The origins of the Baptistry of Florence (Battistero di San Giovanni) are in part mysterious.
We know for sure that in that place in 1059 a building with the same structure was consecrated.
The building, which originally was outside the city walls, was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence.
Until 1128 the Baptistry served as church.
In 1128 it officially became the Baptistery of Florence and also hosted the baptism of Dante Alighieri, who mentions it in his Divine Comedy:
No smaller or no larger they seemed to me
Than are those booths for the baptismal fonts
Built in my beautiful San Giovanni (Inferno, Canto XIX, 16-18)
Dante recalls the ancient medieval baptismal fonts that were still in his time
And one of those, not many years ago,
I broke up to save someone drowning in it:
And let my word here disabuse men’s minds (Inferno, Canto XIX, 19-21)
and said that one day, seeing a child drowning in one of those fonts, he broke a rim in an attempt to save the child.
The Baptistry has a compact octagonal shape that conceals a very old symbolic reference: the octagon in the early Christian tradition is the eighth day, when Christ resurrected and started to live forever. This is a clear reference to the rite of baptism.
The beautiful interior of the Baptistry is a treasure chest of symbols and mysteries.
The beautiful celing mosaic dates back to the 13th century and reminds the faithful of the inexorable divine justice in an impressive representation of the Last Judgement. The figures of this work are monstrous and grotesque and recall religious symbols and psalms.
There are many depictions of animals in the mosaics according to the tradition of early Christian symbolism.
The most impressive is the representation of Hell by Coppo di Marcovaldo in which Satan, horned, on a throne inflamed, devouring the damned. Monsters in the shape of a snake, frog or lizard come out from his body. The damned are tortured by many demons in a terrifying scene attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo as well.
Formerly a hole in the dome, now closed, allowed sunlight to come in and hit the signs of the zodiac on the floor at the North Gate, on which is still written a palindrome, engraved with a blazing sun:
en giro torte sol ciclos et rotor igne
The sign indicated the place where the sun, entering from the top of the dome, would have fallen every year on the summer solstice. On that date, June 24, recurred the feast of St. John, who is the patron saint of Florence.
The most famous work of art in the Baptistry is definitely the Gates of Paradise, one if its bronze doors.
It was made by Lorenzo Ghiberti in mid-1400 and the name of Gate of Paradise was chosen probably by Michelangelo.
The decoration is focused on the theme of sin and redemption…
In Dan Brown’s Inferno Robert Langdon finds next to this door the indication which will lead him to the mask of Dante.
Besides, other elements contribute to make the Baptistry one of the most fascinating places in Florence.
In the Baptistry of St. John is buried Pope John XXIII, considered an antipope by Catholic Church. Persecuted by the official Church, he took refuge by the Medici family in Florence, where he died in 1418. His tomb was built by Donatello and Michelozzo.
Even outside the Baptistry there are a number of mysterious symbols.
A solitary column surmounted by a cross of the fourteenth century stands beside the building. It stands on the spot where a tree miraculously flourished in the middle of winter, when the relics of St. Zanobi were moved from San Lorenzo Basilica to the church of Santa Reparata (which is now under the Cathedral).
On the exterior columns of the Baptistry there are two bas-reliefs representing the foot imprint of Liutprando (King of the Lombards). Legend says that the king imposed a definitive unit of measurement known as the “Lombard Foot” for the trades with Florence.
Pictures by Wikipedia and Mat’s1968blog