The “Bel San Giovanni” narrated by Dante and loved by all Florentines
The Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence is in the religious centre of the city, in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and it is the oldest monument in the square. Dedicated to St. John the Baptist, patron of Florence, originally was surrounded by other buildings such as the Archbishop’s Palace, then destroyed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to create the current square. Its octagonal shape symbolizes “the eighth day”, out of our time of seven days, or the Baptism : the sacrament of initiation to the Christian faith and the passage of men from the sin to the new life in Christ. This majestic sacred building, created to accommodate the baptismal font of the Cathedral, welcomed the crowd of Florentines who received baptism, but only in two fixed dates per year.
Brief history of the Baptistery in Florence
The Baptistery of San Giovanni was considered originally a temple dedicated to the god Mars because it was built on the remains of Roman buildings. The date of its foundation is uncertain between the fourth and fifth and seventh centuries, but only in 1128 the building officially became the city baptistery, then covered with marble both externally and internally. In the second half of the thirteenth century it was built the dome and in 1202 the apse with a rectangular plan. Then were executed the mosaics of the apse and at the same time the small square gallery. Between 1270-1300, dates back the mosaic of the octagonal dome built by Jacopo Torriti, Coppo di Marcovaldo and Cimabue. Between 1330 and 1336 it was performed the first of three bronze doors, commissioned to Andrea Pisano and initially placed on the east side. But then the door was moved to the south side to place the second door. The latter was built between 1401 and 1424 by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Also the second door was moved from the east side to the south. Ghiberti built also the third door between 1425 and 1452. This one was called by Michelangelo “Heaven’s Gate”, located on the eastern side of the building.
The architecture of the Baptistery in Florence
A triumph of high architecture and precious works, soon made the Baptistery a civic pride, so much that the great poet Dante Alighieri called him the “beautiful San Giovanni.” The building is covered by a dome , topped by a pyramid roof , while on the opposite side of the entrance there is the rectangular apse added together with the monumental dome, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The external appearance of the Baptistery is characterized by white Carrara marble and green Prato marble and the three magnificent bronze doors added between 1300 and 1500, by Andrea Pisano and Lorenzo Ghiberti and bronze and marble groups illustrating the biblical stories of the baptized man.
The interior of the Baptistery in Florence
The interior of the Baptistery is characterized by the splendour of the mosaics that cover the entire dome and the vault of the gallery. At the centre of the Baptistery was originally the baptismal font, decorated with marble inlays depicting the signs of the Zodiac.
From the font, looking up at the dome, you can admire the images of Christian Baptism, the Last Judgement, Christ overlooking the thirteenth-century mosaics: under his foot happens the resurrection of the dead.
The Dome of the Baptistery of Florence
The dome of the baptistery has eight segments and is covered by mosaics on a gold background. The cladding work of the dome lasted from 1270 until the beginning of 1300 and was made by important local artists .On the upper side are depicted the angelic hierarchies, then there is the Last Judgement , dominated by the great figure of Christ and on his right Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while on the left side the hell with its demons. The other scenes on the ceiling depict different stories in the horizontal sections of mosaic: the stories of Genesis, Joseph Jew, of Mary and Christ, and the stories of San Giovanni Battista.
The doors of the Baptistery in Florence
The south door, designed by Andrea Pisano from 1330 to 1336, is the oldest of the Baptistery doors, depicting the life of St. John the Baptist, patron and owner of the Baptistery of Florence.
It’s divided into 28 panels: 20 panelsnarrate some episode about life of St. John and the other 8 panels are about personifications of the three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues. With this work the sculptor updated the structure of Romanesque portals using the so-called “quatrefoil”, which is typical of Gothic art. A curiosity: in the columns of the south gate are carved in bas-relief, two rectangles representing two length measurements in use in the Middle Ages, the Lombard foot and Florentine one.
Also the north door made between 1401 and 1424 by Lorenzo Ghiberti, is divided into 28 panels such as the Pisano door. The top panels tell stories from the New Testament and scenes from the life of Christ, while the lower panels show the four Evangelists and four Doctors of the Church. A curiosity: to build the door Ghiberti created a real workshop of bronze workers, which were formed by artists such as Donatello and Paolo Uccello.
From 1425 to 1452 Ghiberti created the east door too known to all as the “Door of Paradise”, so defined by Michelangelo.
It’s divided into 10 rectangular panels representing Old Testament scenes. They are included in a richly decorated gilt framework made of statuettes of prophets . Since the door was damaged in the 1966 flood, its pads ave been replaced by copies, while the originals, restored, can be seen in the Museodell’Opera del Duomo. A curiosity: close to the “Door of Paradise” there are two porphyry columns, currently broken, which were donated by Pisa in order to thank Florence for the help received against Lucca in 1117.
Information to visitthe Baptistery of San Giovanni
Address: Old Town.
How to get there: by feet
Monday-Saturday: 11:15 am to 7 pm;
Sunday and first Saturday of the month: 8:30 am to 2 pm;
Easter Monday, April 25th, May 1st, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday: 8:30 am to 7 pm
Entrance allowed up to 30 minutes before closing.
The opening days and times of access may vary on the basis of religious celebrations.
Annual closing: New Year, Easter and Christmas.
The ticket costs € 15 and includes:
Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore
Cupola del Brunelleschi
Campanile di Giotto
Battistero di San Giovanni
Resti di Santa Reparata