The Baptistery of San Giovanni, one of the most ancient churches in Florence, sits opposite the city's cathedral, the church of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Octagonal in plan, it is totally clad in slabs of white Carrara and green Prato marble. It is covered by a dome of eight segments resting on perimetral walls, but the dome cannot be detected from the outside because it is concealed by the walls being raised above the arcade on the second level and crowned by a flattened pyramidal roof.
This fascinating structure, combining faith, history and art, has given scholars much food for thought with regard to its dating.
The people of Florence in the Middle Ages believed that the baptistry was an ancient building dating back to the time of the Romans, a pagan temple converted into a church. And in fact a large part of the baptistry's marble cladding – along with numerous ancient fragments and inscriptions and with the large columns holding up the trabeation, or horizontal lintels, above the inner doors – does indeed come from the ruins of Roman Florentia, quite possibly from a pagan temple.
The building we see today, at any rate, is the result of an earlier baptistry, dating back to the 4th or 5th century AD, being rebuilt on a grander scale.
Work began on the mosaic decoration of the interior in the 13th century, the square-ended apse and dome being covered with mosaics executed by Tuscan mosaicists including, perhaps, the artists of the new Florentine school of painting such as Cimabue and Coppo di Marcovaldo.
The Baptistery originally housed several other major works of art, including Donatello's Penitent Magdalene and the Silver Altar, both now on display in the Opera del Duomo Museum for conservation purposes.
As you enter the building, your attention is immediately drawn by the precious mosaics in the dome, one of the largest domes in the world in its day to be decorated using this technique. The mosaics are dominated by the huge figure of Christ in Judgement, with scenes from the Last Judgement occupying three of the dome's eight segments. The horizontal registers superimposed in layers tell the stories of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, of Jesus, of Joseph and of the Creation of the World. The Angelic Hosts occupy the highest register of all, in the centre of the dome.
Under the patronage of the wealthy Arte di Calimala, the Guild of Merchants, Finishers and Dyers of Foreign Cloth, the baptistry was also given its three sets of splendid bronze doors.
The oldest set is the South Door, cast by sculptor Andrea Pisano between 1330 and 1336. Its twenty uppermost panels depict episodes from the life of St. John the Baptist while the remaining eight portray the Christian Virtues.
The North Door, the second to be made and basically modelled on the first, contains scenes from the New Testament in its twenty uppermost panels and the four Evangelists and four Church Fathers in the other eight.
And finally, the East Door, which Michelangelo called the Gates of Paradise, is the now fully Renaissance masterpiece of Ghiberti and his assistants, who included Luca della Robbia. Ghiberti and his workshop won the commission for the door without a competition, changing the design to ten large panels instead of the twenty-eight smaller ones on the earlier doors.
The baptistry originally housed several other major works of art, including Donatello's Penitent Magdalene and a Silver Altar, both now on display in the Opera Museum for conservation purposes.
The Baptistery is also accessible for people with mobility difficulties. There is a cumulative ticket which gives access first to the Museum and then to the Baptistery. Subject to exhaustion of places, it is possible to reserve free admission for the person with difficulties, by writing to the email firstname.lastname@example.org or by contacting the cash desk in Piazza Duomo 14, subject to availability, against a certification document. Any gratuity for the companion is subject to further considerations. For privacy reasons, the email conversation will be deleted. For any paying people to match, we kindly ask you to make the purchase online. The monument features the TouchAble path inside.