Dedicated to Saint John, patron of the city, stands in front of Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. The building was outside the original Walls of the city of Florence until the Great Countess Matilde di Canossa decided to include it in the new walls of the city. The Baptistery is located between the Dome and the Arcivescovile Palace,in the core of the city centre (originally, the religious centre of the city). A first octagonal baptistery was erected here in the late fourth or early fifth century.
It was replaced or altered by another early Christian baptistery in the sixth century. Its construction is attributed to Theodelinda , queen of the Lombards (570-628) to seal the conversion of her husband, King Authari.
The present, much larger, Baptistery was built in Romanesque style around 1059, evidence of the growing economic and political importance of Florence. It was reconsecrated on 6 November 1059 by Pope Nicholas II , a Florentine. According to legend, the marbles were brought from Fiesole , conquered by Florence in 1078.
Other marble came from ancient structures. The construction was finished in 1128. 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”. An octagonal lantern was added to the pavilion roof around 1150. It was enlarged with a rectangular apse on the west side in 1202. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, three bronze double doors were added, with bronze and marble statues above them.
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. 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.
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.
In 1401 a competition was announced by the Arte di Calimala (Wool Merchants’ Guild) to design the baptistery north doors. Seven sculptors competed, including Lorenzo Ghiberti , Filippo Brunelleschi , Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia , 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. 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 . they were “the most singular work that I have ever made”. The “Gates of Paradise”are being restored and kept in a dry 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 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.
Those are the doors Michelangelo named “Gates of Paradise” (It. del Paradiso), and they are now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. 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 panels show the four evangelists and the Church Fathers. 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.
The mosaic marble pavement was begun in 1209. The geometric patterns in the floor are complex. Some show us oriental zodiac motifs Dante is said to have broken one of the lower basins while rescuing a child from drowning. The font was removed in 1571 on orders from the grand duke Francesco I de’ Medici . The present, and much smaller, octagonal font stands near the south entrance. It was installed in 1658 but is probably much older. The reliefs are attributed to Andrea Pisano or his school. The Baptistery is crowned by a magnificent mosaic ceiling. The earliest mosaics, works of art of many unknown Venetian craftsmen (including probably Cimabue ), date from 1225.