The Florence Baptistery & The Gates of Paradise ★★★

Mosaic ceiling inside the Battistero di San Giovanni, Florence Baptistery, Florence, Italy (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)
Mosaic ceiling inside the Battistero di San Giovanni

Florence's Battistero di San Giovanni and Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise

The famous Baptistery doors that started the Renaissance

In choosing a date to mark the beginning of the Renaissance, art historians often seize on 1401, the year Florence's powerful wool merchant's guild held a contest to decide who would receive the commission to design the Baptistery's North Doors to match the Gothic South Doors cast 65 years earlier by Andrea Pisano.

The era's foremost Tuscan sculptors each designed and cast a bas-relief bronze panel depicting his own vision of The Sacrifice of Isaac. Twenty-two-year-old Lorenzo Ghiberti—competing against the likes of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia, and Filippo Brunelleschi—won hands down.

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.

(Why few guidebooks mention this is beyond me, but: Two of the submitted bronze panels from that 1401 competition—Ghiberti's and Brunelleschi's—are preserved in the Bargello sculpture museum. Also, Brunelleschi, huffy about losing, decided to abandon sculpture and turn his focus to architecture instead; wise move, since he later returned to build the famous dome over the cathedral, revolutionizing Renaissance architecture)

Ghiberti spent the next 21 years casting 28 bronze panels and building his doors.

Although limited by his contract to design the scenes within Gothic frames as on Pisano's doors, Ghiberti infused his figures and compositions with an unmatched realism and classical references that helped define Renaissance sculpture. (Ghiberti stuck a self-portrait in the left door, the fourth head from the bottom of the middle strip, wearing a turban.)

The result so impressed the merchant's guild—not to mention the public and Ghiberti's fellow artists—they asked him in 1425 to do the East Doors, facing the Duomo, this time giving him the artistic freedom to realize his Renaissance ambitions.

Twenty-seven years later, just before his death, Ghiberti finished ten dramatic life-like Old Testament scenes in gilded bronze, each a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture and some of the finest low-relief perspective in Italian art. (The panels now mounted here are excellent copies; the originals are displayed in the nearby Museo dell'Opera del Duomo).

Years later, Michelangelo was standing before these doors and someone asked his opinion. His response sums up Ghiberti's life accomplishment as no art historian ever could: "They are so beautiful that they would grace the entrance to Paradise."

They've been called the Gates of Paradise ever since.

The baptistery's interior and the story of an antipope

The Florence Baptistery—directly across from the Cathedral—is one of Florence's oldest, most venerated buildings. It is, in fact, the oldest building of the whole Duomo ensemble. Florentines long believed it was originally a Roman temple, but it most likely was raised somewhere between the 4th and 7th centuries on the site of a Roman palace.

The octagonal drum was rebuilt in the 11th century, and by the 13th century it had been clad in its characteristic green-and-white Romanesque stripes of marble and capped with its odd pyramidlike dome.

The Baptistery's interior, open the afternoons only, is ringed with columns pilfered from ancient Roman buildings and is a spectacle of mosaics above and below.

The floor was inlaid in 1209, and the ceiling was covered between 1225 and the early 1300s with glittering mosaics. Most were crafted by Venetian or Byzantine-style workshops, which worked off designs drawn by the era's best artists.

Coppo di Marcovaldo drew sketches for the over 26.4-foot (8m) ape-toed Christ in Judgment as part of the incredibly detailed Last Judgment which fills over a third of the cone-shaped ceiling.

To the right of the altar is the 1425 is 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 another 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.

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.

Baldassare Cossa, the man who gave up the papacy (or at least apapacy) 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.

Photo gallery
  • Mosaic ceiling inside the Battistero di San Giovanni, Florence Baptistery, Italy (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)
  • , Florence Baptistery, Italy (Photo by Georges Jansoone)
  • The (replica) Gates of Paradise. (The restored originals are in the Museo dell
  • Detail of
  • Roman sarcophagus showing a boar hunt (the cover is a medieval replacement showing the Medici coat of arms), Florence Baptistery, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Mosaic ceiling of the Battistero di San Giovanni, Florence Baptistery, Italy (Photo by Shane Lin)
  • Detail of
  • , Florence Baptistery, Italy (Photo by Nono vlf)
  • Stone floor inside the baptistry, Florence Baptistery, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Zodiac Rosette on the baptistry floor, Florence Baptistery, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • , Florence Baptistery, Italy (Photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo)
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How long does the Baptistery take?

It should take about 20–30 minutes in and around the Baptistery

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).