The Florence Baptistery is a sacred building with a circular or polygonal plan with a domed roof. The sacrament of Baptism was celebrated in the early Christian and medieval times, which is why it contained the baptismal font. It is separated from the body of the church and generally placed next to it. Starting from the fourteenth century, with the prevalence of baptism by infusion, the baptistery became a chapel, often crucial for its richness and artistic value. It was generally located on the left side near the entrance.
In ancient times the baptistery was built separately because the non-baptized were not allowed to enter the church. Subsequently, the separate building was replaced by a room before the entrance to the actual church, called the narthex. When the Christians constituted the vast majority of the population. And the figure of the adult catechumen almost wholly disappeared to be replaced by infants. The baptismal font found its place inside the churches, usually in the chapel near the main door on the left as you enter. The left side is, symbolically, that of the impure.
The baptisteries, as separate buildings, often had an octagonal shape to recall the eighth day of creation. The day of Christ’s Resurrection, after the six days of creation, and the seventh on Saturday, the eighth announces eternity. The number eight is also interpreted as the sum of four. The number of the human body, plus three, the nature of the soul, plus one, the divinity; thus, it brings together the necessary conditions for the birth of a new life, purifying the whole being.
Representation of the Florence Baptistery
A symbol of Florence
Despite this succession of construction phases (whose passages have not yet been definitively clarified due to the lack of documents), the Baptistery of San Giovanni represents the typical statement of the Florentine Romanesque conception and the harmonious ideal of architecture in Florence.
Even in the following centuries, and especially in the Renaissance, the work was the object of study, a reference model, and an opportunity for meditation for many great Florentine architects. Whom Baptistery was configured as an ideal architecture. The citizens soon elected it as the city’s main building. The cathedral of Florence until 1128 and the only urban baptismal font; it hosted liturgical celebrations and significant religious events. Still, it was even frequented as an elegant covered square. It became a privileged place to meet, exchange political views, or converse.
It was also a place of the investiture of knights and poets. Dante still reminds us (“with another voice now, with another fleece / I will return poet, and in the font / of my baptism I will take the hat,” Paradiso, XXV, 7-9 ). As well as a venue for solemn oaths and celebrations in honor of St. John, the city’s patron saint. Even today, the Baptistery has the dignity of a minor basilica.
The interior and the mosaics of the Florence Baptistery
The interior of the Baptistery is decorated with cycles of magnificent mosaics and authentic masterpieces of Gothic mosaic art in Italy. The oldest mosaics are found in Scarsella’s vault and were made in 1225. By a Franciscan friar, Fra ‘Jacopo. These mosaics depict the Agnus Dei surrounded by the Madonna and Apostles and Prophets and, on the two sides, St. John the Baptist enthroned (left) and the Madonna and Child enthroned (right).
In three of the eight segments, a grandiose Last Judgment (1270-75) is depicted and dominated by the prominent figure of Christ, the judge (who alone occupies a segment)—flanked by the Madonna, St. John the Baptist, and the twelve Apostles. The dead are raised at the feet of Christ, seated in the circles of Heaven. To the right of him, with his palm raised upwards, the righteous are welcomed into heaven; to the left of him. Whose palm faces down the damned fall to Hell.
The last mosaics to be executed were those of the women’s galleries and the overlying gallery at the base of the dome, made between the 13th and 14th centuries with images of Angels, Saints, Prophets, and Patriarchs. The panels with Prophets and Patriarchs, placed on the parapets of the women’s galleries, could be by the Florentine painter Gaddo Gaddi (1240 ca-1312) and date back to the end of the 13th century.
The figure of Satan
In the scene of Hell from the Florence Baptistery, the figure of Satan is striking, shown with large donkey ears from which snakes come out and with two large horns on his head. This monstrous and ravenous being is trampling and swallowing some damned, aided by other demons and scary animals.
The other damned are tortured: some are hanged, others mutilated, and others are burned on a spit or forced to drink molten gold.
The classical exterior of the Florence Baptistery
As the late ancient and Byzantine tradition, the Baptistery was designed with an octagonal plan. And dictated a diameter of 25.60 meters. (Almost half that of the dome of the Cathedral). It is covered by a wedged dome set on the perimeter walls. And invisible from the outside because an attic and an overhanging pyramid roof cover it.
The facades are rectangular, the latter surmounted by minor grooves. And the upper one of the attic is decorated with Corinthian pilasters. The structure of the building is strengthened at the corners by buttresses decorated with horizontal white. And also green bands, probably from a later period.
Each face of the prismatic body is also decorated with marble mirrors. With precise geometric scans in white Carrara and Verde di Prato marble, indebted to the ancient decorative tradition. The large arches that are repeated on the outside have no load-bearing function. The solid and sturdy walls autonomously support the dome’s weight, although the walls appear light and slender. At one time, the entire building was raised on a stepped base. Which then disappeared following the gradual raising of the floor of the square.
In all these characteristics lies the essence of the classicism of the Baptistery. In particular, in the measure, in the balance, in its harmony. However, despite the presence of columns, Corinthian capitals, and garlanded windows, its forms are not strictly “classical.” In the Florentine Middle Ages, classicism should be understood in various ways. The Romanesque architectural conception finds in classicism, in this case, a fundamental precedent and an essential point of reference but not a model to be followed to the letter.
The three doors of the Florence Baptistery
The Baptistery of Florence is famous for its three beautiful bronze doors and Italian Gothic and Renaissance sculpture masterpieces. The first, now called the South Gate, was commissioned by the Arte di Calimala. (The Arte dei Mercanti, the Florentine corporation), responsible for the embellishment and maintenance of the Baptistery. It was cast, between 1330 and 1336, by Andrea Pisano, an artist, and pupil. And also the collaborator of Giotto, of whom we have news between 1330 and 1348. This door has 24 panels with the Stories of St. John the Baptist and the Christian Virtues.
Its large doors inspired the second door, today Porta Nord. They were sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) between 1401 and 1424. Ghiberti was commissioned by the art of Calimala, a new client, having won a competition launched in 1401 attended by other great artists. Including Filippo Brunelleschi and Jacopo Della Quercia. This door, enriched with gilding on the bas-relief figures, presents Stories from the New Testament, with the Four Evangelists and Fathers of the Church.
You may also want to know.
1. Why is the Baptistery of Florence important?
The Baptistery of Florence is so important because it was the only place within the city to administer the first sacrament: Baptism.
2. Who painted the Florence dome?
The fresco decoration of Brunelleschi’s dome was created between 1572 and 1579 by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari and features the same iconographic theme as the Baptistery: the Last Judgement.
3. Who made the first Baptistery door, and what material was used?
The famous 14th-century sculptor Andrea Pisano is credited with the oldest of the three Baptistery Doors in Florence, made between 1330 and 1336. A bronze and gold giant weighs about 8 tons by 4 meters, is 94 cm high, and is 2.95 cm wide.
In conclusion, we can say that the Florence Baptistery is one of the largest churches in Italy, and until the modern era, it was one of the largest in the world, surpassed only by the Pantheon.
Tourists also know the Florence Baptistery as Apostle John’s religious residence. This Baptistery is one of the masterpieces of Italian Gothic and remains the largest masonry cathedral ever built today.