Following ancient tradition, Christians call the area between a baptistery and its related church a Paradiso (“Paradise”), evoking the joy of those who, after receiving baptism, cross that space to participate in the Eucharist for the first time. This was probably the sense in which, as Giorgio Vasari tells us, Michelangelo described the bronze baptistery door facing the Cathedral as “of Paradise”, creating a play on words meant to underline the extraordinary quality of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s masterpiece, worthy of the kingdom of heaven.
The museum’s main hall evokes the city square corresponding to the “Paradise” of Florence, with the Cathedral to the east and the Baptistery to the west. The earliest façade of Santa Maria del Fiore, never completed and finally dismantled in 1587, has been reconstructed here on the basis of a 16th-century drawing, making it possible to place many of the statues carved for it in their original positions opposite the Baptistery doors. The reconstructed façade, the two Roman sarcophagi that stood in Cathedral Square from the Middle Ages until the 20th century, and the 16th-century statuary groups above the Baptistery entrances together reactivate a dialogue between Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance sculpture for which Florence was once famous. Indeed the humanism typical of modern Western history found its first monumental expression here.
On the exterior of Baptistery and Duomo statues and reliefs proclaimed the collective faith of Florence, but inside the buildings other works spoke of individual piety. Among these were the images shown in this room: Donatello’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene and paintings and sculptures representing saints, in some of which the donors appear as well, in attitudes of prayer.
Two adjacent rooms similarly evoke the world of private piety: an octagonal chapel containing relics once in the Baptistery and Duomo, visible in their precious reliquaries, and, beyond Donatello’s Magdalene, a spacious hall with the Pietà that the seventy-year-old Michelangelo carved for his own tomb.
Michelangelo’s next-to-last sculpture bears witness to the artist’s personal faith. According to contemporary sources, he meant this work to adorn the altar near which he expected to be buried in a Roman church. Begun around 1546-1547, the Pietà was abandoned at the end of 1555, when Michelangelo mutilated it: a destructive act due to the elderly master’s frustration at finding flaws in the marble block. Pieced back together, the work was acquired in 1671 by Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and placed in the crypt of the Basilica of San Lorenzo; in 1721 it was transferred to the Duomo and set opposite the Holy Sacrament altar.
Carved in the first years of the Council of Trent, the Pietà highlights the figure of Christ, underlining the Catholic conviction that in the Mass the Savior’s body is made truly present; the Council reiterated this definition of the Eucharist with a decree published in 1551, while Michelangelo was still at work on the group. In the standing personage holding Christ – Nicodemus, one of the men who removed Jesus’ body from the cross -, Michelangelo moreover represents himself; Nicodemus’s face, marked by deep feeling, is the aged sculptor’s self-portrait. Michelangelo’s love for Christ is clearly stated in sonnets he wrote in the same years, one of which is transcribed in this room.