The Baptistery ★★★
Florence's Baptistery and its Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti
Piazza del Duomo/Piazza San Giovanni
Open Mon–Sat 11:15–7pm
Open Sun and the 1st Sat of the month 8:30am–2pm
• Context: Duomo Complex
• Skip The Line: Best of Florence Walking Tour including Accademia Gallery and Duomo
• Skip the Line: Florence Renaissance Walking Tour with Accademia Gallery
• Florence Half-Day or Full-Day Sightseeing Tour
• Private Tour: Florence Walking Tour
• Florence Walking Tour
• Private Tour: Florence Sightseeing Tour
• Context: Dante's Florence (external)
• Medieval Florence & Its Urban Design (exterior only)
★★★ Duomo (cathedral) [church]
★★★ Brunelleschi's dome [monument]
★ Giotto's bell tower [monument]
★★ Museo dell'Opera [museum]
★ San Lorenzo [church]
★★★ Leather market [market]
Where to eat nearby
★★★ I Fratellini [snack]
★ Le Mossacce [meal]
Casa di Dante [meal]
★ Alle Murate [meal]
★ L'Antico Trippaio [snack]
Vecchia Firenze [meal]
★ La Mescita [light meal]
★★★ La Giostra [meal]
Hotel Aldini [moderate]
Hotel Duomo [moderate]
Palazzo Gamba [moderate/premier]
Hotel Bigallo [cheap]
Residenza Della Signoria [cheap]
» More hotels near the Baptistery
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It is world famous for its three sets of bronze double doors covered with relief panels. The South Doors were done by Gothic great Andrea Pisano, and the other two represent the life work of Lorenzo Ghiberti.
This humble sculptor accidentally kick-started the Renaissance (with the North Doors, which he spent 21 years crafting). He then spent 27 years laboring to create the East Doors, so revolutionary and beautiful that Michelangelo himself later dubbed them "worthy to grace the Gates of Paradise," the name by which they have been known ever since.
The baptistery doors that started the Renaissance
A three sets of bronze doors are famous, but the grandest are the East Doors facing the Duomo, cast by Ghiberti from 1425–52.
Replaced now by gleaming replicas (the originals are in the Duomo Museum), these large panels display a remarkable skill in using perspective and composition to tell complicated stories. Michelangelo once called them "The Gates of Paradise," and the name stuck.
Ghiberti was allowed free artistic reign in creating these groundbreaking Gates of Paradise because Florence was so happy with how his first commission had turned out.
Way back in 1401, Ghiberti had won a competition to cast the baptistery's North Doors, beating out the likes of Donatello and Brunelleschi (who, in a huff, decided to turn his focus to architecture instead; wise move, since he later returned to build the famous dome over the cathedral, revolutionizing Renaissance architecture).
Since the reasons the judges chose Ghiberti's contest submission were based on the aspects of art (realism, dynamic composition, perspective techniques) that would become the keystones of the Renaissance, many scholars chose this date, 1401, to mark the beginning of the Renaissance.
The baptistery's interior and the story of an antipope
The mosaics inside the Florence Baptistery. (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)The Baptistery's interior, open the afternoon, is swathed in glittering 13th-century mosaics. The cone-shaped ceiling is covered an incredibly detailed Last Judgment scene presided over by an enormous, ape-toed Christ some eight meters (26.4 feet) tall.
Against one wall rises the Tomb of Antipope John XXIII, designed by Renaissance architectural giant Michelozzo and decorated by none other than Donatello.
This begs two questions: (1) What is an antipope? and (2) What is one doing with a tomb decorated by such important artists in such a sacred spot?
So, what is an antipope? Starting in the third century, the complicated politics of the church often created two or three "antipopes" each century, usually rival claimants to the bishopric of Rome (remember, that's the pope's only real office: he's the Bishop of Rome), or two top cardinals backed by competing emperors, kings, or other powers.
Things came to a head in the late 14th century when, to break the string of fairly corrupt French popes out of Avignon, the conclave of cardinals elected a Pugliese man to become Pope Urban VI. Several of them soon had second thoughts, convened again in 1378, declared Urban VI's election to be invalid, and set up Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII, based in Avignon.
This began the Great Western Schism, and I'm just glossing over it here, but things were a mess. There was a succession of rival popes, one based in Rome and one in Avignon, who spent much of their time excommunicating one other and trying to win a critical mass of support from other European powers.
