Italy's biggest baptistery (104m/341 ft. in circumference) was begun in 1153 by Diotisalvi, who gave it its lower Romanesque drum. Nicola and Giovanni Pisano "Gothicized" the upper part from 1277 to 1297 and Cellino di Nese capped it with a Gothic dome in the 1300s. Most of the exterior statues and decorative elements by Giovanni Pisano are now kept in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo , and only a few have been replaced here with casts. It may not look it, but if you include the statue on top, this building is actually taller than the Leaning Tower across the square. The interior is surprisingly plain but features the first of the great Pisano pulpits as well as a large baptismal font, carved and inlaid by the idiosyncratic Guido Bigarelli da Como and sprouting a 20th-century statue of St. John.
Nicola Pisano was the founder of a great line of Gothic sculptors who liberated their art from the static iconography of medievalism to a new level of dynamic action and intense expressiveness that would influence Ghiberti and Donatello and so pave the road for the Renaissance. The pulpit Nicola carved for the baptistery (1255-60) is his masterpiece and the prototype for a series he and his son Giovanni carried out over the years (the last, Giovanni's greatest work, is in Pisa's Duomo; the other two are in Pistoia and Siena). Heavily influenced by classical works -- including the Roman sarcophagi and Greek vase now in the Camposanto -- Nicola's high-relief panels (a synopsis of Christ's life) include pagan gods converted to Christianity as Madonnas and saints.
The other main attraction of the baptistery is its renowned acoustics. When it's crowded in summer, you may have to bribe a guard to warble, but when there are fewer people (come early in the morning), lean over the ropes to get as near to center as possible and let fly a clear loud note, listening to it echo around the room as it fades. Even better, sing two notes a half-octave apart and listen for their echoing atonal mingling. When a choir sings here, you can hear it for miles.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Highly Recommended 2010