London, Henry S. King & Co., 1877; Transcribed and Photographed, Carolyn Carpenter




Chapter I:  The Baptistery - Exterior

In the Piazza del Duomo, at the corner of the Via Calzaioli, the first object that meets the traveller's eye is the lovely and unrivalled Campanile, or Bell Tower of Giotto, rich in sculpture and encrusted with many-coloured marbles, like an Oriental gem.  Beyond this is the unfinished fašade of the cathedral,10  raised from the pavement by a wide flight of marble steps; on either side are palaces, including the residence of the archbishop, the Orphan Asylum of the Bigallo, and the office of the Misericordia; and to the left is San Giovanni, the Baptistery of Florence.

This ancient temple was included in the first circuit of walls, and is supposed to have been built by Theodolinda, daughter of Garibald, King of Bavaria, who married Autharis, King of the Lombards, in 589.  After the conversion of her husband from Arianism to the Catholic faith, the queen founded the cathedral of Monza, and built other churches in Lombardy and Tuscany, which she dedicated to her favourite saint, St. John the Baptist.11 The date of the Florentine Baptistery is, however, lost in uncertainty; and whilst attributed to Theodolinda, the Roman remains of which it is composed are said to have been brought hither, in the year 662, from a temple of Mars, which was situated half-way between Fiesole and the Arno, where a district is still known as Camerata, a corruption of Campus Martius; thus the stones of a temple consecrated to Mars, the tutelar god of Florence in Pagan times, may have helped to build the temple dedicated to St. John, the tutelar saint of Christian times.  Another tradition relates that the marbles were brought from Fiesole in 1078, when the old Etruscan city was conquered and made subject to Florence.  The Florentines employed as their leader one Strozzo Strozzi, a captain of free companies and astrologer.  His body reposes beneath the pavement of the Baptistery, where the spot is marked by a slab with the signs of the Zodiac.

The octagonal form of San Giovanni makes it probable that it was from the beginning intended for a baptistery, although at one time the cathedral of the town.  The earliest baptisteries were copied from the ancient thermŠ, or baths, with a font in the centre, allowing room for the candidates for baptism, as well as for spectators, as the rite was only performed at Easter and Whitsuntide.  The font, like the building, was octagonal, and, according to Lord Lindsay, was symbolical of our Saviour's resurrection:  the material creation occupying six days, the Lord resting on the seventh, and the spiritual creation taking place on the eighth.12

Florence was peculiarly distinguished as the city of the Baptist, and Dante in the "Paradiso," when addressing his ancestor, Cacciaguida, who perished in the Crusade, in which he followed the Emperor Conrad III., entreats him to describe Florence as it was in his days: -

"Ditemi dell; ovil di San Giovanni."

"Tell me about the sheepfold of St. John."

Again, in the same canto, he alludes to the races annually run on St. John's day, the 24th June, starting from the statue of Mars near the Ponte Vecchio, and ending at the Baptistery: -
"Tutti color che 'a quel tempo eran ivi
Da portar arme tra Marte e Battista
Erano 'l quinto di quei che son vivi."
  Par. Xvi. 46.9.

"All those who at that time were there between
Mars and the Baptist fit for bearing arms
Were a fifth part of those who now are living."
  Longfellow's Translation.

The roof of the Baptistery was originally of wood; the cupola, which was afterwards added, and which can only now be discovered in the interior, is a feeble attempt at imitation of the Roman Pantheon; but at the time of its erection it was the largest built in that age, even exceeding San Vitale in Ravenna.  A notice remains among the records of the Guild of Wool of the purchase of chains to strengthen the cupola of the Baptistery, which expedient was afterwards resorted to by Brunelleschi in his cupola for Santa Maria del Fiore.  The slanting leaden roof was a later addition, and the lantern only dates from 1550.

