The Baptistery and the Gates of Paradise in Florence

The Baptistery of San Giovanni is the oldest building in the Duomo complex (comprised of the Cathedral and the Giotti Tower or Campanile), and is among the oldest buildings in the entire city. It is an excellent example of Florentine Romanesque architecture, borrowing elements from both Classic and Byzantine styles.

Some think the original Baptistery was a pagan temple converted to Christian use; others believe it was erected on the site of a 3rd century Roman temple built during the reign of Emperor Augustus, who dedicated it to the god Mars after a successful Roman defeat of the Etruscans. Though commissioned in 394, the earliest reference to the building as it now stands dates to 897, though it’s actual founding date is more commonly considered to be 1059, the year it was consecrated by Pope Nicholas II, Bishop of Florence.

The Baptistery’s octagonal shape is symbolic of the Christian concept of salvation achieved by baptism, the baptized soul arising on the “8th day after the 7 earthly ones, and the day without end,” a reference to resurrection and life everlasting in the grace of Christ.

Major artistic work began on the interior of the Baptistery in 1202, including the mosaic floor which is described as “a spread of Oriental carpets” leading the devoted to the center baptismal font, marked now only by the scar of an outline of where it stood before it was dismantled in 1577. Most of the exterior architectural details were completed by the 14th century, just as restoration on the interior dome mosaics began – work that continued well into the 19th century.

The Ghiberti Doors (The Gates of Paradise)

Although there are numerous sculptures and architectural details that should have caught my attention on the exterior of the Baptistery, I am fixated on the bronze doors. The Gates of Paradise are one of two masterpieces I came here to see, after having seen some of the original panels on exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum in 2010. I’m only mildly disappointed that these doors – like many other pieces I would see on this trip – are replicas.

The original panels, some of which have been restored and are now encased in nitrogen-filled glass cases to slow down their decay, are housed in the Duomo Museum. But these replica doors are no less stunning, and allow me to see the panels as they were originally installed, each panel having a specific forced perspective, depending on where it was placed on these massive doors.

Heather and the Ghiberti doors 
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The original Ghiberti doors were installed facing the Cathedral, where they remained for over 500 years before 18th century refurbishing techniques gone awry, combined with increasing air pollution to begin corroding the bronze underneath the gilding. The doors were removed during WWII and transported to a safe place outside of Florence, where molds were made from them. They were returned to the Baptistery after the war, but were again removed (a panel at a time starting in 1970) and were replaced with the gilded bronze replicas that you see now, crafted in a workshop in France from the WWII era molds.

The original Baptistery doors were made of wood by Pisano In 1322, who designed 28 panels depicting the life of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and allegorical figures of the Virtues. Pisano utilized a lost wax casting method and, after finishing the bronzes with chase-work and gilding, riveted each panel onto its bronze base, finishing his work in 1336.

In 1401 Arte di Calimala (the Merchant’s Guild) held a competition to choose an artist for a second set of doors. Ghiberti beat out Brunelleschi, who would later become the first great Renaissance architect and designer of the Duomo. It is hard to imagine the turn of events that would have occurred had Brunelleschi’s talents been consumed by these doors, rather than his domes that have left such a mark on architecture around the world…

Ghiberti began work on the doors two years later, working them in the same style as Pisano’s doors – biblical figures within a quatrefoil, following the terms set out by the Calimala that the style of the second set of doors, follow the first. Ghiberti’s doors, originally commissioned to replace Pisano’s doors, depict scenes from the life of Christ. Ghiberti installed his work in 1424.

The Guild awarded Ghiberti a commission for a second set of doors the following year. But this second set of doors would be a dramatic departure from the first. Ghiberti’s new work would include 10 panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament in high relief and forced perspective. Shown below is the ‘Joseph panel’, which is the third panel down on the right side of the door, just above my head in the previous photo.

Ghiberti Panel
PHOTOGRAPH BY Photo is scanned from the exhibit catalog: “The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece” by Yale University Press

One of my guidebooks suggests that some of the panels, or at least their placement on the door, equated to the political events of the time. The Joseph panel showing distribution of grain and an embrace of forgiveness, is thought by some to be a reference to Cosimo’s return to Florence from exile, with other panels seen as pointing to the union between Greek and Roman churches as ratified by the Council of Florence in 1439.

The process Ghiberti used to make the Gates of Paradise followed those of Pisano: lost wax, chasing, and gilding by dissolving gold in mercury, and committing the panels to the furnace where the mercury vaporized, leaving the gold adhered to the bronze. This method of gilding was highly toxic, even by Renaissance standards, and I cannot imagine that the life span of a foundry worker in Ghiberti’s shop was a very long or healthy one.

When the doors were finally installed in 1452, Michelangelo is credited with saying that the doors were so beautiful that they were worthy of being the “Gates of Paradise,” although others cite the reference simply to the doors being the entryway to baptism. Regardless, the colloquialism remains assigned to Ghiberti’s masterpiece to this day.

Inside the Baptistery

After trying to follow the intricacies of the “carpet of mosaics” in the floor, my eyes redirect to the dome of glittering gold glass mosaics although I remembered them post-trip as predominantly blue. Of all the elements that make up this place — the women’s gallery, the baptismal fonts, the marble mosaic “Oriental Carpet” floors, the Roman sarcophagi — the dome holds my attention the longest. All I wanted to do was lay on the floor and look up. This place could make a small fortune by renting gazing cots.

Octagonal ceiling
PHOTOGRAPH BY Photo scanned from “The Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence” by Mandragora Press

The dome, built prior to 1100, was embellished with mosaic during the 13th century and took 75 years to complete the depictions of “The Last Judgment” and other biblical stories. Some of the mosaics were restored in 1481-90, and again between 1898 and 1907, with additions being made to complete some of the scenes.

Ceiling detail
PHOTOGRAPH BY Photo scanned from “The Cathedral, the Baptistery and the Campanile” by Mandragora Press

Photo scanned from “The Cathedral, the Baptistery and the Campanile” by Mandragora Press

I stand for the longest time, as close to the center of the building as I can, turning in a slow spin, just trying to take the whole thing in. After a few minutes I give up and sit down on the footrest of a pew, trying to imagine the effect it would have had on someone from a much earlier century.

I finally pick myself back up for another walk around. The Roman sarcophagi dates from the 4th century, with the lid of one carved in 1299 with a sheep (symbol of the Wool Guild) and two versions of the now recognizable Medici arms, marking the remains of a family member. The other marble tomb, also dating from the 4th century, is the resting place for Bishop Velletri. Along another wall lies the resting place of Bishop Ranieri, who served as Bishop of Florence for 42 years. The inscription is worthy of note: “a good and just man, wise and pleasing of appearance…”

I wish I had been able to figure out how to get up to the women’s gallery, to get close up and personal to the 14th century mosaics that cover the walls there, to stand in the alcove with the bottle-glass window, and, of course, to get closer to the magnificence of the ceiling. So many, many reasons to return to Florence…

For a deeper dive into the design and production of the Ghiberti Doors, I highly recommend the exhibit catalog: “The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece” by Yale University Press.

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.

In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.