A Votive Offering

Battistero di San Giovanni

The present Baptistery of San Giovanni is a result of the remodelling carried out over several centuries. The original sandstone building stood on the site of an earlier Roman guard house, which was part of a defensive wall. The Baptistery was enlarged to cater for the expanding population and in line with the importance of Florence. In 1059 it was reconsecrated to San Giovanni by Pope Nicholas II who was originally the Bishop of Florence. In the 11th century baptisms took place twice a year and attracted large numbers of people. Before the construction of the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery was also the City’s cathedral. San Giovanni was used as a baptistery up until the 19th century.

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The Facade of the Battistero di San Giovanni

The structure is clad in white Carrara marble with an inlay of green serpentine marble. This green marble was excavated from the quarries near the village of Figline on the eastern slopes of Monte Piccioli in the Apennine Mountains. This marble was sort after for decorative purposes, as it ranged in colour from light green to almost black, and can contain yellow and green streaks. It is also know as Ranocchiaia Stone (frog stone).

During the 14th century a series of plagues were the catalyst for the creation of some of the most exceptional pieces of artwork. After a particularly bad outbreak in 1400, when some 12,000 Florentines lost their lives, the Wealthy Guild of Calimala (Cloth Merchants), sponsored a competition as a Votive offering for a new set of bronze doors for the north side of the Baptistery. The competition required each candidate to produce a trial panel of approximately 43 cm X 33 cm from four sheets of bronze weighing 34 kilograms. The panel had to depict Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, using Genesis chapter 22 verses 2 – 13 as reference.

The candidates had a year to complete the very skilled process of producing the panel. The first stages were lengthy and involved modelling the figures in clay and wax, over laid in various concoctions of iron filings, cow dung and burnt ox-horn. Further layers of clay were applied, then bound with iron hoops and baked in order to create a mould. The melted wax left a space for the molten bronze to be poured. Once cooled the mould could be broken open leaving the bronze shape to be finished by removing any excess pieces and then polished.

The prestigious competition attracted seven entrants including two Florentines who had fled the city due to the plague. The returning exile Filippo Brunelleschi was unsuccessful purely due to economic factors. The other exile and winner Lorenzo Ghiberti’s design could be produced in a single casting, whereas Brunelleschi needed four separate sections and was seven kilos heavier. Brunelleschi had travelled to Pistoia as a qualified master goldsmith to work on the alter of the cathedral. The chance of fame and fortune had been too much of a draw, loosing the competition and being asked to help Ghiberti produce his winning doors seemed like an insult.

Ghiberti, unlike Brunelleschi was not a member of the guilds of goldsmiths or sculptors. He had worked in the goldsmith workshop of his stepfather. He had fled to Rimini during the plague to paint murals, and it was his stepfather who had called him back to enter the competition. During the year Ghiberti sort advice  and even made changes to his design, if opinions were unfavourable. Whereas Brunelleschi was single minded and worked in secret.


Plan of Baptistery and Position of Doors

The doors took twenty one years to complete from 1403 to 1424. They portrayed the life of Jesus in twenty panels, and the final eight depict the Evangelists and the Church Fathers. In 1425 Ghiberti was commissioned to produce the south side doors, which took twenty seven years and are known as the Gates of Paradise. The doors contain ten large square panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament. Ghiberti was given free rein with regard to the design, his new doors contain much larger relief panels minus the quatrefoils of the previous doors. This allows a larger area to show off his exceptional designs. The completed doors are a testament to the time Ghiberti took to reproduce landscapes, architecture and people as they would appear in reality, perfect perspective. The title Gates of Paradise was a result of Michelangelo’s comment that the quality of the workmanship could adorn the doors of Paradise.

The Gates of Paradise with Key to Panels

The Commissioners decided that the doors were so beautiful they should be installed in the prime location on the east side opposite the facade of the Cathedral. Therefore Andrea Pisano’s original doors created in the early 1330s consisting of twenty panels portraying the life John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint, and the remaining eight panels depicting the virtues, were moved to the south side in 1452. When Pisano’s doors were moved to the south side Lorenzo Ghiberti’s son Vittorio, made the bronze doorposts for them.

The original Gates of Paradise door panels are no longer on display and were replaced with copies to preserve them from weathering; the originals are now in the Cathedral Museum.


The photos and artwork are from the author’s own collection.

