The Baptistery is the most ancient building in Florence. If not of pagan origin it dates from the earliest ages of Christianity. It was coated with marble of different colors by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1293, while in the sixteenth century Agnolo Gaddi designed the lantern; but long before Arnolfo’s time it had been employed as a Christian place of worship, being used as a cathedral up to 1128, when it was converted into a baptistery.
This building contains three gates, which have no parallel in the world. The oldest is that or the southern side, upon which Pisano spent twenty-two years of his life, a most beautiful work representing, in twenty compartments, the life of St. John the Baptist. The frieze which runs round it was commenced nearly a century after-ward by Ghiberti, and Pollaiuolo had much to do with its completion.
The northern gates are by Ghiberti, and, like those of Pisano, are divided into twenty compartments, the subject being the life of Christ. The bronze door-posts are delicately carved with flowers, fruit, and animals. These gates were first placed on the eastern side, but in 1452 were removed to make room for Ghiberti’s still finer work.
On the third facade, that which faces the Duomo, is the Porta del Paradise, so named by Michael Angelo, who declared that this gate was worthy to be the entrance into Paradise. Ghiberti divided each panel into five parts, taking the following as his subjects, after suggestions made by Leonardo Bruni Aretino: (1) Creation of Adam and Eve; (2) Cain and Abel; (3) Noah; (4) Abraham and Isaac; (5) Jacob and Esau; (6) Joseph in Egypt; (7) Moses on Mount Sinai; (8) The Capture of Jericho; (9) David Slaying Goliath; (10) The Queen of Sheba and Soloman.
The frieze contains statuettes of the prophets and prophetesses and portrait-busts of men and women still alive, including Ghiberti himself, and his father; while the frame-posts, with their masses of vegetation ‘and flora wrought in bronze, are admirable for their truth to nature. Bronze groups representing the “Decapitation of St. John the Baptist,” by Danti, and the “Baptism of our Lord,” by Andrea Sansovino, surmount two of the gates, which were at one time heavily gilded, tho few traces of this are now visible.
The Baptistery, empty as it appears to the eye upon first entering it, is replete with beautiful monuments, a description of which would fill a good-sized volume. It is built, as I have already said, upon an octagonal plan. The altar, which formerly stood beneath the cupola, has been removed. On the 24th of June every year the magnificent retablo in massive silver, which is preserved among the treasures in the Opera del Duomo, is displayed in the Baptistery. The silver alone weighs 325 pounds, including two center-pieces, two sidcpieces, and a silver crucifix with two statuettes seven feet high, and weighing 141 pounds, the group being completed by two statues of Peace in engine-turned silver. Many artists were employed upon the making of it. Finiguerra, Pollaiuolo, Cione, Michelozzi, Verrocchio, and Cennini made the lower parts and the bas-reliefs of the front, while the cross, executed in 1456, is by Betto di Francesco, and the base of it by Milano di Domenico dei and Antonio Pollaiuolo.
The interior of the cupola of San Giovanni is ornamented with some of the oldest specimens of mosaic decoration in Florence, these Byzantine artists being the first, after Murano and Altino, to exercise their craft in Italy, and being succeeded by Jacopo da Turita, Andrea Tafi, and Gaddo Gaddi.
The handsome tomb of Baldassare Cossa (Pope John XXIII., deposed at the time of the Council of Constance), was reared in the Baptistery by Donatello. The Holy of Holies is relatively modern, having been erected at the expense of the Guild of the “Calimala,” as the men who gave the finishing touch to the woolen stuffs manufactured abroad were called. The baptismal font, in a building specially used for christening, would, as a matter of course, be intrusted to artists of great repute, and that at San Giovanni is attributed to Andrea Pisano. Upon each face is represented one of the baptisms most famous in the history of the Catholic religion, an inscription beneath explaining each episode; but this font is, unfortunately, so much in the background that it escapes the notice of many visitors.
Donatello carved the wooden statue of the Magdalen which occupies one of the niches, the thin emaciated face being typical of the artist’s partiality for reproducing in their smallest details the physical defects of his subject. The exterior aspect of the Baptistery does not give one the idea of a building restored in the thirteenth, but rather in the fifteenth century.