St. John the Baptist is a big deal in Florence. If the fireworks and parades didn’t tip you off, he’s an even bigger deal this week. What’s all the hype about this hipster mountain man, on the ultimate paleo diet of bugs and bushes?
For starters, St. John the Baptist had some pretty famous family (like Jesus). He was also sainted for his work preaching the word of God and baptizing followers. When Florence switched teams from pagan to Christian, they had an opening for patron saint. Considering that the god of war, Mars, was at the time the pagan god of particular Florentine devotion, the choice of the rugged San Giovanni seemed a suitable substitute. If you know any Florentines personally, then you know just how much they love being Florentine. Over the years, devotion to SJB has fused with civic pride, resulting in the fireworks, games and parades held this week on the feast of San Giovanni. In honor of these celebrations, here are some of our favorite features to the patron saint around the city.
The most noteworthy monument to St. John is, of course, the Baptistery. Built in the 11th century, the Baptistery was allegedly built atop the ancient temple to Mars, solidifying that there was a new favorite (and Christian) fella in town.
The exterior of the Baptistery has several odes to the patron (unfortunately most of which are under scaffolding at the moment). While most tourists swarm the Gates of Paradise, take a step back and look up. Here you will find three figures above the doors, by Andrea Sansovino, representing the moment when John baptized his cousin Jesus.
The humbling moment takes a violent turn as we walk to the south side of the structure. Above these bronze doors a more antique grouping of sculptures, by mannerist sculptor Vincenzo Danti, brings us to the end of John’s life–his beheading. The violent executioner and the horrified bystander accentuate the piety of the saint, even at the moment of his death.
If you’re interested in revisiting the saint’s life to learn what brought him to such a brutal end, direct your eyes down to the panels of the southern baptistery doors. Sculpted by Andrea Pisano in 1330, these doors are the predecessor to the more famous Gates of Paradise on the east facade. Pisano sculpted 28 panels illustrating the life SJB. The doors may be in sorry condition; however, unlike the replicated panels of the east facade, these porte are the real deal!
Arte di Calimala niche at Orsanmichele
This grain market-turned-sanctuary is one of the most unique churches in Florence and home to our next ode to SJB. The decoration of the exterior of the church was funded by the city’s guilds. The guild of Arte di Calimala (guild of the merchants) was fresh off of the success of financing Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. When it came time to decorate their niche at Orsanmichele, the Arte di Calimala decided to leverage Ghiberti’s talent once more to cast a bronze statue of their patron, SJB. The work, completed in 1416, wowed Florentines as it was the largest statue to be cast in a single piece up until that point. Although the original statue has since been brought upstairs to the museum (which is free when open), you can check out the replica in its original niche on the southeast corner of the exterior of the church.
Chiostro dello Scalzo
A favorite hidden gem of ours, the Chiostro dello Scalzo is a masterful mannerist fresco series hidden in a cloister right off of Via Cavour, just north of Piazza San Marco. The grisaille paintings by Andrea del Sarto illustrate scenes from the life of the Baptist–a fitting theme for confraternity so devoted to SJB, they called themselves “the barefooted.”
Plan a visit to the hauntingly beautiful scenes, devoid of color but pulsing with life, during its limited opening hours: Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 8:15 a.m.-1:50 p.m.
Piazza Santa Maria Sopr’Arno
Starting to think that the devotion to SJB died out with the Renaissance? Think again! Head to Piazza Santa Maria Sopr’Arno, along the south bank of the Arno, between the Ponte Vecchio and Ponte alle Grazie. Here you will find a 20th-century take on the city’s patron. In 1996, this bronze by Giuliano Vangi was installed in the piazza. The life-sized saint may appear a bit abstracted to our Renaissance-saturated eyes, but his gaunt physique, bare feet and animal skins makes for the most striking depiction yet.
Although the fireworks show may be over, it doesn’t mean that we have to forget about Florence’s favorite saint until next year. Instead, continue to celebrate the man, the myth and the Baptist year round like a proud Florentine would by taking note of his presence around town.