Here’s my guide to visiting the remarkable Baptistery of St. John in Florence Italy.
The Baptistery sits in front of the main facade of Florence Cathedral. Dating from 1059, the Baptistery is over a thousand years old. Incredibly ancient, especially compared to American standards. The only other structure this old in Florence is the Church of San Miniato al Monte.
To locals, the Baptistery is Florence’s most significant monument. Yet, it seems like an underrated hidden gem in Florence. Most tourists in Florence are visiting the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, and the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David.
As its name implies, the Baptistery is dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence and the inventor of the act of baptism. This particular baptistery was where the citizens of Florence were baptized.
Until the 18th century, it was the exclusive place for baptism in Florence. The poet Dante and members of the ruling Medici family were baptized there.
READ: History of the Medici
The baptistery is famous for its three sets of bronze doors and spectacularly decorated mosaic ceiling.
What To See at the Baptistery of St. John
The Baptistery is Romanesque in design. It has an octagonal 8 sided shape. Baptisteries were round-ish to mimic the mausoleums of ancient Rome, like the mausoleums of the Emperors Augustus and Hadrian in Rome.
There are four principal geographic sides. Three sides have bronze doors (more on that below) and the other has an apse. The apse is a curvilinear space meant to house the high altar.
Like all of Florence’s buildings, it was constructed of brownstone. It’s faced in marble — white from Carrara and green from Prato. In each corner, the pilasters were decorated in a zebra-like pattern by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1293.
On the facade, you’ll see ancient Roman granite columns. These ancient materials add prestige to the building. They likely came from the Piazza della Repubblica, which was the location of an ancient Roman forum.
The second level is made up of a series of arches with windows underneath. This marked the womens gallery, the spot where women were banished to in the olden days.
Above that is a short level that consists of square openings alternating with square mosaics. The openings are light wells, which provide indirect light and illuminate the ceiling mosaic. An octagonal lantern was added to the roof around 1150.
2. Bronze Doors
The Baptistery has three magnificent sets of bronze doors. Two sets of originals are now in the Duomo Museum, with copies on the facade. They are:
East doors: Ghiberti, 1452
North doors: Ghiberti, 1424
South doors: Pisano, 1330
East Doors | Gates of Paradise
On the eastern side are the famous golden “Gates of Paradise” designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti and nicknamed by Michelangelo. The originals are a masterpiece of the Early Renaissance, with a clarity of line and illusionism.
The doors were commissioned by the guild of wool merchants, the most wealthy guild in Florence. They took 24 years to complete and have recently been conserved. The grime is gone and you can see the beautiful gilding.
The doors are massive. There are ten square scenes of relief sculpture, displayed in two lines. They depict Old Testament scenes from left to right and from top to bottom. The doors are framed with 24 small bronze busts of famous Florentines, including Ghiberti’s self-portratit.
The scenes are set in window-like pictorial spaces, with the use of linear perspective. Ghiberti creates an illusion of space. The figures are graceful, some standing in contrapposto.
The most famous scene is of Esau and Jacob, the sons of Isaac and Rebecca. Esau stupidly trades his birth right to Jacob for a bowl of stew. Esau gets even by tricking Issac into blessing the wrong son.
The doors were originally on the north side of the Baptistery. But they were considered so beautiful that they were moved to the front entry on the east side.
North Doors | Competition Doors
On the north side, you’ll find another set of earlier Ghiberti doors, created in 1403-24. The doors depict scenes from the passion of Christ.
They were the result of a famous 1401 competition to find the best sculptor, a competition that basically kicked off the Renaissance era. There were only two serious contenders: the temperamental goldsmith, Filippo Brunelleschi, and the sculptor Ghiberti.
Ghiberti won with a technically superior design. He toiled away on the doors for nearly 20 years, perfecting them.
South Doors | Pisano Doors
On the south side, the earliest of the three sets of doors date from 1330. They were designed by the sculptor Andrea Pisano, a student and collaborator of the great 14th century artist Giotto.