In 1409, a group of cardinals got disgusted enough with both camps—after both popes promised to attend at meeting to resolve the issue then balked and never showed—that a church council convened in Pisa. It voted to depose both Rome and Avignon's popes and—yep—elect a third man to become Pope Alexander V.
Baldassare Cossa, better known as Antipope John XXIII.So now the church had three popes, each claiming to be the only legitimate one. Alexander V died less than a year into his pseudo-papacy, and he was succeeded by John XXIII.
John XXIII's real name was Baldassare Cossa, and he was a decent enough bloke, the head of the Council of Pisa that had elected Alexander V. (Though, if you believe famed historian Edward Gibbon, John XXIII was guilty of incest, rape, sodomy, murder, and, my favorite, piracy. There is strong evidence this was all just slander, part the cross-continental mudslinging that came with the Great Schism.)
Whatever else he may have done, John XXIII was instrumental in ending the Great Western Schism. At the behest of Emperor Sigismund, he convened the Council of Constance in 1412. Eventually—after a rousing couple of years that included flights, imprisonment, escape, reconciliation, and more—both John XXIII and the Roman Pope Gregory XII agreed to authorize the council to elect a single new pope. Then, incredibly, both men abdicated their papacies (though how willingly is the subject of much discussion). The council quickly excommunicated the holdout pope in Avignon, Benedict XIII, and in 1417 elected a Roman cardinal named Odo Colonna to become Pope Martin V.
The Great Western Schism was over.
The tomb of Antipope John XXIII, by Donatello and Michelozzo, in Florence's Baptistery. (Photo by Richardfabi)Baldassare Cossa, the man who gave up the papacy (or at least a papacy) and helped restore the church, died in Florence on December 22, 1419, just six months after Martin V made him a cardinal again in the restored church.
So, why the grand tomb? Cossa had made a key ally of Florence in 1504, when he helped the city conquer Pisa. He also made a key alley of Florence's Medici clan when, as pope, he designated that the family become the official bankers for the papacy—a legacy upon which the Medici would found centuries of fame, fortune, and power.
The Medici were too shrewd as politicians to forget their friends.
This is why Cossa's executors—most prominently Medici dynasty founder Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici and his son Cosimo—chose to honor the pope they had backed with a magnificent tomb, one that reportedly cost more than 1,000 florins, was crafted by the city's foremost artists, and was installed in the very ecclesiastical heart of the city: inside the ancient baptistery.
It was the last time any pope was buried outside of Rome.
- Planning your day: It should take about 20–30 minutes inside the Duomo itself, another 20–30 minutes in and around the Baptistery. Climbing either Brunelleschi's dome (463 steps) or Giotto's bell tower (414 steps) will take about an hour each. The Duomo museum will eat up 45–90 minutes of your time, depending on how into it you get.
- Timing your visit: Except Sundays, the baptistery is open only in the afternoon, so on a tight schedule plan to hit the entire Duomo group (cathedral, Brunelleschi's dome, Giotto's bell tower, Museo dell'Opera) later in the day so you can get them all in at once. The cathedral itself closes first, so don't save it for last. (On Sundays, however, arrive just after early lunch to hit the baptistery first—as it's open only 8:30am to 2pm—then do the cathedral once it reopens after morning mass.)
- Last entry: 30 minutes before closing.
- Cumulative ticket: There are two versions of a "biglietto multiplo" covering several sights within the Duomo group:
- Book a tour: You can book a guided tour that includes the Duomo and its surrounding buildings via our partners:
- Context: Duomo Complex
- Skip The Line: Best of Florence Walking Tour including Accademia Gallery and Duomo
- Skip the Line: Florence Renaissance Walking Tour with Accademia Gallery
- Florence Half-Day or Full-Day Sightseeing Tour
- Private Tour: Florence Walking Tour
- Florence Walking Tour
- Private Tour: Florence Sightseeing Tour
- Context: Dante's Florence (external)
- Florence Segway Tour (external)
- Medieval Florence & Its Urban Design (exterior only)
- Florence Photography Walking Tour: Birth of the Renaissance (external)
- You can attend mass: Weekdays, mass is held here at 10:30am and 11:30am. For more: www.coordinamentochiesedifirenze.it
- The rest of the Duomo Group - Cathedral, Giotto's bell tower, Museo dell'Opera
- Bargello (where two of the 1401 competition panels reside)
- Top 10 masterpieces in Florence
- Top sights in Florence
- Churches in Florence
This material was last updated March 2013. All information was accurate at the time.
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