In order to begin to understand what magic made the Renaissance first bloom by the Arno, look here; this ancient and thoroughly mysterious building is the egg from which Florence’s golden age was hatched. By the quattrocento Florentines firmly believed their baptistry was originally a Roman temple to Mars, a touchstone linking them to a legendary past.
Dante, like every other Florentine, would of course have been baptized ‘nel mio bel San Giovanni’, following the tradition by which every Florentine child was baptised communally on the Annunciation—also the start of the new year in the Florentine calendar. In the Inferno (canto 19, 13–21), he describes the fate of the simoniacs in hell, stuffed head-down into pits; it reminded him of an incident from his younger days, when he tipped over one of the deep baptismal urns here to save a child who had crawled in and was drowning.
Current scholarship says the first octagonal baptistry appeared in the 4th or 5th centuries, and it was expanded or rebuilt in the 6th, in the darkest Dark Ages, which makes it even more remarkable; it may as well have dropped from heaven. When a miniaturist wanted to depict Attila's destruction of Florence (in a manuscript now in the Vatican Library) he left the Baptistry as the last building standing.
Its distinctive dark green and white marble facing, the tidily classical pattern of arches and rectangles that deceived Brunelleschi and Alberti, was probably added in another rebuilding, in the late 11th century.
The masters who built it remain unknown, but their strikingly original exercise in geometry provided the model for all of Florence’s great church façades. While Santa Maria in Fiore was under construction,the Baptistry was used as Florence’s cathedral. When it was new, there was nothing remotely like it in Europe; to visitors from outside it must have seemed almost miraculous.
Every 25 March, New Year’s Day on the old Florentine calendar, all the children born over the last 12 months would be brought here for a great communal baptism, a habit that helped make the baptistry not merely a religious monument but a civic symbol, in fact the oldest and dearest symbol of the republic.
As such, the Florentines never tired of embellishing it. Under the octagonal cupola, the glittering 13th- and 14th-century gold-ground mosaics show a Byzantine influence; they are sometimes attributed to Jacopo Torriti, who did similar work in the churches of Rome, though Florentine artists including Cimabue probably had a hand in them.
The decoration is divided into concentric strips: over the apse, dominated by a 26ft figure of Christ, is a Last Judgement (by Coppo di Marcovaldo) while the other bands, from the inside out, portray the Hierarchy of Heaven, Story of Genesis, Life of Joseph, Life of Christ and the Life of St John the Baptist, the last band especially believed to be the work of Cimabue. The equally beautiful mosaics over the altar and in the vault are the earliest, signed by a monk named Iacopo in the first decades of the 1200s.
To match the mosaics, there is an intricate tessellated marble floor from the early 1200s, decorated with signs of the Zodiac; the blank octagonal space in the centre was formerly occupied by the huge font. The green and white patterned walls of the interior, even more than the exterior, are remarkable, combining influences from the ancient world and modern inspiration for something entirely new, the perfect source that architects of the Middle Ages and Renaissance would ever strive to match. Much of the best design work is up in the galleries, not accessible, but partially visible from the floor.
The Baptistry is hardly cluttered; many of its original furnishings have been moved to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Today, besides a 13th-century Pisan-style baptismal font, only the Tomb of Anti-Pope John XXIII by Donatello and Michelozzo stands out. This funerary monument, with scenographic marble draperies softening its classical lines, is one of the great prototypes of the early Renaissance.
But how did this Anti-Pope John (a former Neapolitan pirate named Baldassare Cossa, deposed by the Council of Constance in 1415) earn the unique privilege of a fancy tomb in the Baptistry? Why, it was thanks to him that Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici made the family fortune as head banker to the Curia.
Historians used to pinpoint the beginning of the ‘Renaissance’ as the year 1401, when the cloth merchants’ guild, the Arte di Calimala, sponsored a competition for the Baptistry’s north doors. The South Doors (then the main entrance into the baptistry) had already been completed by Andrea Pisano in 1330, and they give an excellent lesson on the style of the day. The doors are divided into 28 panels in quatrefoil frames with scenes from the Life of St John the Baptist and the eight Cardinal and Theological Virtues – formal and elegant works in the best Gothic manner.
