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Situated north of Rome in a region known today as Tuscany, the area surrounding the Arno River has both a turbulent and artistically rich past. Ancient Iron Age Villanovans were there about 900 B.C.E., creating sophisticated metalwork, notably in bronze. In the 8th century, a people known as the Etruscans appeared, and the land was called Etruria. It is said that the Etruscans founded the first great civilization of Western Europe, and there is evidence that they were fond of the good things in life - luxury, jewels, and good food. Sounds as if they were the first real Italians - think Ferraris, Florentine gold, and any Italian dish!

Local communities warred with each other and Rome stepped in from the south, conquering and burning everything in their path. That is why there is nothing to study, architecturally. When Rome went down, the Etruscans came back, rebuilding new cities on the sites of the old. Florence became the capital of Tuscany. St. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence, so it was only natural that a Baptistry be constructed in his honor.


The Baptistry of San Giovanni was built on Roman foundations of the 1st century. There are indications that the basic structure is from the 4th century. But the building as we see it dates from the 11th century A.D. It is the oldest building in the city.

As with most baptistries, the plan is a centralized one. After all, the objective function is a baptism, and what better location than the center of the structure - again, as mentioned previously, in a discussion of why centralized churches were not functioning centrally, (mention was made of "theatre-in-the-round" ). Not to diminish the function here - this is not a theatre - the actual baptism can be logically centralized "in the round." The octagonal building has a diameter of 27.4 meters (90'), and a height of 31.4 meters (103'). Its dome is patterned from the Pantheon in Rome.

The exterior facing is of green and white marble applied to two main horizontal levels. The first is pure post and lintel in appearance, with flat-faced pilasters topped by an architrave, the strong horizontal.

The second level is composed of polygonally shaped attached columns supporting semi-circular attached arches. We've seen this application in Pisa and in Modena, so patterns were developing. Apparently, the Italian designers realized that their walls were solid and massive, and these applied effects lightened the image visually.

The lowest level has patterns set in dark marble, simple squares and rectangles, elements that would reappear as basic designs in the Renaissance, which would begin here in Florence at the beginning of the 15th century. Small windows in the second level have pediments which alternate from triangle to arch around the Baptistry. Note carefully that while one side of the octagon might contain a triangular, arched, triangular pediment, the next octagonal face follows the rhythm, creating now an arched, triangular, arched pattern. This is a sign of independent, confident thinking on the part of the designer. Each face is different from the adjacent, and this goes beyond blind obeisance to simple repetition. Additionally, what removes the appearance from simple classical forbears is the strong use of contrasting colors, apparently derived from local influences coming from the Orient and Byzantium. What could have been a statically classical replication was transformed into an exciting result.

Colored accents give extra verticality to the columns on the 2nd level, and the arches there are trimmed in dark, giving them a three dimensional effect. Yet with all of the added exuberance, the forms are basically classic, and again, all of this had to have been inspiration for the designers of the Renaissance. The building was apparently very well preserved by the Florentines.

Local critics sort of snicker at what they call "zebra stripes" of the corner pilasters, claiming they sound a dissonant note. These were apparently added in the 13th century in some misguided attempt to be trendy, following the striped stylistic effects produced in Pisa, Luca, and Pistoia. Their effect is noticeably different from the accentuated classic look of the Florentines. Apparently, the stripes replaced a cool gray Tuscan stone, which earlier added a delicate color to the façade.

There is a third level, which was applied in the 13th century, and culminates in a small lantern. That level has very simple rectangles created by inlaid dark marble, set between Corinthian pilasters.

The Baptistry is known more for the doors which provide entrance into the building on the north, east, and south sides.

The north doors marked the beginning of the Renaissance, in that a competition was held to determine who would sculpt the bronze panels. That happened in 1401, and we will discuss that at length in History II. Not to keep you in suspense - the winning design was by Lorenzo Ghiberti.

In our time frame, Andrea Pisano designed doors which were first placed opposite the Cathedral, on the east side, in 1336. They were later moved to the south, to be replaced by what Michelangelo called "the gates of Paradise," also designed by Ghiberti, and placed in 1452.

The “gates of paradise,” the second set of doors designed by Ghiberti.

The interior is surrounded by granite columns and pilasters, which create a matroneum (loggia-type space) and support the dome. The columns, with their bases and capitals, were taken from a classical building, origin unknown. Between the columns there is a bit of jumbled marble workings, which really add confusion to the otherwise stately layout.

The floor is an inlaid mixture of patterns, done between the 12th and 13th centuries. The ceiling is more coordinated and is a dazzling display of gold mosaics begun in 1226 and finished in the beginning of the 14th century. Every inch of the interior features some form of artistic decoration.

As a parting note, the Baptistry was the only such site in all of Florence for the baptism of newborn babies through the 19th century.

Italian provinces developed a great diversity of Romanesque architectural styles. Just so that you do not venture forth into the world without being armed with the generalities mentioned above - and they do hold true in a general way, here they are:

Northern: somberly impressive buildings often had rough-looking exteriors. Flat, severe entrance facades masked the naves and aisles. Interiors featured groined vaulting of heavy proportions, showing ribs.

Central: Italian architects created few structural innovations in this region and continued to use classical decorative elements. Tuscan and Roman churches featured classical Corinthian capitals and acanthus borders, as well as colored marble in geometric patterns; open arcades, colonnades, and galleries; and facades with sculptures in relief.

Southern: a rich style combining Byzantine, Roman, Arabic, Lombard, and Norman elements was created, with lavish use of mosaic decorations and interlaced pointed-arch arcades possibly brought by the Moors.

An unarguable feature of the Italian Romanesque, was its horizontality. Campaniles provided the vertical feeling, and it was from those towers that worshippers were summoned to prayer. The towers doubled as watchtowers, and their height became a symbol of local pride and power. Baptistries developed as separate entities.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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