The Baptistery in Piazza Duomo, Città Alta, Bergamo must be the most peripatetic Baptistery in the world. It might not have travelled far but it moved often. Starting out inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore it was moved to two other places in the vicinity of the Piazza Duomo before ending up in its present location at the end of the 19th century.
It was designed in the 14th century by Giovanni da Campione. He was also commissioned to build the porch over the two, north and south, entrances to the Basilica as well as the ‘side’ entrance tucked away in a corner to the left of the red lions holding up the north porch.
I found it difficult to find out very much about Campione as the majority of work attributed to him seems to be connected to the already mentioned structures in Bergamo. It seems that all his efforts there took place in the period, roughly, between 1420 and the late 1460s. Where he came from, when he was born, where he went afterwards and when he died is still a mystery to me.
The Basilica lost its status as the baptismal church once the Cathedral was completed and that prompted the first move, out into the cold of the courtyard where it remained for a couple of hundred years before making its next couple of journeys.
It’s difficult to see the thinking of Campione in designing such a large structure to place inside the even larger Santa Maria Maggiore as it must have looked out-of-place from the start. Not only did he design the octagonal building, the statues on the outside (representing the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope and Charity; the Four Cardinal Virtues, Temperance, Justice, Prudence and Fortitude; with the addition of Patience to make the eight to fill the available niches) he created the marble bas-reliefs and statues inside as well as the font.
Considering its age and the number of times it has been moved it’s in a remarkably good condition, as can be witnessed by the intricate carved marble on the entrance arch.
Normally the building is not accessible unless being used for actual baptisms – when the private nature of the function means that visiting is not really on the cards. However, in my visit to Bergamo in May 2014 there seemed to be crowds of either Italian school children or pensioners going inside on private, guided visits almost every time I passed by.
During the first I came across, a school visit by primary children, I was able to get inside and have a look, quickly taking some pictures before the guide had the chance to break off from her talk to the children and throw me out. Unfortunately unless you are bare-faced and opportunistic there seems to be little opportunity to get a close-up look at Campione’s craftsmanship.
The colours inside, not unsurprisingly, mirror those on the outside. As well as a statue of John the Baptist, standing facing the font and the entrance under a bas-relief of The Crucifixion, there are seven other bas-reliefs in marble depicting the normal story of Christ from pre-conception to death.
The Piazza Duomo has grand buildings on all sides and the Baptistery is very much the smallest but it seems to fit into its present location and now looks as if it belongs where it took more than 500 years to arrive.