First of all, let’s find out what a “baptistery” is! In Christian architecture, a baptisterium was a structure surrounding the baptismal font, where the rite of baptism was held. In the most representative cases, the baptistery was separate from the church (in the early centuries of the Christian era, newborns, who were not yet baptized, were not admitted to liturgical celebrations in places of worship, hence the origin of the separation of the two structures) yet placed beside or in front of it.
The layout is usually octagonal, representing the eighth day of the week – the day of recreation, after the six days of creation and the Day of Rest, i.e. Sunday – but there are also different polygonal structures or circular ones (as in Pisa). Inside you find the baptismal font, usually a marble basin to allow a partial immersion. (When immersion made way for sprinkling, these large, old baptisteries, separate from the church building, were no longer necessary.) Now, a quick tour to get to know the beautiful Tuscan baptisteries!
The octagonal Saint John baptistery, placed in front of the Cathedral and the Giotto bell-tower, is one of the oldest buildings in the city, erected between 1059 and 1128 in a Florentine Romanesque style; it acted as a prototype for the design of many later Romanesque churches in Tuscany. Its doors – three sets of huge bronze double doors with relief sculptures – are extraordinarily famous: the south one was made by Andrea Pisano, and the north and the east ones (the “Gates of Paradise”, as they were called by Michelangelo) by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The vast interior is rather dark and the walls are clad in dark green and white marble with inlaid geometrical pattern. Look at the complex mosaic marble pavement, then raise your head and admire the magnificent mosaic ceiling! Until the end of the nineteenth century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized here, including members of the Medici family and the poet Dante.
Pisa’s baptistery is one of the impressive white marble monuments in the amazing Piazza dei Miracoli (Miracles Square, yes, the one with the Leaning Tower!). Its construction started in 1152, replacing a previous baptistery, and it took until 1363 to complete, bearing architecture of transition between Romanesque and Gothic style. The structure is circular and, with a circumference of 107.24 metres, this is the largest Italian baptistery in existence.
At the back of Siena Cathedral, an impressive staircase leads to the beautiful baptistery of San Giovanni, built between 1316 and 1325. Inside, the rectangular hall is divided into a nave and two aisles by two columns; the frescoes that completely decorate the magnificent vaults are the most extensive and articulated religious cycle of the Sienese Renaissance; the splendid fifteenth-century hexagonal baptismal font was made by Jacopo della Quercia, Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
With its fascinating white and green marble, the baptistery of San Giovanni in Corte, originally designed by Andrea Pisano, is one of the highest expressions of Tuscan Gothic architecture, as it combines elements of Florence, Pisa and Siena. It is placed in front of the Cathedral, in the beautiful Piazza del Duomo; the present-day octagonal structure was begun in 1303 and the baptistery took the place (and the name) of a pre-existing church. The elegant and imposing exterior contrasts the simple inside, with bare bricks.
The early Renaissance baptistery of Volterra, in front of the Duomo, has a distinctive trait: only one side of the octagonal structure (the one facing the Duomo) has been furnished with green and white marble.