Michelangelo is supposed to have said that the Baptistery’s east doors were the Gates of Paradise. The Baptistery of St. John in Florence was described in Dante’s Divine Comedy as “my beautiful San Giovanni”. The Baptistery is without doubt, one of the most beautiful and important buildings in Florence.
For many hundreds of years, the Baptistery was used to baptise all Catholics in Florence. It is still in use today, young children can be baptized here on the first Sunday of the month.
The Oldest Religious Site in Florence
An octagonal baptistery stood on this site in the early 5th century. This would make it the earliest Christian building in the city. In 897 it was first described as a minor basilica.
The current, much larger Romanesque building dates from the 11th century. This was a period when Florence was growing in wealth and power.
Consequently, no expense was spared in the beautification of the rebuilt Battistero di San Giovanni. The walls were opulently faced with white Carrara and dark green Prato marble. Inside, a great marble pavement was laid. The ceiling was painted with a glittering Byzantine-style mosaic depicting many biblical scenes.
Dante Alighieri who was baptised here in 1265, might have taken inspiration for his Inferno from the mosaic. Parts show vivid scenes of the damned being fed to monstrous serpents or being spit-roasted.
By the time zebra-striped marble pilasters had been added to the corners at the end of the 13th century, the crumbling old cathedral opposite was looking crude and inadequate for the aspiring city. So in 1296, the foundations were laid for a new one that would match the Baptistery in splendour.
The embellishment of the Baptistery was the responsibility of the Arte di Calimala. This was one of the greatest guilds in Florence. The Guilds were the bodies that held the reigns of civic power before the time of the Medici. In 1330 on the recommendation of Giotto, they recruited Andrea Pisano to create a pair of gilded bronze doors. These had 28 panels depicting the life of John the Baptist.
In 1401 the Calimala announced a competition to design a second set of doors. Many famous artists competed in this. The finalists were Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti won, while Brunelleschi abandoned metalwork in disgust and went on to design his masterpiece – the dome of the adjacent cathedral. Ghiberti embarked on what would become his life’s work. After 21 years working on the 28 panels of scenes from the New Testament, he was famous. He later received a shower of commissions. These included a second one for the Baptistery.
Ghiberti adopted a radically new, naturalistic style for the east doors. He worked on these for 27 years. The ten large panels of Old Testament scenes are full of action, drama and depth. This was thanks to the newly discovered principles of perspective. This for many represents the birth of the Renaissance. It was these doors that Michelangelo referred to as fit to be the Gates of Paradise (Porte del Paradiso).
Over the Doors and Inside
Three different groups of statues stand above the doors. Bronze figures by Giovanni Francesco Rustici over the northern doors, depict St. John the Baptist teaching. A bronze group by Vincenzo Danti showing the beheading of St John the Baptist sits above the bronze doors of the southern entrance. St John the Baptist is kneeling in the middle waiting for the sword of the executioner. Above the eastern doors are statues depicting the Baptism of Christ by Andrea Sansovino. An angel by Innocenzo Spinazzi, was added later.
The statues you can see on the Baptistery today are copies. The originals have been re-located to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo for conservation. This museum is next to the cathedral and also houses the original panels of the Gates of Paradise.
Visiting the Baptistery
Florence is well-connected on the Italian railway network. It has excellent connections with the main northern cities. Rome, to the south, is only an hour and a half away. The Baptistery and Duomo complex is within walking distance of the railway station.
You can see the door reliefs from outside without purchasing a ticket. However, it is worth entering inside to see the breathtaking 13th-Century mosaics on the inside of the cupola. These are incredibly detailed and show scenes from Genesis right through to the Last Judgement. There is also the spectacular marble pavement.
Opening times are:
Sundays 8:15 am to 1:30 pm.
Tuesday-Friday 8:15 to 10:15 am, 11:15 am to 7:30 pm.
Saturdays 8:15 am to 7:30 pm.
Entry is only allowed with a cumulative ticket for the entire Duomo complex. The ticket is valid for 72 hours after the first entry.
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