WALKS IN FLORENCE: CHURCHES, STREETS AND PALACES
SUSAN AND JOANNA HORNER
Chapter II: The Baptistery (Continuation) - Interior
The usual entrance to the Baptistery is by the southern gate. The sombre light which penetrates through the small deep-set windows of the ambulatory, leaves the interior of the building in comparative darkness; and a clear day, even for Florence, is absolutely necessary to distinguish the mosaics which cover the roof and walls of San Giovanni. Around are niches, once containing votive offerings, but now filled by statues, most of which are apostles and prophets, but two are allegorical figures, signifying the natural and written law; they were executed by Bartolommeo Ammanati and Spinazzi, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.21 Besides these statues there is a painfully emaciated figure in wood of the Magdalene, by Donatello, not one of his best works. The niches are separated by columns composed of Sardinian granite, with the exception of one, which is of white channelled marble, and faces the high altar; this is said to be the identical column on which stood the statue of Mars near the Ponte Vecchio, at the base of which fell Buondelmonte, when attacked and murdered by the rival Amidei: a column of oriental cipollino for which this was substituted in 1430, is in the Mercato Vecchio, where it is crowned with a statue of Abundance. The architrave is decorated with cherubs' heads in mosaic, which both Brunelleschi and Donatello copied in their works. Above this architrave are mosaic heads of prophets and patriarchs. Arches resting on pilasters open on a gallery or ambulatory, reached by a narrow staircase within the thickness of the walls. According to the German critic Kugler, this ambulatory is the most peculiar feature of the edifice.
The interior of the cupola is entirely encrusted with mosaics. The gigantic figure of Christ above the high altar is a stupendous work of an early period. He is seated in judgment, and with a dignified gesture signifies his acceptation of the redeemed, whilst rejecting the condemned. His countenance is more that of the man of sorrows than of the glorified and triumphant Saviour.
The space nearest the lantern contains the hierarchies of Angels, Thrones, Dominations, and Powers, to whom the prayers of the devout worshippers in the Baptistery were likewise addressed. In Pucci's poem, already quoted are the following lines: -
Deh! Angeli ed Arcangeli con Troni,According to the old legends, Thrones are in the same category with Seraphim and Cherubim, and receive their glory immediately from the Divinity, to whom they were supposed to act as councillors; Dominations, along with Powers and Virtues, receive a transmitted glory, and act as governors; Powers composed of Princedoms, Archangels, and Angels, are only illuminated by the glory shed on them by the preceding hierarchies, and administer the Divine Will; Thrones sustain the seat of the Most High; Dominations and Powers are the regents of the stars and elements.23
Cherubini, Serafini e Principati,
Virtù, Podestà e Dominazioni,
Che 'l mio Signor più presso avete stato;
Pregate lui, che per grazia mi doni
Ch' i seguir possa quel ch' ho comminciato,
A sua laude, salute e reverenza
Pace ed onor del Comun di Fiorenza.22
Immediately below are the Angels of the Last Judgment, which stand on either side of the Saviour; still lower, on his right, the Virgin with the twelve Apostles; and to the left, the Saints of the Old Testament led by John the Baptist. At the feet of Christ is represented the Last Judgment - spirits rise from their graves, the just are received by angels, the unjust by demons. The three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, sit solemnly within the gates of Paradise, their laps full of human souls, whilst Satan, amidst the condemned, is devouring one of the lost. This tradition is old as the eighth century, and was made use of by Dante in describing the scenes and acts of the other world. The rest of the octagon is divided into four bands - the uppermost contains the principal stories of the Old Testament, from the creation of light to the Deluge; the second band, the history of Joseph and his brethren; the third, the life of our Saviour; and the fourth and lowest, the life of St. John the Baptist. Fra Jacopo Turita, a Franciscan monk from Sienna, first undertook the mosaic of the Tribune, and he has immortalised his own name by an inscription, in which he calls himself Sancti Francisci frater, &c. The Virgin's face has the dreamy idealism and tenderness of expression and colour distinctive of the Siennese school, in contrast with the Florentine, which dramatises life and is more realistic. The figure of our Saviour was executed by the Florentine Andrea Tafi, assisted by Gaddo Gaddi, the friend of Cimabue, and by a Greek master, Apollonio. Tafi was the pupil of Apollonio between the years 1213 and 1294, and learnt from him the art of fusing glass and preparing a cement, which has stood the test of nearly six centuries. The heads of prophets in the recesses of the ambulatory are attributed to Gaddi; and a mosaic picture by him, in eggshell, is preserved in the Bargello, which may have been an experiment for his designs in the Baptistery.