Recently, a scholar from the University of Pisa discovered an allegorical message in the floral decoration around the door frame, added later by Ghiberti's son Vittore (1453). Adam, on the left side, is surrounded by beneficial plants: wheat, olive branches, lilies. Eve, however, gets poisonous holly, hallucinogenic poppies and sorghum, the stems of which were used for witches' broomsticks.
The celebrated competition of 1401 for the North Doors—perhaps the first in the annals of art – pitted the seven greatest sculptors of the day against one another. Judgement was based on trial panels on the subject of the Sacrifice of Isaac, and in a dead heat at the end of the day were the two by Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, now displayed in the Bargello. The judges asked them to collaborate; Brunelleschi lost his temper, refused and Ghiberti was left to complete the task on his own.
It was a serendipitous outcome; he devoted nearly the rest of his life to creating the most beautiful bronze doors in the world while Brunelleschi went on to build the most perfect dome. Ghiberti’s first efforts, the North Doors (1403–24), are contained, like Pisano’s, in 28 quatrefoil frames. In their scenes of the Life of Christ, the Evangelists, and the Doctors of the Church, you can trace Ghiberti’s progress over the 20 years he worked in the increased depth of his compositions, not only visually but dramatically; classical backgrounds begin to fill up the frames, ready to break out of their Gothic confines.
Ghiberti also designed the lovely floral frame of the doors; the three statues, of John the Baptist, the Levite and the Pharisee, by Francesco Rustici, were based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci and added in 1511. The doors were hardly up when Ghiberti was set loose on the East Doors (1425–52), which were to become one of the most sublime achievements of the age. A perfectionist, the artist drove his assistants crazy by recasting and recasting the panels to make each little detail more lifelike, until old age finally made him give up.
Here, Ghiberti (perhaps under the guidance of Donatello) dispensed with the small Gothic frames and instead cast ten large panels that depict the Old Testament in Renaissance high gear, reinterpreting the forms of antiquity with a depth and drama that have never been surpassed. Michelangelo declared them ‘worthy to be the Gates of Paradise’, and indeed, it’s hard to believe that these are people, buildings and trees of bronze and not creatures frozen in time by some celestial alchemy. The doors (they’re copies – the original panels, restored after flood damage in 1966, when the pressure of the water caused several to pop out of their frames, are on display in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) have been cleaned recently, and stand in gleaming contrast to the others which still carry the grime of centuries.
In 1996 copies of Andrea Sansovino’s marble statues of Christ and John the Baptist (1502) and an 18th-century angel were installed over the doors. The originals had begun to fall to bits in 1974; they too are now in the Museo dell’Opera.
Ghiberti was never slow to toot his own horn; according to him, he personally planned and designed the Renaissance on his own. His unabashedly conceited Commentarii were the first attempt at art history and autobiography by an artist, and a work as revolutionary as his doors in its presentation of the creative God-like powers of the artist.
It is also a typical exhibition of Florentine pride that he should put busts of his friends among the prophets and sibyls that adorn the frames of the East Doors. Near the centre, the balding figure with arched eyebrows and a little smile is Ghiberti himself.
Piazza di San Giovanni, at the west end of Piazza del Duomo
Hours 8.15am-10.15am, 11.15am-6.30pm. Closed the first Tuesday of the month.
Adm €15 cumulative ticket, bookable online. This includes the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Giotto's Campanile, the Cathedral Crypt (Santa Reparata), Brunelleschi's Dome and the film The Courage to Dare, in the Teatro Niccolini. Valid for 48 hours after the first entry.
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Images by: PD Art, Harshlight, Creative Commons License, Ricardo André Frantz, Creative Commons License, Richardfabi, Creative Commons License