Last week our students in the Rome program visited the church of San Giovanni in Laterano.
Here is Michel de Montaigne’s account of his visit to the church at Easter in 1581 on his journey to Italy:
“On the eve of Easter I saw at Saint John Lateran the heads of Saint Paul and Saint Peter that are shown there, which still have their flesh, color, and beard, as if they were alive: Saint Peter, a white and slightly longish face, his color ruddy and inclined to the sanguine, a forked gray beard, his head covered with a papal miter; Saint Paul, dark, his face broad and stouter, the head bigger, the beard gray, thick. They are up high in a special place. The way of showing them is that they call the people by the sound of bells, and by fits and starts lower a curtain behind which are these heads, side by side. They let them be seen for the time it takes to say an Ave Maria, and immediately raise the curtain again; after that they repeat this exhibition four or five times during the day. The place is about as high as a pike, and then there is a heavy iron grill through which you look. They light several tapers around it on the outside; but it is hard to discern very clearly all the details. I saw them two or three times. The polish of these faces had some resemblance to our masks.” Michel de Montaigne, “Travel Journal,” in The Complete Works, trans. Donald M. Frame (New York: Knopf, Everyman’s Library, 2003), 1171.
The Blue Guide: Rome mentions that the baldacchino in the church, by Giovanni di Stefano, “contains 19th-century gilded silver reliquaries traditionally thought to contain the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul.” Alta Macadam, Blue Guide: Rome, 9th edition (New York: Norton, 2006), 361; there is a photograph of the gilded reliquaries on page 359.