Located close to Piazza Jacopo delle Quercia, and flanked by the remains of what should have been the New Dome of Siena and by the majestic stairs which lead to the Siena Cathedral, the Baptistery of Saint John strikes by the contrast between the plain never completed facade and the opulent decorations inside. Combining Gothic lines and beautiful Renaissance touches, Battistero di San Giovanni is a stop you cannot miss out while in Siena, especially if you want to search in depth the attractions cramming in Terzo di Citta.
Supposedly built by Camaino di Crescentino somewhere between 1310 and 1320, the baptistery was never actually completed, at least from the point of view of its exterior outline. Most of the works carried out by the early 20th century were of decorative nature and chiefly focusing on embellishing the inside of this place of worship. Little affected by the historical events which have shattered Siena in time, this place of worship delivers you the exquisite experience of an original medieval gem.
There’s little to say about the exterior of il Battistero simply because there’s little to see to it. Not at all modest, but rather plain do to its never having been completed, the facade hints on the Gothic design envisaged, somewhere in the mid-14th century, by Domenico di Agostino. For whatever reason, the authorities of the city never resumed the project of having the facade completed. But don’t fret: what the baptistery lacks in exterior outlook it makes up in interior opulence.
The interior of the baptistery is praised as one of the finest expressions of the Sienese Renaissance art.
The ceilings of the structure (a nave with two aisles) and the upper walls are all frescoed with such artistry that it’s hard to remain untouched. Vecchietta (the pseudonym of the Siena-born Lorenzo di Pietro) is the artist commissioned, in 1450, to do the job, but he, with the help of his apprentices, only covered the central vaults. The murals depict Creed-inspired scenes, each scene (12 of them, arranged counterclockwise) being flanked by the image of a prophet or of an apostle.
The ceilings above the counter-facade are, however, by Agostino di Marsiglio, and they render the crowned Apostles. Another Bologna-born artist who contributed to the patrimony of the baptistery was Michele di Matteo Lambertini, who depicted scenes of inspired from the life of Jesus (Jesus Praying in the Garden, Crucifixion and Lamentation over Jesus at the Tomb).
Other artists commissioned to work to the baptistery were Benvenuto di Giovanni di Meo del Guasta (with his Miracles of Saint Anthony from Padua carried out in 1460), Pietro di Francesco degli Orioli (the fresco adorning the spacious right lunette, realized in 1489, depicting the Washing of the Feet), Giuseppe Catani Chiti (the scene of the Immaculate Conception with Saints Joseph, Anne, Elizabeth, and Paul the Apostle, adorning the altar triptych, realized in 1896). The scene of the Baptism of Jesus on the high altar is by Alessandro Franchi, was painted no sooner than 1907.
The centerpiece and the highlight of the baptistery is the impressive hexagonal baptismal font, carved in marble and adorned with sculptures by some of the most brilliant artists of the Italian Renaissance. Each side of the font depicts a scene from the life of John the Baptist in an attempt to capture in stone the essential moments of the life of the saint.
The story written, as it were, in stone, begins with a panel by Jacopo della Quercia (1429) which depicts the prophecy of the birth of the Baptist (the Annunciation to Zacharias). The next two panels were realized by Turino di Sano and his son, Giovanni, focusing on the Birth of the Baptist and on the Preaching of the Baptist (finally delivered in 1427, though works began in 1418). Lorenzo Ghiberti delivered, in 1427, the Baptism of Jesus, masterly carried out with a technique called stiacciato. The same year, the great Florentine also delivered the Capture of Saint John. Most critics and visitors agree Donatello’s panel (also in 1427) is the most moving of all, given both the emotional substance of the scene (Feast of Herod) and the artistry of the work (apparently, Donatello made use of the same stiacciato technique).
The table below lists all information on the address of the Baptistery, opening hours, ticket prices and reservations. Keep in mind that owning the so-called Opa Si Pass allows you to visit all of the sections of the cathedral and other must-sees of Siena (Duomo Nuovo, il Duomo and Museo dell’Opera included) at only half the price you should otherwise pay inclusively if you chose to visit the attractions separately.
Opening hours and ticket prices are subject to modification, so you are redirected to the official website of the Baptistery in order to keep posted with the updated information.
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