About 1229, an architect called Lapi, from the Valteline, who was employed in the Franciscan Church at Assisi, was called to Florence to level the ground around San Giovanni, and replace the old brick pavement with stone.  At that time the Baptistery stood at a higher elevation than afterwards, and at the base were steps.13 Around the building were ranged Roman sarcophagi, which were used by Florentine families of distinction for interment, as well as for monuments, when the entire Piazza between the Cathedral and Baptistery constituted the cemetery of Florence.  The soil had, however, gradually accumulated over the brick pavement until the steps outside were completely buried, and the sarcophagi which, after Jacopo had finished his work were left standing in the Piazza, were some time later conveyed into Santa Reparata, and finally distributed between the Uffizi and the Cortile of the Medici, afterwards Riccardi Palace.  Whilst the sarcophagi were still standing in the Piazza, the incident occurred, or was supposed to have occurred, which furnished Bocaccio with his ninth tale, on the sixth day of the Decameron.

Guido Cavalcante, the friend of Dante, who is described by the chronicler Dino Compagni as "a young and noble knight, brave, courteous, and much addicted to solitude and study, happened to be walking along the Corso degli Adimari," - now Via Calzaioli - "towards the piazza of the Baptistery, when he was accosted by Messer Betto Brunelleschi, and a number of fashionable idle youths of the city, who reproached him for his absence from their revels, and turned his supposed sceptical opinions into ridicule.  Cavalcante courteously replied to their taunts, whilst assuring them they were at liberty to say what they pleased in this place, where they were at home; then leaping over one of the sarcophagi which stood in the way, he made his escape.  By this answer he meant to imply - using an old Tuscan idiom - that they were like acqua morta, dead or stagnant water, to which it was usual to compare a worthless, idle life, and therefore being dead, they were at home among the tombs."14  Guido Cavalcante's father was a speculative philosopher of the Aristotelian school, and his son was accused of atheism.

The stranger visiting Florence for the first time, and whose taste has been formed by the habitual sight of Gothic or Grecian style in architecture, requires to be accustomed to the peculiarities of Florentine art, before he can appreciate its true excellence.  The Florentine artist of old could form but a very imperfect idea of the highest Greek art from the Roman sarcophagi and ancient buildings in Florence and Rome; and, endowed by nature with a lively fancy and strong inventive powers, he only adopted those principles which grafted most readily on his preconceived ideas.  The result was simple forms, in which the want of light and shade were compensated for by abundance of sculpture, and by a variety of coloured marbles.

In 1293, Arnolfo di Cambio15 was employed to remove the macigni, or flints, which originally cased the outer walls of the Baptistery, and to substitute a coating of the white and black - or rather dark-green - Prato marble, in a kind of mosaic, called by Villani gheroni, from an ancient Etruscan word signifying small pieces.  On each side of the building is a small but beautifully proportioned Greek window admitting light to the ambulatory. The principal entrance to the west was closed in the thirteenth century, when the tribune and a cumbrous altar were added.  Monstrous heads of lions with a human head under the claws, the most ancient form of the Marzocco or Florentine lion, project above the corners of this part of the building, and prove its antiquity.

The southern gates of bronze, the work of Andrea Pisano, were cast as early as 1330, though only transferred to their present position from the eastern front in 1439.  Andrea was recommended by Giotto to the wool merchants, who were superintendents of the works of the Baptistery; the bronze casting and gilding was, however, the work of Venetians, and the rich and exquisitely moulded reliefs on the joints and lintels were added by Lorenzo Ghiberti at a later period.  The subjects in the twenty compartments, into which the gates are divided, all relate to the life of John the Baptist.16 The small figures represent Hope, Fortitude, Temperance, Charity, Humility, Justice, and Prudence.  There is marvelous purity and simplicity in these compositions, and great sharpness and precision in the execution.  When these gates were transported to the Baptistery, the Florentine signory honoured the ceremony with their presence, and were accompanied by the ambassadors from the rival princes for the throne of Naples, Charles of Anjou and Frederick of Aragon.

