Michelangelo likened the Baptistery’s east doors to the Gates of Paradise. Dante’s Divine Comedy describes the Baptistery of St. John in Florence as “my beautiful San Giovanni”. Without doubt, the Baptistery is one of the most beautiful and important buildings in Florence.
All Catholics in Florence were baptised here for many hundreds of years. It is still in use today. Now, young children are baptised 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. At this time 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 lay a great marble pavement. A glittering Byzantine-style mosaic was painted on the ceiling depicting many biblical scenes.
Dante Alighieri was baptised here in 1265. He might have taken inspiration for his Inferno from the mosaic. Parts show vivid scenes of monstrous serpents feeding on the damned. Other scenes show them being spit-roasted.
Zebra-striped marble pilasters were added to the corners of the building at the end of the 13th century. This made the crumbling old Cathedral opposite look 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. The doors had 28 panels depicting the life of John the Baptist.
In 1401 the Calimala announced a competition to design a second set of doors. Of course, many famous artists competed in this. The finalists were Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti won, while Brunelleschi abandoned metalwork in disgust. He 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 of 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.
Porte del Paradiso
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).
From top left to bottom right the panels on the doors depict:
Adam and Eve. Creation, fall and expulsion from Paradise.
Cain and Abel. Sacrifice by Cain and Abel, death of Abel, punishment of Cain.
Noah. His sacrifice, departure from the Ark, his drunkenness.
Abraham and Isaac. Angel appearing to Abraham, Isaac’s sacrifice.
Jacob and Esau. The birth of Jacob and Esau, selling the birthright, Esau hunting, Rebecca, Isaac’s betrayal.
Joseph. Selling of Joseph, Benjamin, Joseph and his brothers.
Moses. Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai.
Joshua. The Jews before Jerico, encampment, the walls come tumbling down when the trumpets sound.
Saul and David. Battle with the Philistines, slaying of Goliath.
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
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. Added later was an angel by Innocenzo Spinazzi.
The statues you see on the Baptistery today are copies. The originals are now in 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.
The octagonal dome which is 25.6m in diameter dominates the interior of the Baptistery. Mosaics completely line the dome, the works of Florentine artists of the 13th Century.
A gigantic figure of Christ is above the choir chapel. Grouped around the figure in different sections are the Resurrected, the Damned, various angels, apostles, prophets and saints and Mary with John the Baptist ranged against the realm of the Devil.
Visiting the Baptistery
On the Italian railway network, Florence 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. The incredibly detailed mosaics 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.
The only way to enter the Baptistery is with a cumulative ticket for the entire Duomo complex. The ticket is valid for 72 hours after the first entry.
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