Florence day 1 (continuation 3)

The San Giovanni, or the Baptistery, the Bargello, the Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria

Baptistery large size           Rear
Baptistery Florence

Photo: Jack Seikaly

The Baptistery is a stone’s throw from the Santa Maria del Fiore. 27 There is evidence pointing towards a building already being located here in the 6th or 7th century. By the 11th century, the old building underwent drastic changes and it was given its current look. The green marble stripes that alternate with white on the corner pilaster strips were added by Arnolfo di Cambio. With it, he aimed to create a new visual unity between the newly erected Duomo, which was also lined with green and white marble, and the Baptistery.

Baptistery and the Santa Maria del Fiore large size
Baptistery and the Santa Maria del Fiore Florence

Cambio was likely unaware that in doing this, he harmed the building’s classic character. By the twelfth century, the round apse was turned into a square one. The new shape was reminiscent of the pilgrim’s bag and that is exactly how the apse was called: scarsella. Click here for the story about the three doors of the Baptistery

Baptistery large size

Photo: Victor Santos

Baptistery large size


The Baptistery large size      The lantern
The Baptistery aerial picture Florence
 Open Baptistery        Detail facades
Baptistery Florence

Foto: Giacobbe Giusti

In Italy, the baptistery is usually built separate from the church. Only one who was baptised was allowed entry into the church. For some time, it was believed that the Baptistery was once a classic temple devoted to Mars. Only later would it have adopted a Christian function. Architects such as Alberti and Brunelleschi held the same view. For instance, the pilasters with fluting especially at the attic (top section) were constructed in perfectly attuned to classic rules. What did not make sense was the bent architrave and the rotated columns (something Donatello copied for his recess at the Orsanmichele) at the windows. The layout of the San Giovanni is an octagonal centred plane, but it still has an axis. As you enter through the main entrance (which is no longer possible), you will see the square apse with the altar straight ahead of you. The octagonal shape presumably has a deeper Christian meaning. Christ allegedly returned on the eighth day (Creation: 7 days) to free mankind.

Ghiberti door Baptistery east-side Florence       Restoration       The square apse
Youtube restoration (2.24 minutes)
Baptistery Ghiberti door east-side

The interior and exterior don’t match. While there is a trichotomy on the inside and outside, the height varies considerably. The unknown architects of this baptistery were clearly inspired by the Pantheon. There are some remarkable similarities, like the apse straight across from the entrance (which was originally also round). In addition, the Baptistery, like in the Pantheon, has recesses on the ground floor, with two columns supporting an architrave flanked by pilasters. Like the Pantheon, the building was situated on a raised area with multiple stairs. Due to floods of the Arno, the square was later raised, with the stairs thus now hidden underneath the streets. The square was never lowered like with the Pantheon to make the building look better. A proposal by Leonardo da Vinci to hoist the Baptistery was never taken seriously.

The octagonal dome rests on a small gallery which is double-walled. This is what likely inspired the use of a double shell for the dome of the Duomo. The Baptistery has greatly influenced Florence architecture, like

  • starting from one bay and then multiplying it. Working from a flat plane. This can be seen in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi by architect Michelozzo.
  • a clear layout of the facade
  • the green marble frame underneath the aedicula windows. For the windows of the palazzi, this is translated into cornices that simultaneously function as window sills.
  • the two pilasters that collide where the two surfaces of the Baptistery come together. This can be traced back to the two pilasters of the Pazzi chapel by Brunelleschi
  • the rotated columns at the windows Donatello will later use these columns for his recess in the Orsanmichele.
Baptistery  large size

picture: David Lown

The Magical Columns of the Baptistery
‘On the east side of the Baptistery, a few feet away from the famous Porta del Paradiso, stand two ancient porphyry columns.
The columns arrived in Florence in 1107, a gift from the city of Pisa, in thanks for the aid Florence had provided in a naval battle against Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean sea.
The two columns were reputed to possess magical properties: it was possible to see, reflected in the polished surface, any future acts of treason against the state. However, the wily Pisans, before handing the columns over to the Florentines, passed them through a furnace, thus destroying their lustre and, consequently, their magical powers.
The columns were once freestanding, as we can see on the panel of a cassone in the Museo del Bargello. Felled by a violent storm in 1429, the columns were hooped and placed in their current position.’

