The Florence Baptistery
Of all the buildings in the Florence Cathedral complex, the Florence Baptistery is the most enigmatic. Built sometime in the 4th or 5th century, its architects appear to have sourced their building materials from ancient Roman buildings that had probably fallen into disuse. Today it’s one of the oldest churches in Florence and literally sits in the shadow of the great Florence Cathedral. Not that it’s any less impressive. From Ghiberti’s famous bronze doors to the jaw-dropping mosaics covering its dome, it is a magnificent attraction in its own right. In some ways it also played a more important spiritual role in the city than the more-famous Cathedral. Until the end of the 19th century it was where all Catholic Florentines were baptized – a list that includes famous names like Dante Alighieri and the Medici Family. If you visit today you’ll enjoy one of the more intimate of the grand historic spaces in Italy.
Visiting the Florence Baptistery: What to See
The Florence Baptistery Building
The eight-sided Baptistery building is not, like many of the buildings that surround it, a product of the Italian Renaissance. In fact, no one is quite sure what time period it comes from. It was long thought to have been a temple to Mars in pagan Rome but more recent theories suggest that it was a product of early Christians who built it, or perhaps re-built it in the 4th or 5th century. Either way, the white Carrara and green Prato marble that cover the outside were definitely repurposed from much older buildings, making the Baptistery a primeval melange of Italian architecture.
In the 13th century the city undertook an important refurbishment of the Baptistery, including one of the largest dome mosaics ever attempted at the time. They entrusted the job to an artist and Franciscan friar named Jacopo Torriti who created an 8-panel structure of biblical stories with Christ at the center. The most famous panels are the top three by the Florentine artist Coppo di Marcovaldo which feature fabulously gruesome scenes from the Last Judgement. It’s tough to imagine a more awe-inspiring spot than beneath this formidable (and terrifying) dome to Baptize the Catholics of Florence and inculcate them with the glory and fear of God.
Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise
Probably the most famous single set of doors in the world, these bronze masterworks are also among the least understood pieces of art in Florence. To begin with, the Baptistery actually has three sets of bronze doors. The oldest, which are located on the south side of the Baptistery, were made by Andrea Pisano and portray Christian virtues along with scenes from the life of John the Baptist. The second set of doors were the ones whose commission was famously won by Lorenzo Ghiberti, to the eternal chagrin of eventual Florence Duomo-builder, Filippo Brunelleschi. These are not, however, the “Gates of Paradise”. Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” are the third set of doors. They replaced the second set, which were moved to the North side of the Baptistery, and are widely considered the most accomplished of the three. And just to add one more layer of confusion, they have since been moved to the Grande Museo Del Duomo. The ones that seemingly every visitor to Florence has to get a picture touching today are replicas.
What makes them so special? To begin with, their depiction of biblical scenes is hyper-realistic and uses perfect mathematical perspective – a concept that was new at the time. But their true allure lies in their medium – the bronze cast. Although ancient Greece had many great bronze sculptors, the metal was prohibitively expensive in Renaissance Italy and so there were comparatively few artists who worked with it. Of these, Ghiberti was the unchallenged master.
Using a complex process that first involved pouring molten bronze into clay molds, then chipping and etching the surface of the cooled metal to add fine details, Ghiberti was able to evoke a sense of reality and depth in the doors that still impresses, even in our age of photography and television. He even painted on a layer of gold mixed with mercury to smooth the surface and give the doors their own “internal” glow to suggest atmosphere. The 10 panels that took him 27 years to complete are each perfect miniature scenes from the old testament rendered with no industrial machinery at all.
Or nearly perfect. There is a mistake in one panel where a column was accidentally cast over a figure’s arm. Quibbling aside, all who saw the doors were blown away by them – most famously Michelangelo who coined the term “Gates of Paradise.”
Don’t miss: of the 24 busts of prophets and Angels, Ghiberti slipped in one of himself and one of his father. Naturally, they’re the two central busts.
Tips for Seeing the Florence Baptistery
The Florence Baptistery is open 7 days a week but its hours depend on the day. From Monday to Friday it’s open from 8:15am to 10:15am then from 11:15am to 6:30pm. On Saturdays it’s open from 8:15am to 6:30pm and on Sundays it’s open from 8:15am to 1:30pm.
There is a single ticket that allows you to enter the six properties associated with the Florence Cathedral (the Cathedral, Dome, bell tower, Museum, Baptistery, and crypt.) The ticket costs €15.00 and entitles one person one entry into each of the six sites (you can’t go to one part multiple times on the same ticket). They can be used up to six days after their purchase. However, once you have entered one part of the complex with your ticket you only have 24 hours to see the other 5 parts.Children from 6 to 11 years old only pay €3.00 per ticket and children under 6 are allowed free entrance.
Since the Cathedral complex is an active place of worship, appropriate clothing must be worn at all times. This means that both men and women should wear clothes that cover their shoulders and shorts or skirts that reach past their knees. Anyone not dressed appropriately will be refused admittance.
Open food and drinks are not permitted in the Florence Baptistery, no pets are allowed, and cellular phones must be turned off or set to silent.
Photos are allowed but only without flash. No tripods or selfie sticks.
The Best Time to Visit the Florence Baptistery
Despite its historical significance, the Florence Baptistery draws much smaller crowds than the Florence Cathedral, Dome climb, and bell tower climb. You will notice large crowds gathered in front of the replicas of the “Gates of Paradise” (which face the Cathedral on the Baptistery’s eastern entrance) but if you walk around them to the western side you will usually find the modern entrance basically free of people. Once you have seen the inside, head over to the Grande Museo Del Duomo to see the real Gates of Paradise in a similarly serene setting.
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