Robert Langdon, the main character in Dan Brown’s Inferno, in describing the Baptistry of Florence was attracted to the suspended tomb of Antipope Giovanni XXIII (John XXIII). To Langdon, it seems that the antipope’s body lies in repose high up on the wall like a cave dweller or a subject in a magician’s levitation trick.
The real name of this tomb made of marble and bronze is Baldassare Coscia. It was created, according to the art historians, by the Italian sculptors Donatello and Michelozzo for the Florence Baptistry.
Baldassarre Coscia and his History
Baldassare Coscia (c. 1370, Naples – 1419, Florence) was Pope John XXIII from 1410 to 1415. After receiving his doctorate of law at the University of Bologna, Coscia entered the Curia during the Western Schism, when the papacy suffered from rival claimants (1378–1417) to the throne of St. Peter (government of the Church).
Pope Boniface IX made him cardinal in 1402. He was one of the seven cardinals who, in May 1408, convened the Council of Pisa.
The aim of the council was to end the schism; to this end they deposed Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, and elected the new pope Alexander V in 1409. Gregory and Benedict ignored this decision, however, so there were now three simultaneous claimants to the Papacy.
Election to the Papacy
Alexander V died soon after, and in 1410 Coscia was consecrated pope, taking the name John XXIII. He was acknowledged as pope by France, England, Bohemia, Prussia, Portugal, parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and numerous Northern Italian city states, including Florence, where the Medici supported him, and Venice. The other two popes were supported by other cities. He was not acknowledged pope by all, and since he was elected in a non-canonical manner, he was considered an antipope. From 1378 to 1417, the Western Church was torn apart in the wake of the clash between popes and anti-popes over the papal throne.
Council of Constance and Deposition
This situation went on until 1413, the year of the Council of Constance that decided that all three popes should abdicate and that a new pope should be elected.
Pope John XXIII fled the council with the help of his political ally Federico IV (Frederick IV), Duke of Austria.
There was a huge outcry in Constance when it was discovered that John had fled and Frederick was considered an outlaw.
The Austrian duke agreed to give John and himself up and return to Constance.
During his absence John was deposed by the council, and upon his return he was tried for heresy, simony, schism, and immorality. He was imprisoned for several months in Germany.
Martin V was elected new pope in 1417.
Death and Burial
He was freed in 1418 after a heavy ransom was paid by the Medici. In Rome he submitted to Martin V, who made him cardinal bishop of Tusculum. He went to Florence and died only a few months later. He received a temporary burial until his tomb in the Baptistry of Florence was ready, where he requested to be buried. To the Baptistry of Florence he had given the precious relic of a finger of San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist), now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The Medici oversaw the construction of his magnificent tomb by Donatello and Michelozzo.
The Tomb of Antipope Giovanni XXIII
The exact date of the start of construction is unknown, but it is thought to be, for the main parts, 1426, a year after a partnership was made between the workshops of Donatello and Michelozzo. The date of the tomb monument’s completion is not precisely known either; however, 1428 is the best estimation, establishing it as one of the early landmarks of Renaissance Florence.
The monument has a vertical development and is the tallest of its kind in the Baptistry.
The tomb is placed between two columns to the right of the main altar. It is conceived as a series of overlapping structures, with the first example of a coffin carved on the tomb itself.
Starting from the bottom you will come across a plinth decorated with moldings and a frieze with cherubs, swags, and garlands. Here are three clamshell niches with bas-reliefs of three Virtues, the Fede (Faith), Carità (Charity) and Speranza (Hope). Above these four shelves is the tomb itself, with two children sitting next to the dedicatory inscription.
The central crest is pontifical and refers explicitly to the function of the deceased pope. Above the sarcophagus is the gilded bronze statue of Pope John XXIII by Donatello. The religious is represented lying on a bed with a rich black cloth (bronze) and a pillow with tassels. Dressed in a sumptuous dress for Cardinals he appears asleep. The statue is covered by a marble canopy that draws a cusp; the curtain is decorated with pomegranates, a symbol of eternity.
Picture by commons.wikimedia.org