Piazza del Duomo a Firenze
Everything in Florence revolves around the historical center. Everything in the historical center revolves around Piazza del Duomo. And everything in Piazza del Duomo revolves around Bel San Giovanni, as one of the city’s most famous sons dubbed it.
The first thing you see when you walk into Piazza del Duomo – usually at a pace somewhere between ramming speed and full speed ahead – is the cathedral. Now, the cathedral is magnificent, and everyone should go inside it at some point in their lives. The irony is, though, in their hurry to see something magnificent, they miss something even more magnificent: Bel San Giovanni. In fact, they generally have to walk around Bel San Giovanni in order to even see the cathedral.
So, you ask, what the heck is Bel San Giovanni (bell sahn joh-vah-nee)? In short, it’s the baptistery: Il Battistero di San Giovanni (eel bah-tee-steh-roh).
The Sacrament of Baptism
Catholics believe that all people are born with what we call the ‘stain of original sin.’ This means that we’ve inherited Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience. Obviously, we don’t think babies have sinned, seeing as they can’t even roll over when they’re baptized, let alone intentionally disobey God. They have, however, inherited the effects of Adam and Eve’s transgression. The first sacrament we receive, baptism, washes away original sin and welcomes us into the family of faith.
Note: This is the Catholic concept of baptism. Other Christian traditions have different concepts of baptism and original sin, but as the Baptistery of St. John is a Catholic building, we’re focusing on that concept.
For obvious reasons, baptism is extremely important for Catholics, and often involves a great deal of ceremony. This importance shines brightly in the Battistero di San Giovanni, which takes its name from the famous New Testament baptizer, St. John the Baptist. The very building is grand and demands attention. Inside, it leaves visitors floored by its grandeur.
History of the Battistero di San Giovanni
There has been a building on the site of the Battistero di San Giovanni since time immemorial. Let’s face it, that’s a pretty long time, even by Florentine standards. According to the popular story, it was a pagan temple for many years. In either the 5th or 6th centuries, after Christianity was legalized, the baptistery was built. In those days, and even up until the 19th century, all Catholic Christians in Florence baptized their children here.
By the mid-11th century, the Battistero was in pretty bad shape. It was, after all, somewhere around 500 years old. It was rebuilt in order better suit the people’s needs. This was especially necessary, since the number of Catholics increased drastically between the 5th and 11th centuries. The building needed to be bigger in order to accommodate all the babies being baptized, as well as all the people who tagged along for the party. (Even in those days, an Italian baptism was quite the affair.)
Between the 12th and 13th centuries – at the very outset of the Renaissance – the Battistero underwent another expansion. The project updated both the exterior and the of the baptistery. For the outside, a new façade of white, green, and red marble; for the inside, brilliant ceiling mosaics. The most prominent of these mosaics being of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25:31-46).
The Last Judgement
But wait! Why do we have the Last Judgement on the ceiling of a building in which people begin their lives as Christians? Doesn’t that have to do with death, not life? The answer is, simply, no.
The first step towards being counted among the righteous is Baptism. Furthermore, the name of the Last Judgement is misleading. The Last Judgement is actually the first day of everlasting life for all the righteous. Therefore, baptism makes everlasting life with God possible for believers, and being counted among the righteous is the ultimate purpose of baptism. So, Jesus sitting in judgement on the ceiling of the Battistero isn’t there to scare the babies. Rather, he’s there to remind everyone present of the rewards of living out the baptismal promises.
Dante and Bel San Giovanni
This last rendition of the Battistero would have been the Bel San Giovanni of one of Florence’s most famous and eloquent sons: Dante Alighieri. Indeed, Dante would have been baptized in this very building, and would have seen the as the doorway to all live in the city.
Life in Dante’s day (late 13th – early 14th centuries) would have revolved around the Battistero much in the same way that the historical center revolves around it today. In order to be considered a part of society, a person had to be Christian. (Read: Catholic. The Reformation hadn’t happened yet.) Therefore, a person’s religious, social, and political lives all began in the Battistero, when they were just babies. Their lives continued here when they sought baptism for their children here. Perhaps most immediately, seeing the grandiose building on a daily basis punctuated their daily lives.
In my opinion, your can’t say you’ve been to Florence until you’ve hauled your chin up off the floor of Bel San Giovanni. It’s a sort of initiation, if you will.
Visiting the Battistero di San Giovanni:
Getting there: The Battistero is right in the middle of Piazza del Duomo – you can’t miss it.
Admission: You can purchase a ticket which includes entry to the Duomo, Battistero, and Campanile (Bell Tower) for €18 per person. Well worth the price! Tickets are available at kiosks around the historical center, including in the visitor information center at Piazza del Duomo 9, and online (a €2 online booking fee applies).
Opening hours: The Battistero is open for visitors from 8:15 AM to 7:20 PM. (Times vary for all the Duomo monuments. Be sure to check your tickets for times!)
Good to know:
- Wheelchairs are available for guests upon request. Some areas of the Duomo and Battistero are, unfortunately, not handicap accessible.
- When purchased at the visitor’s center, tickets are good for 72 hours after purchase. When booked online, tickets are good for 72 hours after initial entry.