Florence Baptistry

Florence Baptistry

The Florence Baptistry or Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St. John) is a religious building in Florence (Tuscany), Italy, which has the status of a minor basilica.

It is one of the oldest buildings in the city, built between 1059 and 1128. The architecture is in Florentine Romanesque style. The Baptistry is renowned for its three sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures by Lorenzo Ghiberti. [http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/08/eustc/ht08eustc.htm] These doors were dubbed by Michelangelo "the Gates of Paradise" because of their beauty, and they were said to have begun the Renaissance. [http://firenze.arounder.com/florence_baptistry/]

The octagonal Baptistry stands in the Piazza del Duomo, across from the Duomo cathedral and the Giotto bell tower (Campanile di Giotto).

The Italian poet, Dante Alighieri and many famed artists and leaders of the Renaissance, including members of the Medici family, were baptized here. [http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dante.htm]

Until the end of the 19th century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized in this Baptistry. [http://firenze.arounder.com/florence_baptistry/]

It is a place beloved and revered by Florentines for centuries.


For a long time, it was believed that the Baptistry was originally a Roman temple dedicated to Mars, the tutelary god of the old Florence. [http://www.museumsinflorence.com/musei/Baptistery_of_florence.html]

Dante is often mentioned as the founder of this legend, but this is wrong. The founder of this legend was Giovanni Villani in his 14th century "Nuova Cronica" on the history of Florence. However, excavations in the 20th century have shown that there was a first century Roman wall running through the piazza with the Baptistry. The Baptistry is likely built on the remains of a Roman guard tower on the corner of this wall, or potentially another Roman building. It is however certain that a first octagonal baptistry was erected here in the late 4th or early 5th century. It was replaced or altered by another early Christian baptistry in the 6th century. Its construction is attributed to Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards (570-628) to seal the conversion of her husband, king Authari.

This octagonal shape has been a common shape for baptistries for many centuries since early Christianity. Other early examples are the Lateran Baptistery (440) that provided a model for others throughout Italy, the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus (527-536) in Constantinople and the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (548).

This baptistry was the city's second basilica after San Lorenzo outside the northern city wall, and predates the church Santa Reparata. It was first recorded as such on 4 March 897, when the Count Palatine and envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor sat there to administer justice. The granite pilasters were probably taken from the Roman Forum in Florence, where the "Piazza della Reppublica" exists today. At that time, the baptistry was surrounded by a cemetery with Roman sarcophagi, used by important Florentine families as tomb (now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo).

A new and much larger octagonal baptistry was built in Romanesque style around 1059, evidence of a period of growing economic and political importance of Florence. It was reconsecrated on 6 November 1059 by Pope Nicholas II, a Florentine. According to legend, the marbles were brought from Fiesole, conquered by Florence in 1078. Other marble came from ancient structures. The construction was already finished in 1128.

An octagonal lantern was added to the pavilion roof around 1150. It was enlarged with a rectangular apse on the west side in 1202. On the corners, under the roof, are monstrous lion heads with a human head under their claws. They are early representations of Marzocco, the heraldic Florentine lion (see Loggia dei Lanzi).

Between the 14th and the 16th century, three bronze double doors were added, with the bronze and marble statues above them. This gives an indication that the baptistry, and not the cathedral, was initially in the highest esteem of the Florentines.


The baptistry has eight equal sides with a rectangular addition on the west side.

The sides, originally in sandstone, are clad in geometrically patterned coloured marble, white Carrara marble with green Prato marble inlay, reworked in Romanesque style between 1059 and 1128. The pilasters on each corner, originally in grey stone, were decorated with white and dark green marble in a zebra-like pattern by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1293.

The style of this church would serve as prototype, influencing many architects, such as Leone Battista Alberti, in their design of Romanesque churches in Tuscany.

The exterior is also ornamented with a number of artistically significant statues by Andrea Sansovino (above the Gates of Paradise), Giovan Francesco Rustici, Vincenzo Danti (above the south doors) and others.

The design work on the sides is arranged in groupings of three, starting with three distinct horizontal sections. The middle section features three blind arches on each side, each arch containing a window. These have alternate pointed and semicircular tympani. Below each window is a stylized arch design. In the upper fascia, there are also three small windows, each one in the center block of a three-panel design.

The apse was originally semicircular, but was it was made rectangular in 1202.