The gates towards the north were executed by Lorenzo Ghiberti about the year 1401.  Although the eastern gates by the same artist are the most celebrated, the designs on these, - his first attempt at bronze casting, - are so excellent, and they are finished with so much delicacy, that they may, in some respects, compete for superiority with his later work.  The occasion which produced them was the alarm caused by the plague which visited Florence in the year 1400, and, which being regarded as a scourge sent by the offended Deity, it was supposed that his wrath could be averted by the embellishment of his place of worship.  The Guild of Wool-merchants accordingly resolved to finish the decorations of their beloved San Giovanni, and they proposed a competition for two or more bronze gates by artists from every nation, whose merit was to be decided by a commission composed of goldsmiths, painters, sculptors and critics in art.  Among these last was Niccolo d'Uzzano,  a distinguished Florentine citizen, to whom the celebrated Leonardo Aretino addressed a letter suggesting particular scenes from the Old and New Testament, which he considered most appropriate for representation.   The sacrifice of Isaac was at length chosen; and Brunelleschi, Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia, and Ghiberti's names were foremost on the list; the two most successful models were those of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, which may still be seen in the Museum of the Bargello.  That of Ghiberti was finally accepted on the recommendation of his rivals, who preferred the composition of the youthful competitor to their own.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, the son of Bartolommeo Ghiberti, born about 1381, was only twenty-one years of age when this great work was assigned to him.  His father, who assisted him in his first essay, invited the criticism of all foreigners as well as natives who passed their workshop in the Via San' Egidio, nearly opposite Santa Maria Nuova.  Here Lorenzo built an enormous furnace, in which to cast the metal; in first attempts were failures, but he did not lose courage, and his perseverance was rewarded by complete success.  In his designs for these gates, Ghiberti did not disdain to follow in the steps of Andrea Pisano, whose work was seventy years anterior to his own; but the progress which had been made in art during this interval can be best measured by comparing these two series of compositions.  The subjects on Ghiberti's gates are, with a single exception, taken from the life of our Saviour; the last of the twenty compartments contains the descent of the Holy Ghost on the apostles.  The stories are told simply, and there is a delightful freshness as well as earnestness of thought belonging to a young artist, in these compositions, which are finished with conscientious care.  The framework of foliage, animals, and other ornaments dividing and enclosing the series is extremely rich and beautiful, and the statuettes of the four evangelists, and the doctors of the church, with the busts of prophets and sibyls interspersed, are grandly composed.17

Without reckoning the cost of the metal, these gates were estimated at two thousand golden florins.  The wool merchants were so well pleased with Lorenzo's work that they immediately gave him a commission for a bronze statue of St. John the Baptist, to be placed in one of the niches of the church of San Michele; and his reputation spread so rapidly that he received orders from various cities throughout Italy, as well as from the Pope.  His crowning glory, however, was the eastern gates of the Baptistery, which he cast in 1439.  The gates of Andrea Pisano, which had occupied this position for a hundred years, were removed to the southern entrance, and Ghiberti then designed the beautiful framework which surrounds them; worthy of all admiration for the exact study of nature, in birds, fruit, and foliage, and for the sharp modelling of the forms.  This last was produced by a peculiar method:  the design was modelled in wax and cast in plaster; then the wax was melted out of the plaster, thus leaving the edges and details in their original precision and delicacy.  This process is called by the French, encirage.

It was with redoubled zeal and energy that Lorenzo set to work at the eastern gates of the Baptistery, in which he strove to excel himself.  The subjects are all taken from the Old Testament, beginning with the creation of man, and ending with the meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.18 Each compartment forms a picture in itself.  The creation of Eve and the history of Cain and Abel, especially the action of Cain as he pauses and looks back, are peculiarly fine, and the spectator only regrets that these subjects are farthest removed from him.  The ornaments of the frieze, besides foliage, fruit, and birds, includes statuettes of prophets, finished with the utmost truth and delicacy; those representing Miriam and Judith are singularly graceful in action and beautiful in form.  There are besides twenty-four busts, male and female, of which the two central are portraits of Lorenzo and of his father Bartolommeo.  The whole was once gilt, and part of the told still adheres.  The greater part of the work was finished in 1447, but the gates were still incomplete when Ghiberti died, in 1456, and the lower reliefs were left to his pupils and assistants.  Among them were the brothers Pollaioli, sons of a poulterer by trade.  One of these, Antonio, introduced a quail amidst the foliage, which has been greatly admired as a close copy from nature.
The death of Ghiberti, before the conclusion o his great work, may account for the superiority of the upper compartments; and though well deserving Michael Angelo's admiration, when he exclaimed, "These gates were worthy to be the gates of paradise," they do not the less partake of defects common to Florentine art of this period.  The multitude of figures confuse the eye, and the skill displayed in draperies, and tours de force, are sometimes more attractive than the beauty of the groups and individual figures.  A passage in Sir Charles Eastlake's Essay on the Fine Arts," points out the erroneous treatment in these gates: -

