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 that most visitors want to see when the 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).
Catholics believe that all people are born with what we call the ‘stain of original sin.’ This means that we’ve inherited the sin of Adam and Eve, which was to disobey the will of God. Obviously, we don’t think that little babies have sinned yet, 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. In the first Sacrament of Initiation (ceremonies that bring people into the Church community), baptism, original sin is washed away from the person being baptized, and they are welcomed 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 is reflected in the Battistero di San Giovanni, which is named for 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.
There has been a building on the site of the Battistero di San Giovanni since before proper records were kept in the city of Florence. 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 were baptized in there.
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, especially since the number of Catholics increased drastically between the 5th and 11th centuries. The building would have needed to be bigger in order to accommodate all the people baptizing their babies, as well as all the people who tag along to celebrate the beginning of Catholic life. Between the 12th and 13th centuries – at the very outset of the Renaissance – the Battistero was expanded again, and a new façade of white, green, and red marble added. Inside the building, brilliant mosaics were added to the ceiling, the most prominent of which being of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25:31-46).
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. Baptism is the first step towards being counted among the righteous. 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 intended to scare the babies, but rather to remind everyone present of the rewards of living out the baptismal promises.
This last rendition of the Battistero, with the marble façade and detailed mosaic ceilings, would have been the Bel San Giovanni of the man we previously called one of Florence’s most famous sons, and certainly one of her most eloquent: 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 to the 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 – namely, Catholic, as 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. It would have continued here when they brought their own babies to be baptized, and it would have been punctuated by seeing the grandiose building on a daily basis.
And, in my opinion, your trip to Florence hasn’t truly begun until you’ve hauled your chin up off the floor of Bel San Giovanni. It’s a sort of initiation, if you will.