Baptistry doors

Recommended by Giotto, Andrea Pisano was awarded the commission to design the first set of doors in 1329. The South Doors were originally installed on the east side, facing the Duomo, but transferred to their present location in 1452. The bronze casting and gilding was done by the Venetian Leonardo d'Avanzano, widely recognized as one of the best bronze smiths in Europe. This took no less than six years, the doors being completed in 1336. These Proto-Renaissance doors consist of 28 quatrefoil panels, with the 20 top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. The eight lower panels picture the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence. The moulded reliefs in the doorcase were added by Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1452. There is a Latin inscription on top of the door: "Andreas Ugolini Nini de Pisis me fecit A.D. MCCCXXX" (Andrea Pisano made me in 1330).

The group of bronze statues above the gate depict "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist". It is the masterwork of Vincenzo Danti from 1571.

In 1401, a competition was announced by the "Arte di Calimala" (Merchants' Guild) to design the baptistry North Doors. The existing north doors had been a votive offering to spare Florence from a new scourge such as the Black Death in 1348. Seven sculptors competed, including Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia [ [http://www.lifeinitaly.com/art/early-renaissance-2.asp The Premier Artists of the Italian Low Renaissance] ] , with 21-year old Ghiberti winning the commission. At the time of judging, only Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were finalists, and when the judges could not decide, they were assigned to work together on them. Brunelleschi's pride got in the way, and he went to Rome to study architecture leaving Ghiberti to work on the doors himself. Ghiberti's autobiography, however, claimed that he had won, "without a single dissenting voice." The original designs of "The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi are on display in the museum of the Bargello.

It took Ghiberti 21 years to complete these doors. These gilded bronze doors consist of twenty-eight panels, with twenty panels depicting a biblical scene from the New Testament. The eight lower panels show the four evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine. The panels are surrounded by a framework of foliage in the doorcase and gilded busts of prophets and sibyls at the intersections of the panels. Originally installed on the east side, in place of Pisano's doors, they were later moved to the north side. They are described by Antonio Paolucci as "the most important event in the history of Florentine art in the first quarter of the 15th century". The doors in the baptistry are a copy of the originals (situated in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo).

The bronze statues over the northern gate depict "John the Baptist preaching to a Pharisee and Sadducee". They were sculpted by Francesco Rustici and are superior to any sculpture he did before. Rustici may have been aided in his design by Leonardo da Vinci, who assisted him in the choice of his tools.

Ghiberti was now widely recognized as a celebrity and the top artist in this field. He was showered with commissions, even from the pope. In 1425 he got a second commission, this time for the East Doors of the baptistry, on which he and his workshop (including Michelozzo and Benozzo Gozzoli) toiled for 27 years, excelling themselves. These had ten panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament, and were in turn installed on the east side. The panels are large rectangles and are no longer embedded in the traditional Gothic quatrefoil, as in the previous doors. Ghiberti employed the recently discovered principles of perspective to give depth to his compositions. Each panel depicts more than one episode. In "The Story of Joseph" is portrayed the narrative scheme of "Joseph Cast by His Brethren into the Well", "Joseph Sold to the Merchants", "The merchants delivering Joseph to the pharaoh", "Joseph Interpreting the Pharaoh's dream", "The Pharaoh Paying him Honour", "Jacob Sends His Sons to Egypt" and "Joseph Recognizes His Brothers and Returns Home". According to Vasari's "Lives", this panel was the most difficult and also the most beautiful. The figures are distributed in very low relief in a perspectival space (a technique invented by Donatello and called "rilievo schiacciato", which literally means "flattened relief".) Ghiberti uses different sculptural techniques, from incised lines to almost free-standing figure sculpture, within the panels, further accentuating the sense of space.

The panels are included in a richly decorated gilt framework of foliage and fruit, many statuettes of prophets and 24 busts. The two central busts are portraits of the artist and of his father, Bartolomeo Ghiberti.

Michelangelo referred to these doors as fit to be the "Gates of Paradise", and they are still invariably referred to by this name. Giorgio Vasari described them a century later as "undeniably perfect in every way and must rank as the finest masterpiece ever created". Ghiberti himself said they were "the most singular work that I have ever made".