"Considered generally, the arts are often assumed to have a common character and end; but the discrimination of the different means  by which a common end is arrived at, will be found to lead to more definite and more useful results" (p. 7).  Again - "The Greeks, as a general principle, considered the ground of figures in relief to be a real wall, or whatever the solid plane might be, and to represent air as if it was a picture" (p. 98).  "The greater part of what are called Roman bassi-relievi, may be considered a middle style between the pure Greek relievo and the modern Italian.  It was from antique sarcophagi fine in execution, but with defects in style, that Niccola da Pisa, in the thirteenth century, first caught the spirit of ancient art.  Various degrees of relief, background figures and objects, and occasional attempts at perspective, are to be found in the works of the Pisani and their scholars; yet their works, which are to be regarded as the infancy of Italian art, and which undoubtedly are rude enough in workmanship and imitation, are purer in style than those of the succeeding Florentine masters, who attained so much greater perfection in sculpture.  The relievi of Donatello are mostly in the style called stiacciato (the flattest kind of basso-relievo), yet, in such a style commanding little distinctness from its inconsiderable projection, he introduced buildings, landscape, and the usual accessories of a picture.  But this misapplication of ingenuity was carried still further by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the celebrated bronze doors of the Baptistery or church of San Giovanni in Florence, which exhibited such skilful compositions, in which the stories are so well told, and in which the single figures are so full of appropriate action.  In these works, the figures gradually emerge form the stiacciato style to alto-relievo.  They are among the best specimens of that mixed style or union of basso-relievo with the principles of painting, which the sculptors of the fifteenth century and their imitators imagined to be an improvement on the well-considered simplicity of the ancients.  In these and similar specimens, the unreal forms of perspective buildings and diminished or foreshortened figures, which in pictures create illusion when added by appropriate light and shade and variety of hue, are unintelligible or distorted in a real material, where it is immediately evident that the objects are all on the same solid plane.  Even Vasari, who wrote when this mixed style of relievo was generally practised, remarked the absurdity of representing the plane on which the figures stand ascending towards the horizon, according to the laws of perspective, in consequence of which 'we often see,' he says 'the point of the foot of a figure standing with its back to the spectator touching the middle of the leg,' owing to the rapid ascent or foreshortening of the ground.  'Such errors,' he adds, 'are to be seen even in the doors of San Giovanni'" (pp. 121, 123).19
Ghiberti was afterwards elected by ballot a member of the Signory or Government of Florence.  He received ample acknowledgment of his great work in the honours bestowed on him by his fellow-citizens, and was commissioned to execute other gates which were to have replaced those of Andrea Pisano at the southern entrance.  It cannot, however, be a subject of regret that Ghiberti's death prevented the execution of this project, and preserved so fine a specimen of early Florentine art from destruction.
The porphyry columns detached from the building, although placed on either side of the eastern gates, were presented to the Florentines by the Pisans, as a token of gratitude for the protection afforded their city by Florence in 1114, when the able-bodied male inhabitants of Pisa were absent on an expedition to rescue the island of Majorca from the Saracens.  In 1424 the columns were thrown down and broken by a flood from the Mugnone, which then flowed near the church of San Lorenzo.  This event was supposed to be an evil augury for the success of the Florentines in a war they had just commenced against Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan.  They were, however, immediately restored to their former position.  The popular tale, that the Pisans ungratefully deceived the Florentines, and injured the columns before sending them, is without foundation, though immortalised in an old poem for Antonio Pucci, on the wars between the Pisans and Florentines, 1362-1365.  He concludes with these words:
Pisa con fuoco guast˛ le colonne,
Onde i Fiorentin ciechi fur chiamati.20
Over each of these three gates is a group in marble or bronze.  That over the northern gate is by Giovan Francesco Rustici, a pupil of Andrea Verocchio, and a fellow-pupil of Michael Angelo, as well as the intimate friend of Leonardo Da Vinci.  When he received the commission for this group, he turned for advice to Leonardo, who assisted him in the choice of tools, but left him to his own genius for the design and execution of the work; nevertheless, its great superiority to anything Rustici executed, before or since, has caused many to attribute its excellence in part to his friend.  The subject is John the Baptist preaching to a Pharisee and Sadducee.  The graceful pose and noble gravity of the Baptist's head, and the truthful modelling of his figure, are especially worthy of admiration.  The baldheaded Sadducee holds a scroll in the left hand; his drapery is composed of a thick mantle, which falls in ample folds over his close-fitting under-garments.  The Pharisee, with his right hand on his beard, draws back in astonishment at the Baptist's words.  This noble group was cast in bronze by Rustici in his own house, which was in the Via Martelli.  He had, unfortunately for himself, made no stipulation about the payment, and, when finished, the wool merchants refused the two thousand crowns he demanded for his work.  One of the Ridolfi who presided over the Guild at this time, appointed Baccio d' Agnolo, then an unknown artist, and Michael Angelo, the rival of Rustici's friend Leonardo, arbiters to settle the question.  Rustici was obliged to abate his demands, and, disgusted with the treatment he had received, he abandoned art altogether, and only returned to it shortly before his death.

