The precious gothic building with its two-colored marble exterior is clearly tied to the Pistoian Romanesque tradition but it is known as in corte for its link with the Lombard curtis domini regis.
The first structure can be traced back to a previous era since as early as the twelfth century, there is documentation referring to a church of San Giovanni in front of the Cathedral.
According to legend, just after the middle of the same century the Bishop Atto was buried here, the man who introduced to Pistoia the important worship of San Jacopo.
Although the original structure of the Baptistery is not known, it presumably had in keeping with the most widely known typology of these buildings - a central plan with a baptismal font at the center.
In 1226 Lanfranco da Como made the font which can still be admired today. The date and signature can be read in the beautiful inscription in uncial lettering inside the basin. In the early 1300s the City decided to rebuild the Baptistery but the project was postponed due to the war between Lucca and Florence that took place in Pistoia.
The work began after the first quarter of the fourteenth century, when the political crisis that had afflicted the city was over. When the time came to face the building in marble, the job was entrusted to Cellino di Nese, who had been the master builder of the Baptistery and the Cemetery in Pisa. Afterwards the building of San Giovanni proceeded regularly. The great roof was completed and in the second half of the fourteenth century the church could be considered finished.
Thus Cellino di Nese was the master of the outdoor facing whose refined use of different colored marbles provides a special interpretation of Pistoia's Romanesque tradition. Cellino was probably also responsible for some of the sculptural decoration that enlivens the marble surface. instead the sculptures in the lunette over the main door, together with the architrave's low-reliefs, are by an artist working in the style of the more famous Giovanni d'Agosti.
Ever since the first half of the seventeenth century, the Baptistery has housed the wooden altar, once the high altar of the basilica of the Madonna dell'Umiltà.
Over the course of centuries, the Baptistery has undergone many important restorations, among which the most important are those carried out in the mid 1800s and more recently. Although these restored Lanfranco's baptismal font to its original appearance (which had been hidden under the Late Baroque modifications made by the sculptor Andrea Vaccà), they transformed the ancient building into a simple, bare hall in brickwork.
Today the Baptistery no longer has a liturgical function and is sometimes used to accomodate cultural events.
For further information:
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Comune di Pistoia