Whether this is a standard arrangement or not I do not know, but in August of 2020 the beautiful octagonal baptistery of Pistoia could be visited for free. The edifice stands opposite the cathedral of the city and inside one can book guided tours for the bell-tower of the Duomo and the famous silver altar of San Jacopo. The full name of the baptistery is that of San Giovanni in Corte. The name is a relic from the Longobard era (568-774), when a small church or chapel bearing the same name stood on this spot. Apparently the church had strong ties to the Longobard administration of Pistoia, which explains the connection with the ‘court’ (Corte). Upon his death in 1153, bishop Atto – who would later be canonised – was buried in the San Giovanni in Corte, but in 1337 his body was translated to the cathedral just across the square. At the time the construction of the baptistery on the spot of the old church or chapel must have already been in full swing.
Construction of the baptistery started in 1301 or 1303. Several architects worked on the new building for approximately six decades. Depending on the source, various end dates for the project are proposed, but the baptistery must have been completed between 1359 and 1366. The building is about forty metres high and has a roof in the shape of a pyramid. The bell-tower of the Duomo offers a particular fine view of this roof, which is topped by an octagonal lantern. The baptistery somewhat resembles the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, but it is much younger and was not built in the Romanesque but in the Gothic style. The exterior of the building is entirely covered in bands of white and green marble. Next to the main entrance we see an external pulpit which was used to address crowds in the Piazza del Duomo.
Surrounding the main entrance of the baptistery is a portal with splendid sculpted decorations. The portal starts out wide and eventually gets more narrow towards the back. The capitals have been embellished with very detailed sculptural work and in the lunette above the main entrance we see statues of a Madonna and Child, Saint John the Baptist (on the left) and Saint Peter (on the right). These are attributed to Nino and Tommaso Pisano, sons of the much more famous Andrea Pisano (ca. 1290-1348), the man responsible for the first set of doors for the baptistery in Florence. Below the statues we see four reliefs with scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist, including Salome’s dance. She was the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas and together with her mother Herodias persuaded Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded by a guard. “He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother”, according to Mark 6:27-28. This scene and the subsequent burial of John have been depicted on the reliefs.
After entering the baptistery, visitors may be in for a slight disappointment. It almost looks as if all financial means had been spent after completing the exterior of the building, as the interior of the baptistery has preciously few decorations. All we see is brick, brick and even more brick. Exceptions include a statue of Saint John the Baptist by Andrea Vaccà (1660/65-after 1745) and a wooden altar that does not seem to belong here at all and was originally set up in the church of the Madonna dell’Umiltà elsewhere in Pistoia. I must admit that the baptismal font is splendid though. It is in fact a plunge pool that was used to baptise people by full immersion. The pool has a square exterior and a circular interior. Two inscriptions give away the name of the sculptor and the year of completion: Lanfranco da Como, 1226. This indicates that the pool was already used in the church or chapel of San Giovanni in Corte, as it is several decades older than the baptistery itself.