From the steps of the cathedral a good view can be obtained of the group over the eastern gate, the baptism of our Lord by Andrea del Monte Sansovino.  Andrea lived between 1460 and 1529, and though he finished modelling his design, he died before committing it to marble.  The work was finished in 1560 by Vincenzio Danti, an artist from Perugia.  Danti, however, omitted an angel which Sansovino had executed in terra-cotta, and which was intended to form part of the composition.  The Grand-Duke Pietro Leopoldo, nearly a century later, ordered this angel to be copied in marble by Innocenzio Spinazzi; but in the course of the work Spinazzi altered the expression, as well as action, of the figure.

The group over the southern gate is finer than that over the eastern, and is the chef-d'ťuvre of Vincenzio Danti, who executed it in 1571.  It represents the decapitation of John the Baptist.  The modelling is excellent, but it has still higher merit in the deep feeling displayed in the composition.



Baptistery founded and built between 589-1048
Gates, Eastern, by Lorenzo Ghiberti 1439
Gates, Eastern, (group over), by Sansovino 1560
Gates, Northern, by Lorenzo Ghiberti 1401
Gates, Northern, (group over) by Giov. Fran. Rustici 1511
Gates, Southern, by Andrea Pisano 1330
Gates, Southern, (group over), by Vincenzio Danti 1571
Marble Casing, by Arnolfo di Cambio 1293
Pavement in the Piazza del Battisterio, by Jacopo de' Lapi 1229
Porphyry Columns presented by Pisa 1114
Porphyry Columns broken by an inundation 1424


10 A new fašade has been commenced this year (1872).  [Handwritten comment by this book's owner, Ellen Orton, says: "The scaffolding was still up and the fašade covered by canvas in 1880 when I was last in Florence.]
11 For an account of this queen's romantic marriage, see Muratori, "Scriptores ital.;" aus des "Paulus Diakonus Geschichte der Longbarden," iii buch, p. 66, ?bersetzt von Dr. Otto Abel; aus die "Geschicht-schreiber des Deutschen Vorzeit, in Deutsche Bearbeitung herausgegeben," von G. H. Pertz, J. Grimm, K. Lachmann, L. Ranke, K. Ritter.
12 See Lord Lindsay's "Christian Art," vol. i. p. 32.
13 Beneath the arcade of the Cortile of the Bargello are the arms of the Sestiere and Quartiere of the City.  In the arms of the Quartiere of San Giovanni, as well as in those of the Duomo, the Baptistery is represented as it then appeared.
14 This story of Bocaccio is thus explained in a Florentine treatise on the game of calcio (foot-ball), published in 1688.
15 Arnolfo di Cambio, or Lapo, was the son of one Cambio of Colle, a city south of Florence, and the pupil of Lapo, an architect probably from the Valteline.  Lapo introduced a German element in the style of Italian buildings.  He built the Castle of the Counts Guidi at Poppi in the Casentino, and subsequently the Palazzo del PodestÓ or Bargello of Florence; also the Church of San Francesco at Assisi. - See Vasari, latest edition, with notes by the Cavaliere Milanesi:  Arnolfo di Lapo.
16 List of subjects on the Southern Gates, executed by Andrea Pisano:

