High Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 182 pp., $45.00
The image of Florence that leaps first to mind for modern tourists is probably Brunelleschi’s immense dome on the city’s cathedral, the Duomo. But the dearest image of the town for Florentines over the centuries has been the smaller octagonal building that stands before the Duomo and serves as its baptistery. This, the most honored and sacred place in the city, is the church of Saint John the Baptist. Dante, who called it mio bel San Giovanni, “my lovely Saint John’s” (Inferno 19.17), was baptized there in 1265.
Where the present cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, stands, there was, before the fourteenth century, the much smaller parish church of Saint Reparata. That could not compete with the shrine of the Baptist, who is the patron saint of Florence—what Saint Mark is to Venice or Saint Peter to Rome. Florence is “the city of the Baptist” (Inferno 13.143)—so much his city that the local coin, the florin, bore his image. This shrine of Saint John is where his relics were guarded—his jaw and two of his fingers, including the index finger that pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” The most powerful guild in Florence, the Calimala, or cloth merchants, made the care and adornment of this place its special concern, lavishing on it princely sums century after century.1
‘Lovely Saint John’s’
What is now called the Baptistery is old enough to have been mistaken by Florentines as dating from ancient Roman times, when it was supposed to have been a temple of Mars (Paradiso 16.47). It is true that there are Roman foundations under the building, as under much of central Florence, and it seems there was a small fifth-century baptistery built over those remains; but the present building was raised in the eleventh century. It is Romanesque, with marble columns taken from the Forum (today the Piazza della Repubblica) of the Roman city, Florentia—whence the confusion about its Roman origin. Saint John’s church, as the most revered structure in Florence, was decorated with priceless works of art within and without. The interior held works of the greatest Florentine artists of their day—mosaics, statues, tapestries, silver altar and cross and reliquaries. Most of these are now kept in the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The exterior was given colossal statue groups over each of the three portals—three episodes from the Baptist’s life, the most ambitious sculptural program of its time.
What more could the Calimala do for John’s honor? Well, there were still the three entrances to the church, from three different directions (east, north, south), high portals each with two heavy doors. The final glory of the place would be a series of lead-relief sculptures for each of the six doors at the three portals. The first doors to be ornamented were on the east side, the main entry facing the interior altar. In 1329 Andrea Pisano was commissioned to tell the story of John the Baptist in the twenty-eight lead-relief scenes on these doors.
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