The Baptistery is a stone’s throw from the Santa Maria del Fiore. There is evidence pointing towards a building already being located here in the 6th or 7th century. By the 11th century, the old building underwent drastic changes and it was given its current look. The green marble stripes that alternate with white on the corner pilaster strips were added by Arnolfo di Cambio. With it, he aimed to create a new visual unity between the newly erected Duomo, which was also lined with green and white marble, and the Baptistery. Cambio was likely unaware that in doing this, he harmed the building’s classic character. By the twelfth century, the round apse was turned into a square one. The new shape was reminiscent of the pilgrim’s bag and that is exactly how the apse was called: scarsella (Click here for the story about the three doors of the Baptistery).
In Italy, the baptistery is usually built separate from the church. Only one who was baptised was allowed entry into the church. For some time, it was believed that the Baptistery was once a classic temple devoted to Mars. Only later would it have adopted a Christian function. Architects such as Alberti and Brunelleschi held the same view. For instance, the pilasters with fluting especially at the attic (top section) were constructed in perfectly attuned to classic rules. What did not make sense was the bent architrave and the rotated columns (something Donatello copied for his recess at the Orsanmichele) at the windows. The layout of the San Giovanni is an octagonal centred plane, but it still has an axis. As you enter through the main entrance (which is no longer possible), you will see the square apse with the altar straight ahead of you. The octagonal shape presumably has a deeper Christian meaning. Christ allegedly returned on the eighth day (Creation: 7 days) to free mankind.
The interior and exterior don’t match. While there is a trichotomy on the inside and outside, the height varies considerably. The unknown architects of this baptistery were clearly inspired by the Pantheon. There are some remarkable similarities, like the apse straight across from the entrance (which was originally also round). In addition, the Baptistery, like in the Pantheon, has recesses on the ground floor, with two columns supporting an architrave flanked by pilasters. Like the Pantheon, the building was situated on a raised area with multiple stairs. Due to floods of the Arno, the square was later raised, with the stairs thus now hidden underneath the streets. The square was never lowered like with the Pantheon to make the building look better. A proposal by Leonardo da Vinci to hoist the Baptistery was never taken seriously.
The octagonal dome rests on a small gallery which is double-walled. This is what likely inspired the use of a double shell for the dome of the Duomo. The Baptistery has greatly influenced Florence architecture, like
- Starting from one bay and then multiplying it. Working from a flat plane. This can be seen in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi by architect Michelozzo.
- A clear layout of the facade
- The green marble frame underneath the aedicula windows. For the windows of the palazzi, this is translated into cornices that simultaneously function as window sills.
- The two pilasters that collide where the two surfaces of the Baptistery come together. This can be traced back to the two pilasters of the Pazzi chapel by Brunelleschi
- The rotated columns at the windows Donatello will later use these columns for his recess in the Orsanmichele.
Adjacent to the renowned Porta del Paradiso on the eastern face of the Baptistery, you’ll find a pair of age-old porphyry columns, just a short distance apart. In 1107, the city of Pisa bestowed Florence with these columns as a token of gratitude for the assistance Florence had extended during a naval confrontation against marauding Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. The pair of columns held a legendary reputation for their magical qualities: their polished surfaces were said to possess the ability to reveal any forthcoming acts of treason against the state, as if reflecting them into the future. Nevertheless, the cunning Pisans, prior to relinquishing the columns to the Florentines, subjected them to a furnace, effectively erasing their shine and, consequently, nullifying their mystical abilities.
Once standing independently, as evidenced by a panel on a cassone at the Museo del Bargello, the columns fell victim to a fierce tempest in 1429. Subsequently, they were banded and repositioned to their present location.
Column of St Zenobius Aerial Top Wikipedia
“The column north of the Baptistry is the Column of St Zenobius, erected here in memory of a miracle that took place in the fifth century. According to legend, this was the location of a dead olive tree, other sources claim it was an elm tree. The column itself only says ‘arbor sicca’, a dry tree. Zenobius, a Greek, was the first bishop of Florence. He reportedly rallied his city when it was besieged by barbarians. Around 390 AD, with other sources claiming 417 AD, when he died at the age of eighty, he was buried in the San Lorenzo out of gratitude, which was constructed during the fourth century outside of the city walls at that time and which he came to regard as the seat of his episcopate. Because he was the first bishop of the city, and revered by his people, they judged he should be buried within the city walls and in the first church of Florence. On January 26, 429, by order of his successor Andreas, his body was placed on an ox cart and amid great interest taken along the Borgo San Lorenzo and the Porta Aquilonare to the cathedral, the San Salvatore. Near the church, carriers lifted the bier onto their shoulders and strode carefully between the two populous ranks of onlooking faithful, who in respectful silence saw the procession move towards the sanctuary. Because it was so crowded, the carriers, near the Baptistry, accidentally bumped the bier against a dead tree, which, despite the season, began to blossom and flower. People in the region flocked to the scene to see the miracle for themselves and many took a flowering twig from the tree. […]. Atop the column sits a marble cross, with an iron wreath below and an inlaid bronze tree on the shaft. This column [text and Wikipedia] was placed here in 1348, after the original column washed away during the flood of 1333. Every year, on January 26th, the day of Saint Zenobius’ miracle who is also one of the city’s patron saints, people put flowers at the base of the column.” Translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Firenze Een Anekdotische reisgids’ Athenaeum-Polak&van Gennep Amsterdam 2006 pp. 288 – 289
In the thirteenth century Venetian artists added a mosaic in the dome (click here for mosaic).
The three famous bronze doors will later receive more extensive discourse when we cover Florence sculpting. The first door was made by Andrea Pisano, the same man who worked on the Campanile after Giotto.
When it was decided to tear down the old Santa Reparata (Wikipedia) and construct a larger church, the square could not be left behind. A small hospital situated between the Baptistery and the old church was torn down and the new cathedral was pushed back. The casa torre (residential towers) at the southside and the cemetery had to make way as well. Proportions were already considered back in the Middle Ages. For instance, the S. Maria del Fiore was very purposely placed seventy-three braccia away from the centre of the San Giovanni. Which is the exact height of the Baptistery. This was an expression of divina proportione, divine proportioning, which God had added to nature. Of course, these proportions were very different from those applied by the classics.
The square behind the Duomo was widened. In addition, there was need for a proper connection between the spiritual centre with the Duomo and the worldly centre with the Palazzo Vecchio. To achieve this, the old cardo was shifted east.
Florence was founded by the Romans and back in Antiquity, it was shaped like a castrum, which can still be seen today. A castrum is very similar to a chessboard, except that it has two main streets; the cardo (east west) and decumanus (north south) that meet in the centre and this is the exact location of the Piazza della Repubblica. The new cardo became the Via dei Calzaiuoli. This street, which nowadays is a bustling commercial area, connects the Duomo with the Palazzo Vecchio. The square behind the cathedral was widened as well. The streets south of the square were lowered to make the new Duomo look better.
Housing along the square and in front of the Via dei Calzaiuoli also had to adhere to various new regulations and requirements. For instance, the windows were all to be at an equal height, requirements were set for stone types and protruding elements like bay windows were forbidden. The environment had to be as ‘desirable as possible’. Finally, in 1289, a new sewage system was added and the square was paved. As the construction of the new cathedral finally begins, it is quickly halted. The city paid more attention to the worldly affairs. As such, a new town hall was to be constructed first, the Commune del Podestà (currently the Palazzo Vecchio), because the old building, Palazzo del Podestà (currently the Bargello) from 1255 no longer sufficed.