Source: David Lown

Column of St.  Zenobius
Baptistery Column of St.  Zenobius Florence


“The column north of the Baptistry is the Column of St Zenobius [Niche St. Zenobius facade Duomo], erected here in memory of a miracle that took place in the fifth century. According to legend, this was the location of a dead olive tree, other sources claim it was an elm tree. The column itself only says ‘arbor sicca’, a dry tree. Zenobius, a Greek, was the first bishop of Florence. He reportedly rallied his city when it was besieged by barbarians. Around 390 AD, with other sources claiming 417 AD, when he died at the age of eighty, he was buried in the San Lorenzo out of gratitude, which was constructed during the fourth century outside of the city walls at that time and which he came to regard as the seat of his episcopate. Because he was the first bishop of the city, and revered by his people, they judged he should be buried within the city walls and in the first church of Florence. On January 26, 429, by order of his successor Andreas, his body was placed on an ox cart and amid great interest taken along the Borgo San Lorenzo and the Porta Aquilonare to the cathedral, the San Salvatore. Near the church, carriers lifted the bier onto their shoulders and strode carefully between the two populous ranks of onlooking faithful, who in respectful silence saw the procession move towards the sanctuary. Because it was so crowded, the carriers, near the Baptistry, accidentally bumped the bier against a dead tree, which, despite the season, began to blossom and flower..

Davide Ghirlandaio‘The burial of St. Zenobius’ 15.9 x 41.3 cm, tempera and gold on wood c. 1479  large    MET
Ridolfo Ghirlandaio ‘Transferring the body of St. Zenobius’ 203 x 175 cm, oil on wood, Accademia, Florence
Davide Ghirlandaio ‘The burial of St. Zenobius’ 15.9 x 41.3 cm, tempera and gold on wood c. 1479 

People in the region flocked to the scene to see the miracle for themselves and many took a flowering twig from the tree. […]. Atop the column sits a marble cross, with an iron wreath below and an inlaid bronze tree on the shaft. This column was placed here in 1348, after the original column washed away during the flood of 1333. Every year, on January 26th, the day of Saint Zenobius’ miracle who is also one of the city’s patron saints, people put flowers at the base of the column.”

Cited and translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Firenze Een Anekdotische reisgids’ Athenaeum-Polak&van Gennep Amsterdam 2006 pp. 288 – 289

In the thirteenth century Venetian artists added a mosaic in the dome (click here for mosaic).

Mosaic in the dome of the Baptistery large size
mosaic in dome Baptistery Florence

The three famous bronze doors will later receive more extensive discourse when we cover Florence sculpting. The first door was made by Andrea Pisano, the same man who worked on the Campanile after Giotto.

The square in front of the Duomo

When it was decided to tear down the old Sana and construct a larger church, the square could not be left behind. A small hospital situated between the Baptistery and the old church was torn down and the new cathedral was pushed back.28 The casa torre (residential towers) at the southside and the cemetery had to make way as well. Proportions were already considered back in the Middle Ages. For instance, the S. Maria del Fiore was very purposely placed seventy-three braccia away from the centre of the San Giovanni. Which is the exact height of the Baptistery. This was an expression of divina proportione, divine proportioning, which God had added to nature. Of course, these proportions were very different from those applied by the classics.

Aerial picture         Video google 3D
Duomo Baptistery Florence aerial

The square behind the Duomo was widened. In addition, there was need for a proper connection between the spiritual centre with the Duomo and the worldly centre with the Palazzo Vecchio. To achieve this, the old cardo was shifted east.

Florence was founded by the Romans and back in Antiquity, it was shaped like a castrum, which can still be seen today. A castrum is very similar to a chessboard, except that it has two main streets; the cardo (east west) and decumanus (north south) that meet in the centre and this is the exact location of the Piazza della Repubblica. The new cardo became the Via dei Calzaiuoli. This street, which nowadays is a bustling commercial area, connects the Duomo with the Palazzo Vecchio. The square behind the cathedral was widened as well. The streets south of the square were lowered to make the new Duomo look better. Furthermore, the Via della Fondamenta had to align with the curvature of the apse of the new Duomo. Housing along the square and in front of the Via dei Calzaiuoli also had to adhere to various new regulations and requirements. For instance, the windows were all to be at an equal height, requirements were set for stone types and protruding elements like bay windows were forbidden.29 The environment had to be as ‘desirable as possible’. Finally, in 1289, a new sewage system was added and the square was paved. As the construction of the new cathedral finally begins, it is quickly halted. The city paid more attention to the worldly affairs. As such, a new town hall was to be constructed first, the Commune del Podestà (currently the Palazzo Vecchio), because the old building, Palazzo del Podestà (currently the Bargello) from 1255 no longer sufficed.

