Volterra, Italy

Baptistery of San Giovanni


Just in front of the cathedral lies the Baptistery of San Giovanni with a design that is typical of large Baptisteries dotted around Italy. It shows an interesting synthesis of style and decoration taken from the Pisan and Florentine areas while its architectural grandeur demonstrates the importance of baptism as a Christian rite.

An intriguing feature of Italian Baptisteries is their often octagonal shape. This is typical of the style used from the XI to XIV centuries and reflects the religious symbolism of the number eight, with both the world beginning and Jesus rising from the dead on the eighth day.

The site of the Baptistery was dedicated by the Ancient Romans to sun worship. As pagan rites became entwined with Christianity the site was taken over by the Catholic church and the octagonal Baptistery is thought to have been completed by the XIII century. The dome was added later in the XV century under the direction of Brunelleschi. For some reason, only one of its eight sides was finished with the attractive intarsia pattern of dark green and white marble seen today. The arched and recessed Romanesque entrance is attributed to the workshop of Nicola Pisano and is finished with sculpted heads of Christ, the Virgin, and the Apostles.

In comparison to the sumptuous richness of the cathedral, the interior of the Baptistery is starker and simpler, lined with warm cream-colored sandstone.

The Baptistery contains a fine XVI century altar, considered to be the work of Balsimelli da Settignano. This is topped by a wood panel containing a scene from The Assumption of the Virgin painted by Niccolò Circignani. Until a recent restoration, visitors could see the damage inflicted on this painting during the Second World War. The altar is finished with a marble frieze, the work of Mino da Fiesole and Alessandro Balsimelli from Settignano.

A font lies at the heart of any Baptistery and here visitors will find two fine examples. The early XVI century marble font repeats the building's octagonal theme and stands next to the altar. It is decorated with scenes depicting The Baptism of Christ and the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity and is the work of Andrea Sansovino. It is topped by a ciborium canopy completed by Mino da Fiesole.

The mid-XVII century saw the introduction of a much larger central Baptismal Font carved by Giovanni Vaccà and surmounted by a statue of St. John the Baptist sculpted by Giovanni Antonio Cybei. Holy water is held in an ancient Roman Sarcophagus, showing that upcycling is not a new phenomenon. The number three plays a significance in the rituals of baptism, with many fonts having three steps up to them, immersion taking place three times and very often the large-scale baptism of new citizens taking place three times a year.

Entrance to the Cathedral and Baptistery is free, although donations towards their upkeep are welcomed.

They are open from 8:00 a.m. until noon and again from 2:00 p.m., closing at 5:00 p.m. in winter and 7:00 p.m. in summer.