In Piazza del Duomo, right in front of the imposing Cathedral, stands the exquisite Baptistry, one of the oldest religious buildings in Florence. It’s a wonderful example of Florentine Romanesque style, based on rationality and geometry. Inside its magnificent gates is a lavish interior with precious medieval mosaics and some important pieces of Florentine history.
Florence Baptistry of San Giovanni – The geometric exterior
Few things are certain about the origin of this building. The architect is unknown, and it’s uncertain when the different stages of the building were completed. What is clear is that a religious building standing on this spot was first mentioned in 897, and that in 1128 it officially became Florence’s Baptistry. In the 12th century, the beautifully geometrical exterior was completed.
Whatever the chronology of its construction, the architecture and decoration were very much inspired by Roman classical architecture. The designs are a combination of different coloured marble, white from Carrara and green form Prato, used in a combination of geometrical forms, lines, rectangles and arches. It is an 8-sided edifice which is typical of a baptistry.
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The famous “Gates of Paradise” by Ghilberti
One of the most celebrated features of the Florence Baptistry are the bronze gates by Lorenzo Ghiberti. In 1401 a famous competition was held to determine who which architect would design the bronze doorway. Ghiberti’s plan triumphed, seeing off rivals who included Brunelleschi. (His test piece is today at the Bargello Museum). You can see the result of his work on the doorway (1402-1424) on the north side, with 28 scenes from the life of Christ and the New testament. Ghiberti followed the example of the baptistry’s most ancient door, done by Arnolfo di Cambio (1330-36), thus anchoring his style to Gothic forms.
But the real masterpiece, which Michelangelo called “Porta del Paradiso” because of its extraordinary beauty, is the one that Ghiberti created in 1425-52, and is today situated on the east side. This was a significant location, directly facing the cathedral entrance. People would come out through here after a baptism and enter the Duomo.
On this celebrated “Gates of Paradise” there are ten gilded bronze panel reliefs that show scenes of the Old Testament. The scenes are large and rich in detail, and the reliefs have a real depth which gives the scenes more atmosphere. Ghiberti displays real mastery in rendering proportions, light, shadows and drama.
NOTE: These doors you see today are copies.The original doors can be found in the Museo Opera del Duomo.
The interior of Florence Baptistry
The decoration of the interior is inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, with use of columns and marble geometrical decoration. It’s a place of real magic. The Medieval mosaic that covers the dome reflects a golden light from the upstairs windows.Inspired by the mosaics in San Marco in Venice, the main subject is the Last Judgment, with the “just” on the right and the “sinners” to the left. The whole space is like a precious shrine, with variegated marble patterns, gilded capitals, inlays and green and white marble facings.
The tomb of the Antipope John XXIII, Baldassare Cossa, a great friend with the rising Medici family, is fitted in between two columns. Created by Donatello and Michelozzo, it’s considered the first canopied tomb of the Renaissance (1422-28).
The baptism – Symbols and significance
This, like other baptistries, has 8 faces reflecting the number that represented eternity and resurrection. Once the ritual had been performed the person entered the christian community and was purified of all sins. T
Dante Alighieri was one of the illustrious citizens baptised here, as he tells us in his Divine Comedy – (he calls the baptistry ‘mio bel San Giovanni’ in the XIX canto of his “Inferno”). A marble baptismal basin was, in medieval times, at the centre of the floor, but was later removed. The baptism was originally in a marble basin where the faithful was partially immersed. In the first centuries of Christianity, people who hadn’t been baptised were not admitted inside churches.
Visitors Info: with a joint ticket (30 Euros) you can visit the whole Florence Cathedral Complex – Baptistry, Giotto’s bell tower, the Crypt of the Cathedral (entrance to the Cathedral is free), Brunelleschi’s Dome, Opera del Duomo Museum. The ticket is valid 48 hours after first use. Booking: Opera del Duomo official site.
Last update: March 2023