The south doors of the Florence Baptistry hides messages that have been discovered only recently. In particular, the decoration of the frame contains a warning against the use of certain hallucinogenic plants, those used today to make certain drugs.
To make the discovery, the Italian scholar Mauro Di Vito of the University of Pisa analyzed the floral decorations around the south gate of the Baptistry of Saint John created by sculptor Andrea Pisano.
The Baptistry, one of the oldest buildings in the city, was constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style.
Inside the Baptistry Robert Langdon and Sienna find the mask of Dante and decipher the riddle that will lead them to Venice.
The Baptistry is renowned for its three important bronze doors bearing relief sculptures. The south doors were created by Andrea Pisano, the north and east doors, by Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is thought that the east doors were dubbed by Michelangelo the “Gates of Paradise”.
The South Doors of the Baptistry by Andrea Pisano
As recommended by Giotto, Andrea Pisano was awarded the commission to design the first set of doors in 1329. The south doors were originally installed on the east side facing the Duomo, and were subsequently transferred to their present location in 1452.
Pisano’s doors are the oldest doors of the Baptistry, and through these godparents would escort their godchildren to be baptized.
The south doors of the Baptistry of Florence, bronze with gilding, were designed by Andrea Pisano and molded between 1329 and 1336 by the Venetian Leonardo d’Avanzo, one of the best smiths in Europe. The work contains at the top a Latin inscription by the artist himself: “ANDREAS UGOLINI NINI DE PISIS ME FECIT ADMCCC.XXX” and includes 28 panels highlighting the life of St. John the Baptist.
The frame with plant motifs is the work of Vittore Ghiberti, the son of Lorenzo Ghiberti, and dates between 1453 and 1466.
The External Decoration of the South Gate of the Baptistry
The outer frame was built by Vittore Ghiberti, but was probably designed by his father: it displays leaves, flowers, plants, small animals, and even human figures.
Study of the carved plant species revealed a clear symbolic message. The lower left and right corners contain the figures of Adam and Eve respectively.
Adam and Eve, the Good and the Bad
The left frame depicts the ancestor Eve with attributes typical of witches and fates. She is wrapped in a garland of poisonous and hallucinogenic plants such as the poppy, holly, alkekengi (it’s also known as the Chinese lantern plant), and columbine.
On the opposite side of the frame are Adam and St. John the Baptist, who represent, conversely, the good, and are surrounded by well-perceived vegetation such as olives, wheat ears, and lilies.
The symbolic elements call upon the concepts of fertility and salvation, which refer to the sacrament of Baptism and the cancellation of Original Sin.
In the upper corners are two small angels with cornucopiae, emblems of luck and hope normally relating to the baptism of children.
Therefore, according to Mauro Di Vito, Life, represented by the olive tree, the tree of Christ, is displayed on the right side; while the drug that leads to Oblivion and Sin is on the left.
Eve the Witch
Eve is holding the typical symbols of the ancient Greek fates (Moirai), deities who generally presented themselves at the birth of the hero to predict his fate. Over the centuries they were called fairies, and during the Middle Ages, witches.
Eve is surrounded by psychotropic plants like poppy, holly, sorghum, alkekengi, columbine, viburnum, and henbane.
The opium poppy, from which we extract potent analgesic heroin, symbolizes sleep and death, in contrast to the symbolism of life – the fertility of the grain of the Eucharist. Holly is a poisonous plant that was used in black magic rituals. Sorghum is a plant mostly used by witches for. In Tuscan is also called “saggina,” the grass used to make brooms, which witches were thought to use to fly.
Finally the alkekengi is a hallucinogenic plant called “devil’s weed.”
The positive representation on the right side with Adam and the negative of the left side with Eve correspond symmetrically to the panels by Andrea Pisano. In fact, on the right side of the gate are depicted scenes from the life of John the Baptist, while on the left are scenes of his death.