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"il mio bel San Giovanni": the Baptistery of Florence

The Baptistery of Florence is one of the most ancient churches of Florence. It is located in front of the Cathedral of the town, the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. A baptistery is a church where people can be baptized, so they can find a new life in Christ.


The first structure was build during the Vth century; 
Florentines of the Medieval Ages believed that originally this monument was an ancient temple dedicated to the God Mars, then changed into a church. Even if it was not true, this tradition was really important, because it testified the ancient Roman origins of Florence were generally known. Florentines decided to build the Baptistery at the northeast side of the town because there were some Roman houses with running water and the baptism was by full immersion of people, so Florentines needed a lot of water to baptise people.
The first structure built was smaller than that one we can see today, but it had the same octagonal shape, because the octagon refers to the octava dies, the eighth day after the seven of a week on earth, so it refers to the eternity of our salvation.
The outside of the building is characterised by two types of marble put in geometrical shapes. The famous white marble is from Carrara, a town near the see, while the green one is from Prato, a town near Florence: so Florentines used the materials they had around the town to decor the facade. They put these two types of marbles in a geometrical shape that is called the Florentine Romanesque style, that characterized also the facade of the church of San Miniato al Monte in Florence.

Among the three doors of the outside of the Baptistery the most beautiful is the famous Gate of Paradise, a golden door made by Lorenzo Ghiberti between 1425 and 1452. Instead of dividing the door in twenty panels, as the other two doors, he decided to divide it into only ten panels, describing more than one story of the Old Testament for each panel. The surface is all covered by thin golden leaf, even if the door we can see outside the Baptistery is only a copy, while the original one is inside the Museum of the Opera del Duomo for conservative reasons. It is worth a visit, because it has been restored since few months after twenty-seven years of restoration and it shines so much that the surface of the copy seems dirty in comparison.

 

As we get inside, the first thing we notice is the beautiful dome covered by precious mosaics. It is one of the biggest dome of the world decorated by mosaics! On the so-called tessere, the small cards the mosaic is done with, there is a thin leaf of gold, so the dome is so shining and so awesome.
The mosaics were designed by Florentines artists, such as Cimabue or Coppo di Marcovaldo, but Florence didn’t have a tradition of mosaics, so artists from Venice were called to realize the decoration of the dome, and they did it between 1270 and 1340.

 

As we move, we can see how the surface of the dome shines from all the points of view: it depends from the fact that all the tessere are put on the surface with different angles, so that the light can shine on the surface from all the points.
Looking at the subjects represented on the mosaics, we can see that immediately over the apse there is the big figure of Christ (he is more than eight meter high!). At his sides there are two sections devided into three registers. In the upper register there are angels with the symbols of Christ’s Passion; in the second register there are the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist immediately next to Christ, and the Apostols sitting with twelve angels behind them; in the third register on the left there is the representation of Heaven (the Elects, raised from their tombs, are letting get inside a door, representing the gate of Heaven, from an angel, while inside Paradise there are the three major Patriarchs sitting on their thrones) while on the right there is the representation of Hell (Lucifer, in the middle of the composition, is devouring the Damned). So, there is the representation of the Last Judgment at the end of time, when Christ will come on earth again to judge all people.

 

The other five sections of the dome are divided into registers. In the upper register, next to the lantern, there is the representation of nature, with plants and animals. It is the nearest to the lantern because the light of the lantern represent God and nature is close to God. In the second register there are the Angelic Choirs, such as Thrones, Virtus, Angels, Archangels, ect. The third register represents stories of the Genesis, from the Creation of the world to the famous Flood. It is the beginning of the relationship between God and man. The fourth registers shows stories of Joseph the Hebrew, a biblical figure who foreshadows the coming of Christ, because he was able to give Egyptians a salvation, as Christ would give to his people. The fifth register is dedicated to Christ’s life, from the beginning (Annunciation) to the very end (Resurrection). The sixth and last register is that one of Saint John the Baptist, who the Baptistery is dedicated to. Saint John is in the lowest register, so the nearest to us,  because he is an intermediary between us and Christ (in the register above it), us and God (represented by the light of the lantern).
So, all the mosaics are an exemple of the salvation we can find following Christ’s life and thanks to the Baptism.
Inside the Baptistery there is also a sort of symbolical passage. In fact, people who were not baptized couldn’t get inside the Cathedral, so they came here to have lessons in preparation to the Baptism. They entered from the Gate of Paradise, the golden door in front of the Cathedral, and they passed on the two beautiful parts of floor that are behind the door to reach the middle of the Baptistery, where the baptismal font was and were they could be baptized. The two parts of the marble floor are decoreted with different subjects: the first one near the Gate of Paradise has animals in the corners, while the second one near the middle of the Baptistery represents a zodiac. So the first is a representation of earth, while the second one of the sky. People who got inside the Baptistery passed from a condition of earth, through a condition of sky, to reach the baptismal font in the middle, where they could find a salvation thanks to Christ (in fact, for Roman Catholics you can’t get inside Heaven without being baptized).

 

Inside the Baptistery there were also great artworks, that now are inside the Museum of the Opera del Duomo for conservative reasons, such as Donatello’s Mary Magdalene, a wooden sculpture with great expressiveness, or the Silver Altar of Saint John the Baptist, a particular altar made all in silver and gold.

Now inside the building there are only the baptismal font made in 1370 and the Monument of the Anti-Pope John XXIII, an integration of architecture and sculpture made between 1422 and 1428 by Donatello, the famous sculptor, and Michelozzo, the architect who realized also Palazzo Medici Riccardi, the first residence of Medici family in Florence.

 

Sometimes there are guided tours (the only way) to climb the two women’s galleries, or so-called matronei, the two passages that go up to see the structure of the Baptistery (contact Centro Arte e Cultura to have information). It is beautiful, because it is possible to see the structure of the building, discovering that it has two domes, an inner and an outer one, that gave Brunelleschi the idea to build the two domes of the Cathedral. In fact, Brunelleschi took from the Baptistery the idea of the domes like two shells and he wanted to decor his two domes with mosaics, as the Baptistery. But he died before the decoration, mosaics were expensive and Florence didn’t have a tradition of mosaics, so Florentines decided to paint Brunelleschi’s domes with frescoes, even if with the same subject of the Baptistery, the Last Judgement.
The Baptistery is a beautiful building, rich in history and art. Dante, the famous writer, described it as «Il mio bel San Giovanni» or «My beautiful Saint John», because he loved it. All Florentines love it and if you visit it, you will love it the same.

Caterina Bellezza

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