The "Gates of Paradise" now on the Baptistry are actually gilded bronze reproductions, placed there in 1990 after it was determined that the originals were deteriorating, and could only be saved if they were moved indoors. The originals are housed nearby in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, preserved in containers filled with nitrogen. One of the few copies made in the 1940s is installed in Grace Cathedral, in San Francisco.

The two porphyry columns on each side of the Gates of Paradise were plundered by the Pisans in Majorca and given in gratitude to the Florentines in 1114 for protecting their city against Lucca while the Pisan fleet was conquering the island.

The Gates of Paradise are surmounted by a (copy of a) group of statues portraying the "The Baptism of Christ" by Andrea Sansovino. The originals are in the museum Opera del Duomo. He then left to Rome to work on a new commission, leaving these statues unfinished. Work on these statues was continued much later in 1569 by Vincenzo Danti, a sculptor from the school of Michelangelo. At his death in 1576 the group was almost finished. The group was finally completed with the addition of an angel by Innocenzo Spinazzi in 1792.

Images of the doors


The vast interior of the Baptistry recalls the interior of the Pantheon in Rome. The interior is rather dark, light entering through small windows in the ambulatory and through the lantern. The interior is divided in a lower part with columns and pilasters and an upper part with an ambulatory. The Florentines didn't spare any trouble or expense to decorate the baptistry. The interior walls are clad in black and white marble with inlaid geometrical patterns. The niches are separated by monolithic columns of Sardinian granite. The marble revestment of the interior was begun in the second half of the 11th century.

The rectangular apse was faced with mosaics in 1225.

The building contains the monumental Tomb of Antipope John XXIII by Baldassare Coscia, designed by Donatello and his pupil Michelozzo Michelozzi. A gilt statue, with the face turned to the spectator, reposes on a deathbed, supported by two lions, under a canopy of gilt drapery. He had bequeathed several relics and his great wealth to this baptistry. Such a monument with a baldachin was a first in the Renaissance.

The mosaic marble pavement was begun in 1209. The geometric patterns in the floor are complex. Some show us oriental zodiac motifs, such as the slab of the astrologer Strozzo Strozzi. There was an octagonal font, its base still clearly visible in the middle of the floor. This font, which once stood in the church of Santa Reparata, was installed here in 1128. Dante is said to have broken one of the lower basins while rescuing a child from drowning. The font was removed in 1571 on orders from the grand duke Francesco I de' Medici. The present, and much smaller, octagonal font stands near the south entrance. It was installed in 1658 but is probably much older. The reliefs are attributed to Andrea Pisano or his school.

Mosaic ceiling

The baptistry is crowned by a magnificent mosaic ceiling. The earliest mosaics, works of art of many unknown Venetian craftsmen (including probably Cimabue), date from 1225. The covering of the ceiling started under the direction of the Franciscan friar Jacopo da Torrita and was probably not completed until the 14th century.

This mosaic cycle depicts in the three sections above the high altar, the Last Judgment with a gigantic, majestic Christ and the Angels of Judgment at each side by Coppo di Marcovaldo, the rewards of the saved leaving their tomb in joy (at Christ's right hand), and the punishments of the damned (at Christ's left hand). This last part is particularly famous: evil doers are burnt by fire, roasted on spits, crushed with stones, bit by snakes, gnawed and chewed by hideous beasts. These scenes remind us of later works showing us in grisly detail the horrors of hell, such as "The Last Judgment" or the panel "Hell" (from the triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights"), both by the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch.

Dante Alighieri grew up looking at these mosaics and these images of death and resurrection must have had a deep impact on him.

The other scenes on the ceiling depict different stories in horizontal tiers of mosaic : (starting at the top) Choirs of Angels, Thrones, Dominations, and Powers; stories from the Book of Genesis; stories of Joseph; stories of Mary and the Christ and finally in the lower tier : stories of Saint John the Baptist.

In the drum under the ceiling are many heads of prophets, attributed to Gaddo Gaddi, a friend of Cimabue.


Additional Reading


External links

* [http://www.museumsinflorence.com/musei/Baptistery_of_florence.html Baptistery of Florence]
* [http://www.florin.ms/hwalks1.html Walks in Florence]
* [http://www.mega.it/eng/egui/monu/bc.htm Florence art guide]
* [http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Italian%20Images/Montages/Firenze/Baptistery.htm Paradoxplace Florence Baptistery photo page]

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