Palazzo del Podestà (Bargello), the Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria

Plenty of city halls were constructed in northern Italy by the late 1200s. In Florence, construction of the Palazzo del Podestà began in 1255.30

Badia and Bargello and the Bargello
Badia and Bargello Florence

Foto: Gary Kinsman

The building is currently used as a statue museum and before that it was a prison. This explains its current name: Bargello, prison. This city hall was meant for the Commune Maggiore, which had need for a meeting place. A residential tower was already available, which was raised to fifty-four metres.

The building had a square shaped layout, but not a perfect one as the plot didn’t allow for it. The large hall has an interior that is more befitting of a gothic church than a town hall: with a rather large crossed vault. This eighteen-metre wide vault in the large hall was designed by Neri di Fioravanti. The same man who made the model for the Duomo dome. Of course, like a church, this building received a clocktower. That way it could summon all surrounding citizens. Like the layout, the exterior of Palazzo del Podestà is not entirely even. The windows are not the same size and the placement seems mostly random.

As a whole, it appears to have much in common with a keep, with battlements at the top and heavy rustication of the walls. Originally, there were two wooden walkways at the front of the palace, next to the tower. We can still see this today from the consoles and gates that served as the support beams for these walkways. In 1332, a fire broke out in the palace and a new first floor had to be built. The builders of the Opera del Duomo were summoned for this, who also worked on the Santa Maria del Fiore. They made the same bifore windows on the first floor as they had previously done with the Duomo. The placement of the windows in the wall is rather messy. Something a Renaissance architect would not dare. The trichotomy in the facade is typical for the construction of Palazzi in Florence. The floors are clearly distinguishable from each other by a cornice, and each floor is slightly lower in height. The palace was also expanded in the same year of the fire. A second courtyard is added as we can tell from these layouts. This makes the original longer side the shorter one.

Bargello large size     Campanile    Battlements      Aerial picture
Bargello museum Florence

By 1574 the palazzo was being used as a prison. It was custom to portrait criminals in a fresco on the Bargello walls. One of these frescos can still be seen in the Bargello, namely: ‘the count of Athens is cast out of Florence under the watchful gaze of St. Anna’. The murderer of Giuliano de Medici and his brother Lorenzo, Bernardo Baroncelli, barely escapes, but was immortalised by Leonardo da Vinci in one of his sketches. The conspiracy of the Pazzi’s to get rid of the Medici reign failed.  Baroncelli was hung outside a window of the Bargello, serving as an example to all those with nefarious plans. Leonardo made a sketch of this gruesome scene and noted the following in the margin of it:

‘Brown hood; black satin vest; black, lined, sleeveless jacket; a turquoise blue jacket with fox fur; and the collar of the jacket stitched with a black and red velvet; Bernardo di Bandino Baroncigli; black trousers.’31

Seemingly, Leonardo was more interested in the clothes than the executed criminal. Currently, the Bargello is a statue museum (click here for the background of several statues in this museum) that we will visit on the day we discuss sculpting.

The Palazzo della Signoria or Palazzo dei Priori, called the Palazzo Vecchio after 1530.

Giuseppe Zocchi ‘The Piazza della Signoria’  16th century large size
Giuseppe Zocchi 'The Piazza della Signoria'  16th century
Piazza della Signoria large size     Carlo Gregori naar G. Zocchi ‘Festivities in the Piazza della Signoria’ etching 499 x 688 mm. 1729- 1759 
Original Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Piazza della Signoria Florence
 Layout Piazza della Signoria overview square and buildings
1.   Fourteenth century core of the Palazzo Vecchio
2.  Salone dei Cinquecento
3.  Expansion  Palazzo Vecchio by Battista del Tasso
5.  Palazzo della Mercatanzia
6.  Loggia dei Lanzi
7.  Plaque of execution Savonarola
8.  Copy of the  David by Michelangelo
9.  Hercules and Cacus Bandinelli
10. Uffizi
11. Fountain of Neptune
12. Equestrian statue of Cosimo I of Giambologna
13. Copy of Judith by Donatello


Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria large size         Aerrial picture
Palazzo Vecchio en het Piazza della Signoria Florence

By the late thirteenth century, plans were in motion for an even bigger keep.32 By 1299, the first stone was laid, several years after construction started of the Duomo. Work on the cathedral was halted and the builders were reassigned to the Piazza della Signoria. Priority was given to what the governing bodies deemed important. The new palace was constructed in a rapid pace. It took only fifteen years to complete it. If we go by Vasari, the architect was the same one who had made the walls of Florence and the first design for the Duomo. Arnolfo di Cambio. The palace received several expansions over time towards the Via dei Leoni by architects like Cronaco, Battista del Tasso and Ammanati.

Palazzo Vecchio and Loggia dei Lanzi
Palazzo Vecchio and Loggia dei Lanzi Florence

Photo: Flawless

The next day