1. The Angel announces the birth of the Baptist to Zacharias.
2. Zacharias struck dumb.
3. The visitation of Elizabeth to Mary.
4. Birth of John the Baptist.
5. Zacharias writes the name, John.
6. John departs for the Wilderness.
7. John preaches to the Pharisees.
8. John preaches to the people.
9. John baptizes in the Jordan.
10. Baptism of our Saviour.
11. John reproves Herod.
12. John led to prison.
13. John questioned by the Jews.
14. John announces the Advent of Christ.
15. The daughter of Herodias asks for John's head.
16. The beheadal of John.
17. Herod at supper receives the head of John.
18. The daughter of Herodias presents John's head to her mother.
19. The disciples obtain the head of John.
20. The disciples bury the body.
17 List of subjects on the Northern Gates, by Lorenzo Ghiberti:
1. The Annunciation
2. The Birth of the Saviour
3. The Adoration of the Magi
4. The Dispute with the Doctors
5. John baptizing the Saviour
6. The Temptation
7. Christ drives the sellers from the Temple
8. The Apostles on the Lake
9. The Transfiguration
10. The Raising of Lazarus
11. The Entrance into Jerusalem
12. The Supper with the Apostles
13. The Garden of Gethsemane
14. Judas kissing Jesus
15. Christ bound to the Pillar
16. Christ before Pilate
17. Christ bearing his Cross
18. The Crucifixion
19. The Resurrection
20. The Descent of the Holy Ghost
18 List of subjects on the Eastern Gates, by Lorenzo Ghiberti: -
1. Creation of Adam and Eve
2. History of Cain and Abel
3. Noah
4. Abraham and Isaac
5. Jacob and Esau
6. History of Joseph
7. Moses on Mount Sinai
8. Joshua before Jericho
9. David and Goliath
10. Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
19 Sir Charles Eastlake's "Literature of the Fine Arts."
Pisa spoiled the columns with fire,
Hence Florentines were called blind.
Chapter II:  The Baptistery (Continuation) - Interior


ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: Embroidering of Pomegranates: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Courtship || Casa Guidi italiano/English || Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Aurora Leigh || Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Florence: || Preface  italiano/English || Poetry  italiano/English || Laurel Garland: Women of the Risorgimento || Death and the Emperor in the Poetry of Dante, Browning, Dickinson and Stevens|| Enrico Nencioni on Elizabeth Barrett Browning italiano ||

THE ENGLISH CEMETERY IN FLORENCE: Tuoni di silenzio bianco/ Thunders of White Silence italiano/English || The English Cemetery, Piazzale Donatello, Florence: || Il Cimitero degli Inglesi italiano || Cemetery I Tombs A-E || Cemetery II Tombs D-L || Cemetery III Tombs M-Z ||

FLORENCE IN SEPIA: Florence I. Santa Trinita to Santa Croce || Florence I Appendix. The Uffizi || Florence II. North-Eastern Quarter || Florence III. Oltr'Arno || Other Tuscan Cities in Sepia || Italy in Sepia || Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Florence || Susan and Joanna Horner, Walks in Florence|| Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Notes in Florence|| Francesca Alexander || Augustus J.C. Hare, Florence || Augustus Hare, Edwardian Travel Writer || Florence's Libraries and Museums || Museums Thoughts||

AGNES MASON, C.H.F.: Agnes Mason, C.H.F., Anglican Mother Foundress || Agnes Mason's Patron Saints || Saints Cecilia and Agnes || Augustus Hare, Edwardian Travel Writer || Holmhurst St Mary ||  I fratelli Alinari: Florentine Photographers] ||

Portfolio|| Florin: Non-Profit Guide to Commerce in Florence || Maps of Florence

Chapter II:  The Baptistery (Continuation) - Interior