ROME -- When you think of Christianity and Rome, the Vatican is what springs to mind - the home of popes and the colonnaded square that welcomes visitors into the massive, marbled St. Peter's Basilica at its core.
But the first organized church in Rome was actually built across the Tiber River in the fourth century by the Emperor Constantine at St. John Lateran, today the basilica for the city of Rome. Along with its adjoining buildings, St. John was the official residence of the popes until the papacy moved to Avignon at the start of the 1300s.
So it's fitting that St. John's Lateran Palace is home to the Vatican Historic Museum, which was recently made more accessible to the public.
Previously, the palace - a branch of the Vatican Museums next to the basilica - was only open on Saturdays and the first Sunday of every month. Now, it's open every day but Sunday, with four guided tours from 9 a.m. until noon, although admission for now is restricted to groups.
"This place lets us understand the extraordinary importance of the history of the papacy, the reason for which Dante would later say that 'Lateran is above all earthly things,"' said Monsignor Pietro Amato, who runs the museum.
During a recent tour and interview, Amato explained the 16th-century palace's origins.
Oddly, while the site was home to popes up until the 14th century, the current palace has never been a papal residence. After the return from Avignon in 1377, popes lived at the Vatican or in other church properties around Rome.
Pope Sixtus V, pontiff from 1585-1590, had the Lateran Palace built because he felt that St. John needed an adjoining episcopate, or household for the papal court. He had 12,000 square yards of frescoed galleries and salons built over seven months to serve as the papal apartments, Amato said.
But no pope wound up living in the new palace because, at the time, it was located outside Rome's city walls and was considered too small to house the papal court.
As a result, the Lateran Palace has had many other lives over the years: a hospital, a home for destitute men and women, museums housing various papal collections, the Vatican's missionary museum, its ethnological museum, and now, it's historic museum.
The exhibit takes up the "piano nobile," or first floor of the palace, in a series of galleries and salons around a central courtyard that houses a small and quirky collection of papal artifacts.
There are thrones that popes used to sit on, propped up on the shoulders of men to be better seen by the public - essentially human precursors to today's "popemobile," which Pope John Paul II uses to get around.
There's the desk, the treaty and the room where the 1929 Lateran Treaty was signed between Benito Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri in which the Holy See and Italy recognized each other as sovereign entities. The treaty ended decades of antagonism in which the popes refused to recognize the newly unified Italy and called themselves "prisoners" inside the Vatican walls.
Gilded papal vestments, papal portraits, tapestries of saints as well as the uniforms worn by the various corps of guards who have protected the popes over the years also are on display.
The peculiar nature of the place comes out in contradictions between decor and exhibits: The main stairwell features a frescoed ceiling celebrating the "temporal power" of the Roman Catholic Church - the territory the church controlled in what is today Italy. Yet the pictures that line the walls of the stairwell depict the history of Pope Pius IX, under whose watch the church lost most of its lands to the newly formed Italian state.
There's also a collection of 70 rifles given by Belgian nobility to Pope Pius IX in 1868 for his protection - which were never used. Amato quoted Pius as saying, "They're beautiful for this, because they never fired a shot."
But the real value of the museum is in the history of its location at St. John Lateran, the oldest basilica in Rome whose Latin inscription describes it as the "mother and head" of all the churches of the world.
"St. Peter's doesn't have such strong titles," Amato said.
As a result, the museum itself doesn't' knock visitors' over with breathtaking beauty or priceless and vast art collections, which are found in branches of the Vatican Museums within Vatican City.
"It's not something you see and immediately appreciate," Amato said in an interview. "Visitors must have a culture to appreciate it. It invites study."
On the Net:
The Vatican Museums site: http://mv.vatican.va/3-EN/pages/MV-Home.html