The Baptistry and the Gates of Paradise
There are many elements that should have caught my attention here, but I was fixated on the bronze doors which were one of two reasons I came here.
The original Ghiberti doors hung at the Baptistery until 18th century refurbishing and increasing air pollution began to corrode the bronze underneath the gilding. The doors were removed during WWII and taken outside of Florence, where molds were made from them. They were returned to the Baptistery after the war, but were again removed in 1970 and were replaced with the gilded bronze replicas that you see now, crafted in a workshop in France from the WWII-era molds.
The original panels are now housed in the Duomo Museum. The replica doors are no less stunning, and allowed me to see them as they were originally installed, each panel having a specific forced perspective, depending on where it was placed on these very tall and massive doors. For additional detail about their history, please go to my original journal at AugustPhoenix.com.
Ghiberti applied gilding to his doors by dissolving gold in mercury, and firing the panels to the furnace, where the mercury vaporized, leaving the gold adhered to the bronze. This method of gilding was highly toxic, even by Renaissance standards, and the life span of a foundry worker in Ghiberti’s shop was neither long nor healthy.
When the doors were finally installed in 1452, Michelangelo is credited with saying that they were so beautiful that they were worthy of the Gates of Paradise, although others cite the reference simply to the doors being the entry way to baptism. Regardless, the colloquialism remains assigned to Ghiberti’s masterpiece to this day.
Inside the Baptistry…
Of all the elements to see here – the women’s gallery, the baptismal fonts, the marble mosaic “Oriental Carpet” floors, the Roman sarcophagi – the only thing that really held my attention was the ceiling. This place could make a small fortune by renting portable cots.
After trying to follow the intricacies of the floor mosaics, my eyes drifted up to the glittering gold glass which was the background for what I remember as predominantly blue mosaics, though all of my books picture it otherwise. The dome, built prior to 1100, was embellished with mosaic during the 13th century and took 75 years to complete. I stood for a long time, as close to the center of the building as I could, turning in a slow spin, just trying to take it all in, trying to imagine the effect it would have on a person from a much earlier century.
I wish I had been able to figure out how to get up to the women’s gallery, to get close up and personal to the 14th century mosaics that cover the walls there, to stand in the alcove with the bottleglass window, and, of course, to get closer to the magnificence of the ceiling. So many, many reasons to return to Florence…
I chance upon Dante’s House, where I buy a florin and a book on medieval armor for a friend. Florins were originally minted of pure 24 carat gold. The face showed a Fleur-de-lis, the symbol of Florence. The back showed an image of John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. The florin was first coined in Florence in 1252 and became the standard currency throughout medieval Europe, remaining in circulation until the fall of the Republic in 1531.
Now growing dark, I hurry home, with so many notes to subscribe that I completely forget to eat dinner.