with the addition of the screen at the back of the sanctuary, which possibly had previously been part of the chancel screen or schola. During this period the basilica had an important ceremonial function as well. The misdirected Fourth Crusade had taken Constantinople in 1204 and set up a Latin Empire there. While the pope was furious, in time the new emperors petitioned the pope for coronation. The site of this ceremony was set to take place here. With the Holy Roman Emperors traditionally crowned at St. Peter’s across town, the Cathedral of the Lateran would be in the center, symbolizing the pope as the center and highest authority of Christendom. While one coronation took place here in 1217, the Eastern Empire collapsed soon thereafter.
Various repairs were carried out throughout the Renaissance period, and this church like many was redecorated in this time. A first renovation took place from 1492 to 1503, followed by additional ones in 1619 and 1624. Finally, a decade-long restoration beginning in 1855 restored the basilica to the appearance it would have had in the thirteenth century. The last remains of the original hill were cleared away at this time, and soon after that the Campo Verano Cemetery was laid out behind the basilica. Several of these restorations took place under Pope Bl. Pius IX, later buried here at his death in 1878. World War II would leave its mark on the basilica, when it became the only major Roman church to be damaged. A bomb intended for the nearby rail yard missed and struck the front of the basilica, largely destroying it. Soon after this, Pope Pius XII visited the area to comfort the local populace. In remembrance of this, a statue of the pontiff stands in the square before the church. Rebuilding after the war returned the church to its previous state by 1950, and since then it has continued to stand as a visible reminder of the sacrifice of St. Lawrence.
Address: Piazzale del Verano, 3
Directions: Take bus 64 or 40 from the Acciaioli stop (in front of S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini) to Termini. Then take bus 71 to the church which is next to campo Verano.
Or, take the 19 tram from Piazza Risorgimento around the north of the city, arriving in front of the church.