751. That’s how many years have passed since Dante Alighieri was baptised in Florence’s Baptistery of San Giovanni on March 26, 1266. In his ‘Divine Comedy’, Dante described the building as “my beautiful San Giovanni,” yet he was not the only famous Florentine to be baptised here. Navigator Amerigo Vespucci, historian and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli and Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici are all believed to have been dunked in the building’s original marble font. In fact, until the end of the 1800s, the baptisms of all Christian Florentines took place under its mosaicked ceiling.
The building itself is older than its green-and-white Romanesque façade, being constructed from the foundations of a fourth-century Roman temple. In 1059 it was consecrated and used as Florence’s cathedral before becoming the city’s official baptistery in 1128. Although the original baptismal font, bearing oriental symbols and Zodiac signs, was demolished in the sixteenth century, the site is covered with early baptismal symbols.
San Giovanni’s eight-sided shape represents the eighth day when Christ rose from the dead, symbolising new beginnings and signifying the baptismal entry into Christianity. The mass of coloured mosaics on the ceiling depict the Last Judgment, suggesting the salvation that follows baptism. Don’t forget to look for Jesus being baptised in the River Jordan by John the Baptist (San Giovanni) after whom the building is named.
Then there are the Baptistery’s external symbols. Those gilded doors your guide books have told you about? They were commissioned by the city’s Cloth Merchants Guild in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. On the southern side, facing the Bigallo, stand the older set of doors by Andrea Pisano (currently being restored to be displayed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo), which depict the life of the Baptistery’s namesake. Completed between 1330 and 1336, they feature John the Baptist’s birth, his baptising of Jesus and later his burial.
Turning towards the north doors with your back towards via Martelli you see the bronze doors of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a commission for which he competed against artist and architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Ghiberti’s more famous piece is his subsequent set of golden doors facing the Duomo (now only copies with the originals on display in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo). Just as baptism signifies initiation into the Catholic Church, both of Ghiberti’s doors have been considered Florence’s initiation into Renaissance art.
Between Pisano and Ghiberti’s works (on the Baptistery and in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) you can play “spot the difference” between Gothic and Renaissance artistic styles. Pisano’s reliefs are presented in heavy frames, the statues appearing small and static. Ghiberti’s reliefs have a foreground and background that will make you feel like his angel in the Binding of Isaac is flying out to meet you, while in front of his golden doors you are tempted to reach back and touch the Roman-style building behind Esau and Jacob: a testament to the use of depth and perspective in art and a characteristic attributable to the Renaissance.
Michelangelo described these doors as being “so beautiful that they would be perfect for the gates of paradise”. Their placement too elevates them to a spiritual status: once successfully baptised, Florentines could pass through Ghiberti’s gates and into the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore. For the modern-day traveller who begins their Florentine journey in “beautiful San Giovanni,” the words of Dante will inevitably ring in their ears. Gazing up at the Baptistery’s mass of mosaics and detailed exterior decorations is like stepping into another, more perfect world.