In the Middle Ages, the Florentines believed the Baptistery to be ancient, dating to the city’s Roman period; a pagan temple transformed into a church. In effect, a good portion of the Baptistery’s marble facing, along with numerous fragments and ancient inscriptions, as well as the large columns supporting the entablature over the doors inside, come from the ruins of the Roman ‘Florentia’, perhaps from some pagan building.
The Baptistery we see today is fruit of the enlargement of a primitive Baptistery dating to the IV-V century. The excavations of the past century have indeed revealed the remains of Roman constructions under both the Baptistery and the Duomo. Several grilles on the floor indeed light a subterranean area with the remains of a Roman house with geometric motif mosaiked floors.
In the early 1100s, San Giovanni was faced with splendid green and white marble that took the place of the previous sandstone. The third order with marble bays and the pyramidal roof with lantern were probably added between the middle and late XII century.
In 1202, the ancient semicircular apse was replaced with today’s rectangular “scarsella”. In its entirety, the edifice is a fine expression of Romanesque architecture in the city.
In the second half of the XI century, the interior was lined with marble and, along with the monolithic columns and two sarcophagi, evokes the “gravitas” of the Roman Pantheon. The floor with its oriental-style marble intarsias abounds in elegant decorative motifs, making it resemble a carpet with zodiacal signs in bold relief.
On the right wall of the apse inside, we see the sarcophagus of the Bishop Ranieri, which bears an inscription in Leonine hexameters, dated 1113; on the right of the apse, the sepulcher of Baldassarre Cossa, the antipope John XXIII, by Donatello and Michelozzo in 1421-27.
The decorative apparatus is completed by pairs of fonts on little tortile columns, a gothic candelabrum attributed to a follower of Arnolfo, and a late fourteenth-century baptismal font attributed to a follower of Andrea Pisano.
Let us also mention that most of the Baptistery furnishings, including Donatello’s Magdalene, are today housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The mosaic decoration of the interior was begun in the XIII century, lining the scarsella and the entire cupola, with interventions by Jacopo Torriti and, perhaps, by the new Florentine pictorial school: Cimabue and Coppo di Marcovaldo.
The mosaics are dominated by the enormous figure of a judging Christ with scenes of the Last Judgment occupying three of the eight segments of the cupola. The upper horizontal registers of the five remaining segments depict the stories of Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and stories of Christ, Joseph and the Genesis.
The highest register in the center of the cupola has depictions of the angelic hierarchies.
Under the patronage of the wealthy Calimala Guild (woolworkers), the Baptistery was also embellished with three beautiful bronze doors.
The oldest, the south door, was originally situated on the east and successively replaced with the one by Ghiberti, known as the “Door of Paradise”. It was originally commissioned from sculptor Andrea Pisano who created it between 1330 and 1336. Its twenty upper bays show episodes from the life of the Baptist, while the remaining eight portray the Christian Virtues. The frieze that frames them was sculpted in the mid fifteenth century by Vittorio Ghiberti, son of Lorenzo Ghiberti. The bronze sculptural group with the Baptist, his executioner and Salome, on the entablature, is by Vincenzo Danti and dated 1570.
The north door was the next to be realized. It served as a test bed for the competition of 1401, won by Lorenzo Ghiberti, and resulting in the defeat of various artists, including Brunelleschi and Jacopo della Quercia. Substantially laid out like the south door, the twenty upper panels depict scenes of the New Testament, while the eight lower panels show the Evangelists and the four Fathers of the Church. The wings are decorated with stories from the life of Christ and are by Lorenzo Ghiberti, while the entablature depicts the group of John the Baptist Preaching by Giovan Francesco Rustici. Above the window, the Calimala eagle holds the “torsello”.
Finally, the east door, that Michelangelo called the door of Paradise, is the by-now fully Renaissance masterpiece by Ghiberti and his assistants, including Luca della Robbia. Ghiberti and his workshop obtained the commission for the door without a competition. It was made differently from the other two and has only ten large panels.
These illustrate scenes of the Old Testament and are no longer bordered by a gothic frame, instead proposing new solutions in perspective and Donatello’s “stiacciato” style. The sculptures over the door, dated 1502, are by Andrea Sansovino and Innocenzo Spinazzi. Note also, on either side of the Door of Paradise, two porphyry columns donated to the Florentines by the Pisans for the military help given in 1117 against Lucca, while the Pisan fleet was engaged in the Balearic Islands against the Muslims.
Easter Monday: 8:30-19:00
April 25: 8:30-19:00
May 1: 8:30-19:00
Closed: January 1; Easter; September 8; December 24; Christmas
For further information:
Agenzia per il turismo
Via A. Manzoni 16 – 50121 Firenze
Tel: +39 055 23320
Fax: +39 055 2346286
Opera del Duomo