The Baptistery of St. John, the church of Santa Reparata and the Duomo of San Martino are three different buildings in three adjoining squares, but form a single complex, both for their position and for their millenary history. The church merged in the name of the first Cathedral of Lucca those of the Baptistery of St. John and Santa Reparata; it was built in the 4th century and substituted later by the nearby San Martino.
The first records of the transfer date back only to 725 AD: however, the baptismal font remained where it was, so that the Duomo and Santa Reparata remained inseparably linked.
In 1969 excavations began, which brought to light the early layout of the 4th-5th century basilica of Santa Reparta and the Baptistery of St. John; the extensive archaeological site was opened to the public in 1992. The first Basilica was found to have the same plan and the same dimensions as the present-day church and the successive stratifications over the centuries had raised it by over two metres with respect to the original level.
The nearby Baptistery of St. John, on the other hand, was built in no less than five stages, as shown by as many levels, over a total of 1200 years of history!
The oldest stage corresponds with a Roman domus of the 1st century AD, followed by a spa complex, of which also the water-channelling systems remain visible, then a first baptistery of the 4th-5th century and a second square, marble-clad one from the early Middle Ages. Of the early Christian church the ancient apse in the area of the presbytery is still visible, while under the altar, in the Carolingian period, a crypt was built to house the relics of St. Pantaleon of Nicomedia.
In the Longobard period both the space of the baptistery and that of the church were occupied by ground tombs covered by stone slabs. The church and the baptistery were rebuilt for the last time in the 12th century; the square baptismal font was used for baptism by immersion. During the rebuilding in the 12th century, the central part of the nave became a veritable building site.
As often happened at that time, circular furnaces were created on the floor (four in this case), some used to obtain lime, others for casting the new bells. When the floor was finished the furnaces were obviously buried, until the excavations brought them back to light.
It is possible to visit and walk along the whole of the excavation under the church; the numerous visible graffiti testify to the various stages of construction and the presence, over the centuries, of more or less famous visitors. The dome, which is octagonal on a square base, built in 1393, seems to have been a source of inspiration for Brunelleschi, in the grandiose design of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Today, as we arrive from Piazza Napoleone, the church appears in the whiteness of the 17th century façade, while the splendid portal remains that of the 12th century.
Those who are about to enter are welcomed by two imposing lions, one fighting a dragon, the other wrestling with another lion; at the centre of the architrave the Madonna is portrayed between two angels and the apostles while David and Saul are represented on the capitals.
The interior, which has remained in its early Christian form, has got three naves separated by re-used Roman columns; the wooden coffered ceiling dates from the 15th-16th century, while the altars are much more recent due to the upheavals suffered by the church in the Napoleonic era, when the 17th century altars were taken away and replaced only later by the present 19th century ones.