An octagonal font, no longer in existence, but which once stood in the parish church of Sta. Reparata, was brought to the Baptistery in 1128. It appears to have consisted of one large bason surrounded by smaller basons, resembling those still in use in the Baptisteries of Pisa and Pistoia. The central bason was intended for adult immersion, and was reached by three steps, symbolical of the convert having renounced the world, the flesh, and the devil, and of his confession of the Three Persons of the Trinity, while the smaller basons around were intended for infant baptism. It was while a spectator at this ceremony that Dante, in his attempt to rescue a child from drowning, broke one of the smaller basons, a fact commemorated in his celebrated lines, where, describing the sepulchral place of punishment of Simon Magus and his followers, he says, -
Non mi parèn meno ampj nè maggioriA small font formerly stood near the spot now occupied by Donatello's Magdalene; and a notice is extant in the records of the Guild of Wool of the sum paid for the construction of a canal to convey water from the central font to this smaller one, which was probably used in bad weather; the cupola, having been open to the air before the lantern was built, the larger font was too much exposed for the rite of baptism, and it was altogether removed in 1571 by the Grand-Duke Francis I. on the christening of his son Prince Filippo; the removal, however, was a most unpopular act with the Florentine citizens, who considered it to have been evil augury, when the young prince died in his sixth year.
Che quei che son nel mio bel San Giovanni
Fatti per luogo de'battezzatori;
L' un degli quali, ancor non è molt 'anni
Rupp' io per un che dentro v' annegava,
E questo fia suggel ch' ogni uomo sganni.
Inferno, canto xix., v. 16.24
The present font, at which all children born in Florence of Roman Catholic parents, rich and poor, are alike baptized, was placed near the southern entrance in 1658. It may probably be the same which once stood where is now the Magdalene, and is at any rate very ancient. The reliefs around are well executed, and are either by Andrea Pisano, or by an artist of his school.
The pavement of the Baptistery is composed of white and black mosaic, arranged in various patterns, which suggested designs to the silk weavers, when they first settled in Florence from Lucca in 1204. The Guild of Silk soon afterwards became one of the leading Guilds of Florence, and a rival to the Guild of Wool. Not far from the eastern entrance is a marble slab to the memory of the captain and astrologer Strozzo Strozzi, whose remains were found beneath. Upon this slab are the signs of the zodiac, with the sun in the centre, and a motto which may be read left or right, En gire torte sol ciclos et roter igne. Some suppose that this slab was once placed exactly to meet the sun's rays at midday on the feast of St. John, the 24th of June; others again believe these signs to have been intended to guide the catechumen towards the east, in which direction he was to turn his head, as towards the Holy Land, the source of grace, when making a solemn renunciation of the devil and all his works.
The finest monument in the Baptistery is that to Baldassare Cossa, Pope John XXIII., and is the joint work of Donatello and of his pupil Michelozzo Michelozzi. It stands to the right of the high altar. After the schism in the Church, which ended in Pope John's deposition at the Council of Constantinople in 1415, he retired to Florence, where in 1417 he ended his troubled life in the Palazzo Orlandini, behind the archbishop's palace. He had accumulated great wealth, and he appointed, as executors of his last will and testament, four of the most distinguished Florentine citizens; viz., Giovanni de' Medici, father of the celebrated Cosimo Pater Patriæ, Bartolommeo Valori, Piero Guadagni, and Nicolò d' Uzzano, already mentioned as one of the umpires on the models presented for the gates of the Baptistery. To this last, Pope John confided the sum of one thousand florins for the erection of his monument. A gilt bronze statue of the Pope is reposing on a couch supported by two lions. John wears a bishop's mitre; his face, turned towards the spectator, is marked with care, and has all the character of a portrait. The hands and feet are in an easy posture. Above is a bas-relief of the Madonna and Child, under a canopy of drapery with gilt and coloured decorations and inlaid marbles, surmounted by a cardinal's hat and tassels. Beneath the couch is a pedestal, on which is inscribed -
IOANES QUODAM PAPAPope John's successful rival, Martin V., objected to the inscription QUODAM PAPA, and appealed to the prior of the Republic to substitute Neapolitanus Cardinalis; but his request was refused in the words of Pilate, Quod scripsi, scripsi. Beneath, between brackets, are the insignia of the bishop, cardinal, and pope. The entire monument rests on a marble pedestal, in front of which are the figures of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith, and one of the genii supporting the scroll, is inferior in execution, and is therefore attributed to Michelozzo. On the base are cherubs' heads, with garlands and scrolls.
