LEGEND PROCLAIMS THAT it is physically impossible, upon entering the Baptistry of San Giovanni, not to look up. Langdon, despite having been in this room many times, now felt the mystical pull of the space, and let his gaze climb skyward to the ceiling.
High, high overhead, the surface of the baptistry’s octagonal vault spanned more than eighty feet from side to side. It glistened and shimmered as if it were made of smoldering coals. Its burnished amber-gold surface reflected the ambient light unevenly from more than a million smalti tiles—tiny ungrouted mosaic pieces hand-cut from a glassy silica glaze—which were arranged in six concentric rings in which scenes from the Bible were depicted.
(Dan Brown, Inferno)
The first mosaic made inside the baptistry was that of the scarsella, the apse chapel that houses the altar.
Transformed in 1202 by a semicircular rectangular apse, it was decorated about 1225 by Fra Jacopo—Fra’ Jacopo della Scarsella—who was the first artist of the newborn Christian Franciscan Order.
He was appointed by the officers of the Arte di Calimala—the ancient Guild of Florence composed of cloth finishers and merchants in foreign cloth—patrons of the baptistry.
The monaco mosaic artist depicted the Baptist and the Virgin enthroned, with at the center the Mystic Lamb, as well as prophets and patriarchs.
From about 1266, ceiling mosaics were also made to decorate the baptistry dome, which is like a pyramid made of eight segments.
Looking at the baptistry from the square where it is located, nothing foreshadows the largeness of its dome.
The system used to build it is in fact “double construction”: the external vault rises from the tambour, corresponding to the third floor of the marble coating, while the inside vault rises to the second level of the building, which corresponds to the internal matroneum.
This system of overlapping domes is similar to that used in the famous Pantheon of Rome and was studied by Brunelleschi for the dome of the Florence Cathedral.
But let’s go back to the ceiling mosaics of the Baptistry of San Giovanni.
These gorgeous gold mosaics depict several scenes from the Bible, such as the Last Judgment, the Stories of John the Baptist, the Story of Joseph, and the Stories of Genesis.
The entire cycle was accomplished in a few decades between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by Venetian mosaic artists, heirs of the Byzantine tradition, on the basis of drawings created by the best Florentine artists of the time.
Here worked the Master of Magdalene, Meliore di Jacopo, Gaddo Gaddi, and especially Coppo di Marcovaldo and probably his pupil Cimabue.
The powerful personality of Coppo drew the figure of Christ the Judge and the representation of Hell, while Cimabue probably provided the designs for the story of Joseph.
The whole representation can be considered a collective essay of Florentine painting prior to Giotto.
The narrative scenes take place in eight segments, five of which are cut horizontally in six concentric bands that depict scenes according to the scheme below.
In the top center, around the skylight, is an area covered with ornamental motifs, followed by the image of Christ surrounded by seraphs and hierarchies of angels; in the third band are the Stories of Genesis, in the fourth the Stories of Joseph, in the fifth the Stories of Christ, and in the last the Stories of John the Baptist.
The other three segments—the ones above the altar—are instead occupied by the Last Judgment. The middle one is occupied almost entirely by the great figure of Christ the Judge, overlooking the entire dome and measuring about eight meters.
Christ is seated on the rims of Paradise, stretching his hands to direct the separation between the righteous and the damned, and showing marks of the crucifixion.
The position of the legs and feet, as well as the complex pleats of his dress highlighted by the glittering gilded mosaic pieces, make Christ’s depiction springy and elastic.
At his sides, arranged in three parallel registers, are located two groups of angels, which carry the symbols of the Passion and everything they need for the last judgment.
They sound the trumpets of apocalypse that wake up the mortals from their tomb.
In the second register are two long benches decorated as thrones, on which are seated the Virgin, Giovanni Battista, and the twelve Apostles, each with a book written with many different alphabets to remember their work of evangelization of the world after the descent of the Holy Spirit.
Among the saints are heads of angels, looking out from behind the backrests.
The lower register shows the representations of Paradise and Hell.
The resurrected souls are immediately taken by angels or devils.
The righteous are pushed toward a group that, in gratitude to God, is accompanied by a large angel holding a scroll toward the heavenly Jerusalem.
Here another angel opens the door to a little man, dragging him by the hand, while in the heaven city three great patriarchs hold the sweetbreads in their lap.
In the heavenly city grow extraordinary and colorful plants, and the ground, symbolized by a band, is a little green meadow dotted with flowers. Among the righteous in the first row we can recognize a king and a Dominican friar, followed by three virgins, some bishops, and a friar with a tonsure.
Ugly devils with black wings of a bat instead push the damned to the right, where they jostle each other, trampling and covering their eyes and mouths in disgust.
The representation of Hell is dominated by the great horned Satan on a throne inflamed, nibbling a man, while two snakes—that are snapping two of the damned—come out of his ears.
Monsters in the shape of a snake, frog, or lizard come out from his body and unleashed against the damned, which he tramples. The damned are thrown into the fire or into chasms, hanged, mutilated, burned on a spit, beaten, or forced to drink molten gold.
This vivid and grim representation of Hell has certainly influenced the description of Inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Luckily, the dazzling gold of the mosaic makes everything a little less scary…