The Baptistry of San Giovanni, one of the most
ancient churches in Florence, sits opposite the city's cathedral, the church of
Santa Maria del Fiore.
Octagonal in plan, it is totally clad in slabs of
white Carrara and green Prato marble. It
is covered by a dome of eight segments resting on perimetral walls, but the
dome cannot be detected from the outside because it is concealed by the walls
being raised above the arcade on the second level and crowned by a flattened
This fascinating structure, combining faith, history and art, has
given scholars much food for thought with regard to its dating.
The people of Florence in the Middle Ages believed
that the baptistry was an ancient building dating back to the time of the
Romans, a pagan temple converted into a church. And in fact a large part of the baptistry's
marble cladding – along with numerous ancient fragments and inscriptions and with
the large columns holding up the trabeation, or horizontal lintels, above the
inner doors – does indeed come from the ruins of Roman Florentia, quite
possibly from a pagan temple.
The building we see today, at any rate, is the result
of an earlier baptistry, dating back to the 4th or 5th
century AD, being rebuilt on a grander scale.
Work began on the mosaic decoration of the interior in
the 13th century, the square-ended apse and dome being covered with
mosaics by Jacopo Torriti, possibly with the assistance of several members of
the new Florentine school of painting such as Cimabue and Coppo di Marcovaldo.
As you enter the building, your attention is
immediately drawn by the precious mosaics
in the dome, one of the largest domes in the world in its day to be decorated
using this technique. The mosaics are
dominated by the huge figure of Christ in Judgement, with scenes from the Last
Judgement occupying three of the dome's eight segments. The horizontal registers superimposed in
layers tell the stories of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence,
of Jesus, of Joseph and of the Creation of the World. The Angelic Hosts occupy the highest register
of all, in the centre of the dome.
Under the patronage of the wealthy Arte di Calimala, the Guild of
Merchants, Finishers and Dyers of Foreign Cloth, the baptistry was also given
its three sets of splendid bronze doors.
The oldest set is the South Door, cast by sculptor Andrea Pisano between 1330 and
1336. Its twenty uppermost panels depict
episodes from the life of St. John the Baptist while the remaining eight
portray the Christian Virtues.
The North Door, the second to be made and
basically modelled on the first, contains scenes from the New Testament in its
twenty uppermost panels and the four Evangelists and four Church Fathers in the
And finally, the East Door, which Michelangelo called
the Gates of Paradise, is the now
fully Renaissance masterpiece of Ghiberti and his assistants, who included Luca
della Robbia. Ghiberti and his workshop
won the commission for the door without a competition, changing the design to
ten large panels instead of the twenty-eight smaller ones on the earlier doors.
The baptistry originally housed several
other major works of art, including Donatello's
Penitent Magdalene and a Silver
Altar, both now on display in the Opera Museum for