The doors were in the medieval tradition. The 28 quatrefoil scenes show the life of St. John the Baptist. The Pisano doors are being renovated and hopefully will be moved inside soon too.
The Baptistry is just a single hall lined with ancient Roman columns of gray granite, likely also repurposed from the ancient Roman forum down the street.
The high altar is a reliquary altar. It has a square window in the front. Inside is Florence’s most precious relic, the index finger of St. John the Baptist. This relic (one of 37 or so index fingers attributed to him) drew pilgrims to Florence for centuries. The relic is on display once a year.
The floor is made of marble in geometric forms. The floor almost looks like a rug, an influence of the Eastern world.
The interior has a lower story with columns and pilasters and an upper story with a walkway (the women’s gallery). The interior walls are covered in dark green and white marble, with inlaid geometrical patterns. The niches are separated by monolithic granite columns.
The most remarkable piece of art in the interior is the tomb of Antipope John XXIII, sculpted by Donatello and Michelozzo in 1428.
4. Ceiling Fresco
The highlight of the Baptistery is a stunning golden Byzantine-style mosaic fresco. This is one of the most famous decorated spaces in Western history, an epic pictorial production of the beginning to the end of time.
It likely influenced Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel because it was the only ceiling of its kind to previously tell the comprehensive story.
Mosaics are tiny pieces of colored glass. When the light comes through the light wells in the Baptistery, they practically glitter. Now, there’s electric lighting flooding the mosaics for the paying visitors.
Florence isn’t known for its mosaic tradition. Venice and Ravenna were the centers of the mosaic craft. So Venetians came to Florence to teach the Florentines the art of mosaics. We don’t know if Florentines then created the Baptistery ceiling or the Venetians stayed and worked off Florentine cartoons (preparatory sketches).
There’s not a single signature of a mosaicist in history. Mosaics were considered more craft than art. But as you look at these meticulous mosaics, you’ll think it’s art.
The Last Judgment
You read the scenes as they ascend. The mosaics tells the story of the Last Judgement, the apocalyptic tale where Jesus determines who will go to heaven and hell.
Jesus is a whopping 19 feet tall. With his right hand, Jesus invites a select few up into heaven. With the left hand, he sends people to hell.
There’s shockingly few people getting the magic pass to heaven. According to the Book of Revelation, that number is 144 000, which consists mostly of clergy.
The hell section occupies the entire lower horizontal register. It’s graphic and pessimistic. We’re in the Middle Ages, the time of fire and brimstone. It’s not the Renaissance, for sure.
There’s a horned figure in the center with serpent ears, much like Dante describes Satan in the Inferno. He’s busy munching on the damned, with legs dangling from his mouth. Someone is being marinaded on a spit with flames below him.
Old and New Testament Scenes
There are five remaining sections of the dome mosaic besides The Last Judgment. Right above the 19 foot tall Jesus, you’ll see all the tales of Genesis — the cycle of the Old Testament, just like you see on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. God creates it all and then he rubs it all out.
After Genesis, there’s the story of Joseph, from slave to prince. Then, there’s the New Testament stories of Jesus and Mary — the annunciation, the birth of Jesus, the sacrifice, the resurrection, etc.
At the very bottom band of the ceiling, you see mosaics depicting the life of St. John the Baptist. One of the scenes is the Dance of Salome, the biblical story of the execution of John.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Baptistery in Florence
Address: Piazza del Duomo
Hours: 8:15 am to 6:30 pm
Entry fee: 4 euros. You can also purchase the “Grande Museo del Duomo” combination ticket online for 18 euros, which gives you one entry to each of the Duomo sites over 72 hours. The ticket includes admission to the Duomo, Baptistery, Campanile, Duomo Museum, Brunelleschi’s dome, and the Santa Reparata crypt (inside the cathedral).
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Florence’s Baptistery. You may enjoy these other Florence travel guides and resources:
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