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  • Writer's pictureClementine de la Poer Beresford, MA

A Brief History of the Baptistery of Saint John in Florence

What is the Baptistery of Saint John?

The Baptistery of Saint John is an 11th-century religious building that forms part of the city’s cathedral complex.

Baptistery of Saint John

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Baptistery of Saint John History

In 1401, Florence was abuzz with excitement. The consuls of the Arte di Calimala, the guild of cloth importers, had announced a competition to design the colossal east doors of the 11th-century Baptistery of Saint John, which stands here in the Piazza del Duomo across from the city’s striking cathedral. The octagonal building, rendered on the outside in white Carrara marble interspersed with green Prato marble, and topped by an octagonal lantern, was one of the most important monuments in Florence. The project was designed to bolster civic unity and pride. The finest artists of the day threw their hats into the ring, including the great Florentine rivals Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Although Ghiberti later claimed he had won ‘without a single dissenting voice’, the author of The Life of Filippo di Ser Brunellesco recalled the judges ‘could not discover any superiority’ between his or Brunelleschi’s submissions, and asked them to work ‘together as partners’. Brunelleschi refused, leaving Florence for Rome where he went on to study architecture.

Over the next 21 years, Ghiberti brought his design to life. The result was a pair of enormous bronze doors decorated with 28 panels depicting the life of Christ, the four evangelists and the Church Fathers. These doors were later moved to the baptistery’s north side and, in 1424, Ghiberti was commissioned to create a new pair of doors for the east side which took 27 years to make. To Michelangelo, these were fit to be the ‘Gates of Paradise’ and for the 16th-century artist, historian and writer Giorgio Vasari, they were ‘undeniably perfect in every way’. Today, these gates are preserved in the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and those situated here in the baptistery are copies of the originals.

Although the baptistery today is most famed for Ghiberti’s doors, it’s also notable for the many significant baptisms that have taken place within its medieval walls. The poet, writer, philosopher, and author of the Divine Comedy, Dante, had his head dipped in holy water here, as well as many members of the Medici family.

The baptistery also contains the monumental tomb of Baldassare Cossa who became Antipope John XXIII in the early 15th century. Cossa opposed Gregory XII during the Western Schism in the Catholic Church, participating in the Council of Pisa which sought to bring to an end the existence of two popes with the election of a third alternative candidate. In 1410, he became recognised as pope by France, England, Bohemia, Portugal, parts of the Holy Roman Empire and many northern Italian states. His tomb, by Donatello and Michelozzo, sees Cossa lying between two Corinthian pillars, topped by a canopy.

Whilst the current baptistery dates from the 11th century, excavations show that the site has had at least two other octagonal baptisteries built on it. In the 6th century, it’s thought that one was built by the Queen of the Lombards, Theodolinda, after her husband converted to Christianity. The choice of an octagonal shape, which symbolises the resurrection of Christ, was reflective of other Christian baptisteries, such as those in Ravenna and Constantinople.

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