San Giovanni

This is an excerpt from the book “Florence in two days“.

Photo © Lilian Piraine Laranja
Photo © Lilian Piraine Laranja

SAN GIOVANNI

CATHEDRAL, BAPTISTERY, MUSEO DELL’OPERA DEL DUOMO

The Florence Baptistery or Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St. John) is a religious building in Florence (Tuscany), Italy, which has the status of a minor basilica.

The octagonal Baptistery stands in both the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza di San Giovanni, across from the Duomo cathedral and the Giotto bell tower (Campanile di Giotto). It is one of the oldest buildings in the city, built between 1059 and 1128. The architecture is in Florentine Romanesque style.

The Baptistery is renowned for its three sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures. The south doors were done by Andrea Pisano and the north and east doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti. The east pair of doors was dubbed by Michelangelo “the Gates of Paradise”.

The Italian poet Dante Alighieri and many other notable Renaissance figures, including members of the Medici family, were baptized in this baptistery. In fact, until the end of the nineteenth century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized here.

The Baptistery has eight equal sides with a rectangular addition on the west side.

The sides, originally in sandstone, are clad in geometrically patterned colored marble, white Carrara marble with green Prato marble inlay, reworked in Romanesque style between 1059 and 1128. The pilasters on each corner, originally in grey stone, were decorated with white and dark green marble in a zebra-like pattern by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1293.

Photo © rubens.anu.edu.au
Photo © rubens.anu.edu.au

The style of this church would serve as prototype, influencing many architects, such as Leone Battista Alberti, in their design of Romanesque churches in Tuscany.

The exterior is also ornamented with a number of artistically significant statues by Andrea Sansovino (above the Gates of Paradise), Giovan Francesco Rustici, Vincenzo Danti (above the south doors) and others.

The design work on the sides is arranged in groupings of three, starting with three distinct horizontal sections. The middle section features three blind arches on each side, each arch containing a window. These have alternate pointed and semicircular tympani. Below each window is a stylized arch design. In the upper fascia, there are also three small windows, each one in the center block of a three-panel design.

The apse was originally semicircular, but was it was made rectangular in 1202.

Baptistery doors – Gates of Paradise

Adam and Eve by Ghiberti (Panel 1 of the Gates of Paradise, see below).
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Ghiberti; museum of the Bargello.

Andrea Pisano

As recommended by Giotto, Andrea Pisano was awarded the commission to design the first set of doors in 1329. The south doors were originally installed on the east side, facing the Duomo, and were transferred to their present location in 1452. The bronze-casting and gilding was done by the Venetian Leonardo d’Avanzano, widely recognized as one of the best bronze smiths in Europe.

This took six years, the doors being completed in 1336. These proto-Renaissance doors consist of 28 quatrefoil panels, with the twenty top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. The eight lower panels depict the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence. The moulded reliefs in the doorcase were added by Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1452. There is a Latin inscription on top of the door: “Andreas Ugolini Nini de Pisis me fecit A.D. MCCCXXX” (Andrea Pisano made me in 1330).

The group of bronze statues above the gate depict The Beheading of St John the Baptist. It is the masterwork of Vincenzo Danti from 1571.

San Marco Museum
San Marco Museum

Lorenzo Ghiberti.

In 1401, a competition was announced by the Arte di Calimala (Wool Merchants’ Guild) to design the baptistery north doors. The existing north doors had been a votive offering to spare Florence from a new scourge such as the Black Death in 1348. Seven sculptors competed, including Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia [4], with 21-year old Ghiberti winning the commission. At the time of judging, only Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were finalists, and when the judges could not decide, they were assigned to work together on them. Brunelleschi’s pride got in the way, and he went to Rome to study architecture leaving Ghiberti to work on the doors himself. Ghiberti’s autobiography, however, claimed that he had won, “without a single dissenting voice.” The original designs of The Sacrifice of Isaac by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi are on display in the museum of the Bargello.

It took Ghiberti 21 years to complete these doors. These gilded bronze doors consist of twenty-eight panels, with twenty panels depicting the life of Christ from the New Testament. The eight lower panels show the four evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine. The panels are surrounded by a framework of foliage in the door case and gilded busts of prophets and sibyls at the intersections of the panels. Originally installed on the east side, in place of Pisano’s doors, they were later moved to the north side. They are described by Antonio Paolucci as “the most important event in the history of Florentine art in the first quarter of the 15th century”.

The bronze statues over the northern gate depict John the Baptist preaching to a Pharisee and Sadducee. They were sculpted by Francesco Rustici and are superior to any sculpture he did before. Rustici may have been aided in his design by Leonardo da Vinci, who assisted him in the choice of his tools.

Ghiberti was now widely recognized as a celebrity and the top artist in this field. He was showered with commissions, even from the pope. In 1425 he got a second commission, this time for the east doors of the baptistery, on which he and his workshop (including Michelozzo and Benozzo Gozzoli) toiled for 27 years, excelling themselves. These had ten panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament, and were in turn installed on the east side. The panels are large rectangles and are no longer embedded in the traditional Gothic quatrefoil, as in the previous doors. Ghiberti employed the recently discovered principles of perspective to give depth to his compositions. Each panel depicts more than one episode.

In “The Story of Joseph” is portrayed the narrative scheme of Joseph Cast by His Brethren into the Well, Joseph Sold to the Merchants, The merchants delivering Joseph to the pharaoh, Joseph Interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream, The Pharaoh Paying him Honour, Jacob Sends His Sons to Egypt and Joseph Recognizes His Brothers and Returns Home. According to Vasari’s Lives, this panel was the most difficult and also the most beautiful. The figures are distributed in very low relief in a perspective space (a technique invented by Donatello and called rilievo schiacciato, which literally means “flattened relief”.) Ghiberti uses different sculptural techniques, from incised lines to almost free-standing figure sculpture, within the panels, further accentuating the sense of space.

The panels are included in a richly decorated gilt framework of foliage and fruit, many statuettes of prophets and 24 busts. The two central busts are portraits of the artist and of his father, Bartolomeo Ghiberti.

Michelangelo referred to these doors as fit to be the “Gates of Paradise” (It. Porte del Paradiso), and they are still invariably referred to by this name. Giorgio Vasari described them a century later as “undeniably perfect in every way and must rank as the finest masterpiece ever created”. Ghiberti himself said they were “the most singular work that I have ever made”.

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