Summer Update in Florence
May 3, 2023
Palazzo Busini-Bardi and Armen Vigotti (18 months old)!
Putting these scanners to use. 3D modeling takes a village!
The south portal of the Florentine Baptistery of S. Giovanni was originally adorned with a wooden door. In 1322 members of the Arte della Calimala, the Cloth Merchants Guild that was responsible for the building’s maintenance, upkeep, and decorations, moved to cover those doors with metal plates that they felt would act as a sign of the structure’s importance. By 1329 this approach was amended with a plan to make entirely new doors for the portal that would be made wholly of metal or brass.
A goldsmith was sent to Pisa to study prototypes there, and by January of 1330 work was initiated on the Baptistery’s south portal. Wax models were completed by April of that year, and in January of 1332 the casting of at least some of the twenty-eight panels began in earnest. The lengthy chasing process lasted from February 1333 until December 1335, and the entire ensemble was installed by June 20, 1336, just in time for the celebration of the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, which was observed four days later.
Andrea Pisano, who inscribed his name on one of the panels in 1330 (“ANDREAS UGOLINI NINI DI PISIS ME FECIT A.D. MCCCXXX”), seems to have been involved in this project from the very beginning. A promising sculptor who had trained as a goldsmith – a logical background for one eager to sculpt in metals, like bronze – Andrea had received the commission from the Arte della Calimala due to his earlier successes in Pisa, Siena, and Orvieto, where his work showed a clear adherence to the Gothic style then in vogue north of the Alps. In a way, his selection marked a departure from the Florentine norm, which emphasized a more classicizing approach to sculpture like that seen in the work of Arnolfo di Cambio, the architect and sculptor of the new cathedral of S. Maria del Fiore and the designer of the Franciscan church of S. Croce. The centralized compositions and large, volumetric masses of Arnolfo now gave way to the swaying draperies and elegantly elongated heroes in Andrea’s scenes.
Neither the choice of John the Baptist as subject of this relief cycle nor the choice of the south portal as the setting for it comes as a surprise. The south doors faced the larger portion of the city center, and therefore was the ‘front door’ of the Baptistery for most residents approaching the facility. Moreover, the south portal – perhaps because of their location as the ‘front door’ of the building for most locals – was the place where much of the baptismal ritual was performed in the later Middle Ages. It made sense, then, to ornament this particular portal with images of the namesake of the Baptistery and the patron saint of the city, for this was the entrance seen and used by the greatest number of people in 1322 and beyond.
Andrea’s design incorporates a number of geometric patterns and shapes into its overall design. As Anita Moskowitz has noted, the rectangular doors situated inside the large portal that penetrates the octagonal Baptistery serve to frame smaller hexagons, quatrefoils, and rhomboids that contain the scenes and figures within them. Within these framing devices appear twenty narrative scenes, beginning with the Annunciation to Zacharias(image) (John’s elderly father) and ending with the Burial of the Baptist(image), who was beheaded by King Herod at roughly the same time as the Crucifixion of Christ. At the doors’ base appear two rows of seated allegorical characters: the first shows each of the three Theological virtues (images) (Hope, Faith, and Charity) with an additional relief of Humility added for good measure, and, below it, a row depicting each of the four Cardinal virtues (images) (Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, and Prudence). The mixing of religious symbols with civic ones underscores the dual nature of John’s importance for the Florentines, who revered the saint both for his status as patron saint of the commune and for his role as the baptizer of Christ and his followers in the Bible.
Throughout the ensemble, Andrea Pisano engages with the difficult parameters of the quatrefoil framing devices that enfold his compositions. Popular in French manuscript painting and stained glass designs from the thirteenth century, these lobed configurations do not always lend themselves easily to three-dimensional forms. At times, Andrea refrains from using the rounded corners of his frame at all, choosing instead to leave empty those areas that form the upper and lower boundaries: The Birth of the Baptist(image), for example, contains literally nothing inside the ultimately vacant upper registers of the composition. At other times, Andrea seems to work too hard to fill those zones, as he does with the seemingly gratuitous trees that pop up inexplicably on either side of the wilderness into which the youthful Baptist (image) strides. Still, his mastery of the complicated and temperamental medium of bronze casting shines through in each of these panels, as their pristine condition even today speaks of their high quality of craftsmanship.
Andrea, while certainly inventive and highly creative in his approach to these scenes, had an obvious template in mind when he devised his twenty scenes of the life of John the Baptist. The monumental mosaic covering the Baptistery’s ceiling, probably installed between 1275 and 1310 (at the very latest), includes in one of its horizontal bands the story of Florence’s patron saint, with many of the same scenes that later appear in the south door’s relief panels. Both cycles include multiple scenes that take place at or outside the prison in Jerusalem in which the Baptist was held, and both sequences may well refer to the local custom whereby non-violent prisoners in Florentine jails were released annually on June 24 – the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist.
Although large effigies by Arnolfo di Cambio and Tina da Camaino were already installed on the cathedral’s façade by 1336, Andrea Pisano’s bronze reliefs were for almost one hundred years among the most highly prized images in the entire city.
Bent, George. Public Painting and Visual Culture in Early Renaissance Florence (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2017).
Hueck, Irene. “Il programma dei mosaici.” In Il Battistero di San Giovanni a Firenze, ed. Antonio Paolucci, Modena, 1994, 229-63.
Moskowitz, Anita. The Sculpture of Andrea and Nino Pisano (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1986).
White, John. Art and Architecture in Italy, 1250-1400 (Penguin Books: Baltimore, 1966).