The Florence Baptistery, also known as the Baptistery of Saint John, the patron saint of Florence, is a religious building that stands in Piazza del Duomo, across from the Florence Cathedral and the Campanile di Giotto.
Its origins are in part mysterious.
It was long believed that the Baptistry was originally a Roman temple dedicated to Mars, the tutelary god of ancient Florence.
It was first described in 897 as a minor basilica, the city’s second basilica after San Lorenzo, outside the northern city wall, and predates the church Santa Reparata. On March 4, 897, the Count Palatine and envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor sat there to administer justice.
The granite pilasters were probably taken from the Roman forum located at the present site of Piazza della Repubblica.
At that time, the baptistry was surrounded by a cemetery with Roman sarcophagi, used by important Florentine families as tombs.
We know for certain that in 1059, a building with the same structure was consecrated in that location.
The structure in Romanesque style was evidence of the growing economic and political importance of Florence.
It was reconsecrated on November 6, 1059, by Pope Nicholas II, a Florentine. According to legend, the marbles were brought from Fiesole, conquered by Florence in 1078. Other marble came from ancient structures.
The construction was finished in 1128 when it was consecrated as the Baptistery of Florence and as such is the oldest religious monument in Florence.
Up until the end of the 19th century, all catholics in Florence were baptized within its doors.
It also hosted the baptism of 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 (eight equal sides)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 sides, originally constructed in sandstone, are clad in geometrically patterned colored marble, white Carrara marble with green Prato marble inlay, reworked in Romanesque style between 1059 and 1128.
The pilasters on each corner, originally in grey stone, were decorated with white and dark green marble in a zebra-like pattern by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1293.
An octagonal lantern was added to the pavilion roof around 1150.
The baptistry was enlarged with a rectangular entrance porch in 1202, leading into the original western entrance of the building, which became an apse after the opening of the eastern door, and faced the cathedral’s western door by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the 15th century.
On the corners, under the roof, are monstrous lion heads with a human head under their claws. They are early representations of Marzocco, the heraldic Florentine lion (the symbol of Mars, the god of war, the original male protector of Florence, protecting a lily or iris, the symbol of the original female patron of the town (Flora, the fertile agricultural earth goddess).
Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, three bronze double doors were added, with bronze and marble statues placed above them.
The exterior is also ornamented with a number of artistically significant statues by Andrea Sansovino (above the Gates of Paradise), Giovan Francesco Rustici, Vincenzo Danti (above the south doors), and others.
The design work on the sides is arranged in groupings of three, starting with three distinct horizontal sections. The middle section features three blind arches on each side, each arch containing a window. These have alternate pointed and semicircular tympani. Below each window is a stylized arch design. In the upper fascia, there are also three small windows, each one in the center block of a three-panel design.
The style of this church served as a prototype, influencing many architects, such as Leone Battista Alberti, in their design of Renaissance churches in Tuscany.
The interior is divided into a lower part with columns and pilasters and an upper part with a walkway. The interior walls are clad in dark green and white marble with inlaid geometric patterns. The niches are separated by monolithic columns of Sardinian granite. The marble revetment of the interior was begun in the second half of the eleventh century.
The rectangular apse was faced with mosaics in 1225.
The baptismal font, dated to 1371, is attributed to a follower of Andrea Pisano and is decorated with six marble bas-reliefs depicting drops of baptism. It is flanked by a candelabrum and a pair of Gothic fonts attributed to a follower of Arnolfo di Cambio.
In front of the altar is a grating that shows the basements, which are home to the ruins of the ancient Roman building with geometric mosaic floors. The ruins were discovered thanks to a series of excavations carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The beautiful interior of the Baptistry is a treasure chest of symbols and mysteries.
The dome and the apse of the Baptistery of San Giovanni are decorated with impressive golden mosaics.
The apse is decorated with images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the apostles, prophets, and angels, accompanied by images of leaves and plants.
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.
This post was originally published on June 13, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on March 15, 2018.
Pictures by Baptistry,Florence by Kari CC BY-NC 2.0; san Giovanni Baptistry,Florence by John Donaghy CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Inside the Baptistry by Marc Buehler CC BY-NC 2.0;Baptistry Mosaics 04 by Lea CC BY-NC-ND 2.0