XXIII OBIIT FLORENTIEA
NODI MCCCCXVIII XI
To the left of this monument is a slab, with a Latin inscription in old Gothic characters. It was placed here to the memory of Ranieri, Bishop of Florence, of whom little is known except that he lived in the tenth century, and the monument itself is only curious because the subject of a Florentine tradition. A woman who made a fortune by the sale of vegetables, and was known in Florentine dialect as the "Cavolaja" (cabbage wife), bequeathed money to have the bells of Ogni Santi and of the Cathedral annually rung from the 1st of November to the last day of carnival for the benefit of her soul. Her memory is held in much respect by her townspeople, who believe that, in some unaccountable manner, her bones rest in the sarcophagus of Bishop Ranieri, whose tomb has therefore been called La Tomba della Cavolaja. The only other monument of any interest is a Roman sarcophagus, behind the present font, which has been supposed by some to contain the remains of Galla Placidia, the daughter of Theodosius. As the princess was, however, buried in Ravenna, this sarcophagus, which is of the period of Theodosius, was probably one of those which stood outside the Baptistery.
For many centuries the sword of Guglielmo, the warlike bishop of Arezzo, who led the fight at Campaldino on the Ghibelline side in 1289, and who fell there among his defeated party, hung from the walls of the Baptistery; but the Grand-Duke Cosimo III., 1670-1723, ordered its removal, on the plea that the bishop had disgraced the sacerdotal dignity by acting the part of a soldier.
It was in the Baptistery of San Giovanni, under the sword of the Ghibelline bishop, that the Guelphic faction held their usual meeting; but in 1209, when the German Emperor Otho IV. visited Florence and was present at a ceremony within this building, an incident occurred so curiously illustrative of the manners of the time, that it was thought of sufficient importance to be recorded by the historian Villani, as well as by the novelist Boccaccio.
Among the ladies present in the Baptistery on this occasion was the wife of a certain Messer Berto, with her daughter Gualdrada, who attracted all eyes by her singular beauty. The emperor asked Messer Berto, who happened to be near him, the name of the lady; to which question the father replied, that she was the daughter of one who would give him leave to kiss her if he so desired. Gualdrada overheard these words, and rising from her seat, blushing with indignation, she turned to her father, requesting him to make no such promises for her. The emperor was so much struck with the courage and modesty of the young lady, that he immediately called up a noble youth, named Guido Beisangue, on whom he bestowed her in marriage, with a large territory in the Casentino as her dowry, and the title of count. A chamber in the castle of Poppi, in the Casentino, is shown as the room of the good Gualdrada, and her name has been still more honourably transmitted to posterity by Dante having spoken of one of her descendants as: -
"Nepote fu della buona Gualdrada,A century later another scene of interest was witnessed in the Baptistery. When the approach of Charles of Anjou menaced danger to Florentine liberty, the chronicler Dino Compagni, then Prior of the Republic, summoned the leaders of the adverse factions to meet him within these walls, and thus addressed them: - "Dear and worthy citizens, all you have been baptized in this font, as reasonable men should love one another, and more especially are ye called upon to do so as owners of the noblest city in the world. In the struggle for power disputes have arisen, which, my friends, I have promised to settle. We must now unite to do honour to the great lord who is approaching Florence. Let him not find you divided among yourselves. Swear on this consecrated font, in which you have been baptized, to keep the peace, that this lord may find you in harmony with one another." After this, as the chronicler further relates, all placed their hands upon the Bible, and swore with one accord to preserve intact the honor and laws of the city; and they then departed every man to his home.25
Guidoguerra ebbe nome," &c.
Inferno, canto xvi., v. 37
Campaldino, Battle of 1289
Column of Cipollino carried to the Mercato Vecchio 1430
Meeting of citizens summoned by Dino Compagni 1301
Monument of pope John XXIII. 1419
Mosaic interior by Andrea Tafi 1213-1294
Octagonal font transported from Santa Reparata 1128
Octagonal font removed from Baptistery 1571
Otho IV., Emperor, visits Florence 1209
21 These have all
been recently removed.
Ah! Angels and Archangels with Thrones,23 See "History of Christian Art" by Lord Lindsay.
Cherubim, Seraphim and Princedoms,
Virtues, Powers and Dominations,
Ye who are nearest my Lord;
Pray to him that I may find favour
To pursue that which I have begun
To his praise, salutation and reverence;
And to the peace and honour of the Commune of Florence.
To me less ample seemed they not, nor greater25 See "Storia Fiorentina di Dino Compagni," lib. Ii. P. 33. Fir., 1728.
Than those that in my beautiful St. John
Are fashioned for the Place of the Baptizers,
And one of which, not many years ago,
I broke for some one, who was drowning in it.
Be this a seal, all men to undeceive.
Chapter III: The Cathedral - Exterior
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