“Our roots were never struck so deeply as at Pisa…”

Pisa is a Tuscan city located on the River Arno, close to the Ligurian Sea. The city was one of the many stopping points on the Grand Tour. The tour was seen as the practical part of a young gentleman’s education, to visit various locations to experience the architecture and art at first hand. Pisa became home for Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, “Our roots were never struck so deeply as at Pisa...”. It was here that Shelley gathered his Utopian Circle of friends. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning left Pisa to return to Florence, her regret was that she had not climbed the Leaning Tower.


Battistero and Duomo 

The beautiful buildings of the Piazza Dei Miracoli are testament to a time when Pisa was an important maritime republic, and a commercial centre with trading links to the entire Mediterranean and Northern Africa. Pisa had been an important naval base from Roman times until the fleet was eventually defeated by the Genoese at the Battle of Meloria and the port was destroyed.


Duomo and Campanile

The Duomo was begun in 1064 by the architect Buscheto di Giovanni Giudice to commemorate the naval victory near Palermo, which took place in 1063. It is clad in alternate bands of green and cream marble, which was to influence the style of future churches throughout Tuscany. The Duomo was dedicated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius II to Santa Maria Assunta. It was later enlarged between 1120 and 1125.


Duomo’s 13th Century Facade

In the 13th century the facade was completed by the architect Rainaldo who designed a tomb for Buscheto on the left hand side of the facade. It is constructed of white Carrara marble, which incorporates coloured sandstone, glass and majolica plates. There knots, flowers and animals in the inlaid marble. The four tiers of loggias include statues of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on each corner, and the Madonna and Child at the top.


Battistero di San Giovanni

“…the Baptistry of San Giovanni, built of pure white marble and cover’d with so artificial a cupola the voice uttered under it seemed to break out of a cloud.”

John Evelyn

The Battistero di San Giovanni was designed by the architect Diotisalvi as a cylindrical building, instead of the usual octagonal design. The construction of the first level started in 1152 of white Carrara marble in the Romanesque style. After his death the design was changed by Niccola Pisano, who together with his son Giovanni, built the Gothic middle loggia level. The cupola roof was added in 1365 to complete the building. This domed roof covered the coned shaped upper section creating an amazing acoustic space.


Torre Pendente

“a horrible but an astonishing object”  

Robert Adam

All the buildings lean to some extent as a result of the soft, pliable stratum of clay and sand; and their lack of substantial foundations. But the Campanile has become famous for it’s very noticeable lean. This region of Italy is vulnerable to earthquakes, and the fact that they have been built on this unstable surface has absorbed the vibrations and insured their survival.



Construction of the Romanesque style Campanile was started in 1173, it’s architect is not recorded but it is believed that the first phase is the work of Bonanno Pisano. After his death he was buried at the base of the Campanile. This first phase was halted in 1178 when they reached the 4th gallery and the tower had started to lean. The construction of the second phase resumed in 1272, and is attributed to Giovanni di Simone who tried to correct the lean, by building the stories taller on the shorter side to compensate. Unfortunately the extra weight caused the tower to sink further into the ground and increase the lean. This phase was completed in 1278.

Bell Chamber and Bells

The bell chamber and final phase was started in 1360 by Tommaso Andrea Pisano, it is smaller in diameter than the rest of the tower and houses seven large bells. This phase was completed in 1399 and four original columns had to be replaced due to the lean. In 1993 the bells were silenced because experts were concerned the vibration could affect work to stop it from collapsing.

The tower was built of San Giuliano marble which has been gradually replaced with white Carrara marble. Only 33 of the original pillars of the open galleries remain, these are on the north-eastern side. The tower was 60 meters tall but now it is 56.67m on the highest side and 55.86m on the shortest side.

Previous work over the centuries to correct or stabilise the lean had all been unsuccessful. In 1990 the tower was closed to the public and work started in 1993 to safeguard the tower, which had a 5.4 meter lean. By 2008 it had been stabilised and the lean reduced by 0.5 degrees. By 2011 restoration to the interior and exterior stonework was completed.


There are 251 very worn steps to the top

During World War 2 my father was called up in 1940 and joined the Essex Regiment. He served in Egypt, Iran and Iraq before being assigned to 17 Brigade Indian Army Ordinance Corp. Because my father spoke Hindi he was transferred in April 1943 to the 8th Indian Division with officer status. The Division was based in Damascus training in mountainous warfare ready for the invasion of Italy. In September they landed in Tarranto Italy fighting their way up to Monte Cassino, Assisi, Rome and Florence and in the New Year of 1945 they rested in Pisa. My father often talked about sleeping in tents beneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


The photos are from the author’s own collection.

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