In front of the Duomo, in the religious center of the city, the Baptistry of Saint John is one of the monuments that most represents the civic identity of Florence: it was the heart of the Republic, celebrating its wealth and prestige as it glorified the city’s patron saint.
There are many traditions connected with the cult of the Baptist: during celebrations of the patron saint, for example, the splendid silver altar was adorned with precious ornaments, real treasures. It was also customary to liberate prisoners held in city hall, as long as they were first consecrated to the Saint as spoils of war.
It is an imposing building, large and grandiose. The architectural language is simple and essential: the resulting form is one of absolute beauty, almost metaphysical. In reality, with its direct and well-defined lines, the Baptistry is the earthly image of a divine reality. The floor plan is, as in all baptistries, octagonal. The number eight assumes special meaning in the Christian faith: Christ is said to have risen again on the eighth day to live eternally – an image that, ever since the first Christians, has been associated with the ritual of baptism.
Today, the Baptistry can’t seem to compete with the towering bulk of the Duomo but history tells us this was not always the case.
There are no exact dates for its beginning. We do know that the original structure, during the 5th or 6th century, was built over a Roman edifice, perhaps a large domus. In Dante’s time, it was believed to be a temple dedicated to the god Mars, then transformed into a sacred building after the Edict of Constantine in 313 A.D..
Dante called it ‘my lovely Saint John’ and we can imagine it as being much larger and more beautiful than the ancient cathedral that was replaced only fifty years later by the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. The reason for the Baptistry’s winning the prestige competition against the Duomo can be found in the power struggle amongst the Florentine corporations and in particular, between the Merchants Art, which took care of the Baptistry, and the Woolmakers Art, responsible for the Duomo.
But what exactly were the Corporations?
They were non-religious confraternities that gathered together members of the same professional category, in an associative form similar to today’s unions. These were the groups of active and brilliant individuals that made Florence one of the richest and most powerful cities of the Middle Ages.
The Confraternities, or “Arts”, even had political and judicial powers – each had its own Statute, with full power of law, and could hand down sentences regarding its members and those under them. All civil economic activities had their own corporation: commerce, finance, manufacturing industries as well as the artisans. During the 1400s, the corporations even founded a civil guard that dealt with exposing fraud, organizing fairs and markets, not to mention walking the city beat at night.
It was, in fact, the Art of the Merchants – the so-called Calimala, the oldest and most powerful of the principal corporations – that financed the rich furnishings and decoration destined for the Baptistry, that resulted in a truly exceptional collection of works.
The creation of the three bronze doors of the Baptistry, ranged along the four cardinal directions, are a memorable phase of the history of the monument and of the story of art in general. The promoters were, yet again, the Art of the Merchants and of the Woolmakers, and they hired the most famous sculptors and goldsmiths of the 14th and 15th centuries.
Humanity’s history and redemption is written on the three doors: it is like a gigantic bible to be read starting with the central door with its Old Testament, followed by the southern door and the story of the Baptist, and finally the northern door that illustrates the stories of Christ.
The decision to replace the old wooden doors was made during the 1300s: Florence followed Pisa’s example. Pisa had, at the end of the preceding century, already ordered the spectacular doors of its baptistry from the artist Bonanno Pisano. During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the Italian communes vied with one another to grab the top spot on the cultural and artistic charts and Florence certainly had no intention of being left behind.
The first door, from 1300, visible today on the south side, is the work of Andrea Pisano, as can be discovered from the inscription up above, signed and dated by the artist himself. It’s in the Gothic style, with the figures framed by their typical four leaf clover design, called the “compass”.
It is with the creation of the second door that the Baptistry conquered its special place in the history of art, thanks to the work of the most famous of 15th century goldsmiths: Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The Florentine Lorenzo Ghiberti was the winner of the renowned competition of 1401 set up by the Woolmakers Art, for the decoration of the door that, today, is found on the north side of the building. The event, probably the first public competition in history, signals the beginning of the Renaissance. Six participants started, two finished: Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. After some controversy, it was Ghiberti who won: Brunelleschi’s style was considered too modern and anyway, his technique would have been too expensive. Ghiberti planned to make every square with a single pouring; Brunelleschi, on the other hand, would have assembled the many different parts afterwards.
For the occasion, Ghiberti put together a workshop of modellers and bronze casters, something that had never been seen before in Florence. Artists of the caliber of Donatello, Michelozzo and Paolo Uccello got their start there. The work was completed in 1424. It is dedicated to the stories of the New Testament, the Evangelists, to the Doctors of the Church, the Prophets and the Sybils. It was such a success that the artist was also given the third and last of the three doors. It would become a Renaissance icon and an absolute reference point for an entire generation of artists.
Michelangelo, particularly struck by its beauty, was the first to call it the Door of Paradise, the name by which it is still known all over the world today. It’s considered to be Ghiberti’s finest work, and it took him 27 years to complete it; he installed the last panels when he was in his seventies.
Asserting his will despite the wishes of the client, Ghiberti reduced the number of squares into which the door is divided, the “formelle” (panels) to 10, down from the traditional 28. In the space of a simple square frame, the artist grouped together the various episodes from the Old Testament, set the scenes on different spatial planes and, for the first time ever, used perspective.
The Door of Paradise was a phenomenal success and was given the place of honor, in the doorway across from the Duomo.
St John's Baptistery: mosaic ceiling
Inside, the proportions are monumental. This grandiose, imposing architecture is certainly inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. The Baptistry is a real treasure chest.
The tomb of Baldassarre Costa, antipope with the name of John XXIII, is an extremely original work, probably done by Donatello and Michelozzo together. Then there are two noteworthy Roman-era sarcophagi, one of which is decorated with a scene depicting a boar hunt.
Originally, there was also the famous Mary Magdalene sculpted in wood by Donatello as well as the silver altar, absolute masterpiece of Tuscan goldsmith's art. Today, both works are preserved in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.
The ornamentation of the walls, like the exterior, is completely given over to the two-color use of marble. The geometric motifs continue on the floor, inspired by Oriental and fantastic designs. The large, unadorned central octagon shows the location of the ancient baptismal font that was removed in 1567 for the baptism of Filippo de' Medici, Grand duke Francesco I's first-born son.
But the most difficult and costly job was probably the amazing mosaic decoration of the dome. It's a huge image divided into circles and slices that are read from the base of the dome up to the center. The work was started in 1270 and mosaic experts were brought in directly from Venice.
The image of Judgement Day is perhaps the most famous, and was done from a design by Coppo di Marcovaldo. Dominating over all is the great "Christ the Judge", at whose feet is the resurrection of the dead and the subdivision of souls.
But the figure that strikes the eye most is certainly the monstrous Lucifer, from whose ears spring terrifying animals: this is the Lucifer described by Dante in his Inferno, the demon with the three horrible faces that devours the damned, "the emperor of the kingdom of pain"
It's with the image of the Day of Judgement that ends the reading of the Baptistry's extraordinary figurative cycle: from birth to death and on to the afterlife, this masterpiece of art offers us an intense reflection on the sense of life - for all time.