Why Now is the Time to Visit the Florence Baptistery (Yes, Even if You've Been)

| Wed, 02/15/2023 - 07:20
scaffolding at the restoration site of the florence baptistery mosaics

For the first time since the turn of the 20th century, the magnificent mosaics lining the cupola (dome) of the Romanesque-style Florence Baptistery are undergoing restoration, and interested visitors can view the process at eye level beginning February 24.

The tiles

Detail of a mosaic depicting the birth of Saint John the Baptist
Detail of mosaic depicting the birth of Saint John the Baptist / Photo courtesy of Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore

Some 10 million glistening polychrome tiles cover the dome of the Baptistery, composing intricate scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist and from the Last Judgment, including a depiction of Satan devouring a trio of sinners. The latter image was likely the inspiration for Dante Alighieri’s vision of hell in The Divine Comedy. (Dante himself was reportedly christened in the Baptistery.)

Set against a backdrop of gold, the tesserae (small tiles) measure between 5 and 20 millimeters on each side. The original work is believed to have been carried out by local artisans, alongside the likes of such Florentine artists as Cimabue and Coppo di Marcovaldo. 

The restoration

Worksite of Florence Baptistery mosaic restoration
Scene from the worksite / Photo by Francesco degli Innocenti - FDI Photography Studio

Centuries of damage from water and earthquakes have taken their toll on the dome’s structural stability and have compromised the tiles’ adhesion to the vault. 

While a refurbishment of the interior walls and the scarsella (apse) of the Baptistery took place in July 2022, the ceiling mosaics have not been repaired — nor even studied up close — since the last long-haul restoration, which was carried out by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure from 1898-1907. After a cleaning of the tessellated surface in its entirety, the current restoration will focus primarily on consolidation of tesserae glass and stone, overall adhesion, and suturing of cracks and gaps.

Rather than shut down the Baptistery or obscure the mosaics from view, officials instead designed a mushroom-shaped scaffolding structure that gives restorers access to the 1,000-square meter of mosaics, while also providing a 618-square meter walkable viewing platform for the public. (This is the second major recent restoration in Florence that has allowed visitors to engage with the process so directly, with the site visits to the 2022 Brancacci Chapel restoration perhaps setting a trend.)

Samuele Caciagli, the architect in charge of the restoration site, said in a statement, “The structure was completed on time and is now ready to do its job: Allowing the public to see the progression of the work, and the details of such a splendid decorative mosaic cycle [...] The work being done will allow us to hand down this monumental testimony to future generations, fully respecting the principles of restoration.” 

Despite their splendor, the mosaics aren’t the Baptistery’s main draw for most of the Duomo complex's one million-plus annual visitors. The baptistery, an octagonal building of white Carrara and green Prato marble, is more famed for its three bronze doors. As one of the oldest religious buildings in Florence, the current structure dates back to around the 4th or 5th century CE and stands opposite the Cathedral and campanile (bell tower). 

If you go

Battistero di San Giovanni - Florence Baptistery
Piazza del Duomo, Florence
Entrance from the North Gate (Via Martelli)
Open: 8.30am to 7.45pm. Closed at 2pm the first Sunday of the month.
To book a visit: Slots are open beginning February 24. Booking will soon be possible via the Opera del Duomo di Firenze website.
Contact: booking@duomo.firenze.it