No building in Florence is nearly as iconic as the Baptistery of St. John, located in both the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza di San Giovanni.
Built in 1059, the Baptistery’s most awe inspiring elements are it’s doors, one of which has been called the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo and countless others since then.
Construction of the Florence Baptistery
Up until the twentieth century, it was believed that the original Baptistery was a Roman temple dedicated to Mars. However, excavations have uncovered a Roman wall that runs through the piazza and dates back to the first century. The first octagonal Baptistery on the site was built either in the late fourth or early fifth century. By the sixth century it was replaced or altered by Queen Theodelinda of Lombardy to mark the conversion of her husband, King Authari, to Christianity. At the time it would have been surrounded by a cemetery containing Roman sarcophagi, the tombs of the important families of Florence.
The Baptistery that stands there today began construction in 1059 and was reconsecrated by Pope Nicholas II. It was completed in 1128 with marble from the conquered town of Friesole and from other ancient structures. Later additions include an octagonal lantern around 1150, a rectangular apse on the west side in 1202 and three sets of bronze double doors between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Exterior of the Florence Baptistery
The Baptistery has eight equal sides as well as an additional apse on the west side and is covered with white Carrara marble with green Prato marble inlays. The designs on each of the eight sides consist of three horizontal sections, the middle of which consists of three blind arches with each arch containing a window. The upper fascia also three small windows in the center of a three panel design. The exterior is also decorated with several statues that were sculpted by artists like Andrea Sansovino, Giovan Francesco Rustici and Vincenso Danti among others.
The Baptistery’s Doors
The first set of bronze doors were designed by Andrea Pisano and were cast and gilded by Leonardo d’Avanzano, one of the best bronze smiths in Europe, beginning in 1329. They are made up of twenty-eight quatrefoil panels, on the top twenty were scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, and the lower eight panels show the eight virtues (hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence). Originally installed on the east side facing the Duomo, they were moved to the south wall in 1452, where they can be seen today.
In 1401, the consuls of the Arte del Calimala (the Wool Merchant’s Guild) held a competition for the design of another set of doors. Seven sculptors, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Jacopo della Quercia, Simone da Colle, Niccolo d’Arezzo, Niccolo di Peitro Lamberti and Francesco di Valdambrino, competed for the incredibly desirable commission. The Calimala asked each competitor to submit a single panel depicting Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac. When it came time to judge the panels a year later, it was between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. Only two written accounts of the competition survive, Ghiberti’s Comentarii and the Biography of Brunelleschi by Antonio Manetti. Ghiberti claims that he was the sole winner, however, Brunelleschi’s biography states that the judges couldn’t decide so the asked them to work together, but that he refused to do it unless it was entirely his project. Either way, Ghiberti was given the commission and spent the next twenty-one years creating the doors. These doors also consist of twenty-eight panels depicts the life of Christ on the upper twenty panels and the four evangelists and the Church Fathers (Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine) on the lower panels. They were originally installed on the east side and were later moved to the north side.
Ghiberti quickly became a celebrity and the commissions came flooding in. In 1425, he was given a second commission, this time for what are now the east doors. His workshop worked on the doors for twenty-seven years. The doors have ten panels, each depicting a scene from the Old Testament. The doors were so impressive that they inspired Michelangelo to call them the Gates of Paradise, a name that is still used today. And Ghiberti himself thought they were his greatest work. Recently the Gates of Paradise were removed and replaced with a replica to preserve the panels. The original panels were restored and are now on display at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The Interior of the Florentine Baptistery
As with the exterior, the interior is made of white and green marble inlayed in geometric patterns with columns of Sardinian granite. It is separated into two sections, the lower half with columns and pilasters and the upper half with an ambulatory. The Baptistery also hoses the tomb of Antipope John XXIII which was designed by Donatello and his pupil Michelozzo Michelozzi. The floor is a marble mosaic in complex geometric patterns and even includes oriental zodiac motifs. One of the most impressive elements of the interior is the mosaic ceiling. It was started by Jacopo da Torrita, a Franciscan friar, in 1225 but probably wasn’t completed until the fourteenth century. The mosaics depict the Last Judgement, choirs of angels, stories from the Book of Genesis, stories of Joseph, stories of Mary and Christ, and stories of St. John the Baptist. The drum right under the ceiling consists of the carved heads of many prophets by Gaddo Gaddi.