Two weeks ago, on the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination, we visited the area of modern Largo Argentina and the ancient Theater of Pompey, the building where the meeting of the Senate took place during which Caesar was killed. Today, the Lenten station church is held fairly close by, at a church called San Lorenzo in Damaso, which has an interesting connection to the Theater of Pompey.
This church was originally built by Pope St Damasus I, who reigned from 366 to 384, in honor of St Lawrence, who was roasted alive on a grill during the persecution of the Emperor Valerian, ca. 257 AD. Since there are so many churches dedicated to the great Roman martyr, it is traditionally called “in Damaso” to distinguish it from the others and is said to have been constructed within the Pope’s family’s house. However, as is the case with so many Roman churches, the ancient structure was completely torn down and replaced, in this case, in 1483, when Cardinal Raphael Riario commissioned an enormous new building to house the offices of the Papal chancery. The new church of San Lorenzo in Damaso is enclosed completely within this structure, and indeed, doesn’t even have any external architectural features that would indicate that it is a church. Traces of the ancient basilica have been discovered have been underneath it.
Rome has often been described as the city that invented recycling, since so many of its more recent buildings are made out of material recovered from older buildings, and the Palazzo della Cancelleria, as it is called in Italian, is the perfect example of this. The white marble of its exterior was largely despoiled from the ruins of the nearby Theater of Pompey. The columns of Egyptian granite in its internal courtyard were also taken from the complex that surrounded the theater, originally in the later 4th century, to make the first version of the Basilica of St. Lawrence, and then removed from it when it was torn down and reused as we see them today.
The interior of the palazzo was also the scene of a famous episode in the life of Michelangelo. Giorgio Vasari, better known nowadays as an art historian than a painter, filled one of the palazzos largest gallery with frescoes; when he brought the older artist to see them and told him that he had done the whole project in only 100 days, Michelangelo is said to have replied, “Si vede – it shows.”
(The exterior of the Palazzo della Cancelleria)