For 1600 years now, the center of Florentine religious life has been the area known, respectively, as "Piazza San Giovanni" and "Piazza del Duomo". This large, irregular square contains: the Baptistery of Saint John (1), the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) with the excavations of Santa Reparata (2), Giotto's Bell Tower (3), the Museum of the Opera del Duomo (4), the Cathedral Canonries (5), the Lay Confraternity of Mercy (6), the Bigallo Portico (7), the Archbishop's Palace (8), the Column of Saint Zanobius (9), and the Pisan porphyry columns (10).

Situated in the north-east corner of ancient Roman Florentia, this space evokes "the holy city ... the new Jerusalem" where "God lives among men", as described in the Christian Scriptures (Rev. 21, 1-3). The rich colors of the monuments, with bronze doors and statues, marble sculptures, mosaics and stained glass, offer a concrete vision of that promised future city whose walls are "built of jasper" and "faced with all kinds of precious stones" (Rev. 21, 18-19).

At the heart of the city of man, this "city of God" bears witness to the age-old belief in a solidarity between God and human beings: "he will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God" (Rev. 21, 3). The 18th-century print reproduced above, showing the Corpus Domini procession in the Square, gives strong expression to this solidarity between God and men.

 

Throughout many centuries during which it has served the needs of both Church and City, the Square has grown in size. Originally a modest cemetery surrounding the Baptistery, towards the end of the 13th century it began to assume the dimensions and shape that we see today. This growth was dictated by a need for public space in expanding medieval Florence a need which, in the same years determined an enlargement of the city walls as well as the construction of a new Town Hall and of monumental churches such as Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce and the Cathedral itself. In this period, the Square was enriched with social-service structures conceived in the spirit of the Gospel: the Lay Confraternity of Mercy, founded in 1244 and still active as a volunteer ambulance service; the Sodality and. later Orphanage of the Bigallo; the Hospital of Saint John (no longer extant).

 

The "miracle" of the flowering olm, in a 15th-century choir book from the Cathedral, now in the Laurentian Library.

 

At the same time, the Square became a repository for religious and civic memorials: the Column of Saint Zanobius, erected in 1384 on the spot where, in 429 A.D., a dead elm flowered in winter at the passage of the saint's remains as these were being transferred to the new Cathedral, Santa Reparata; the ancient porphyry columns to either side of the Gates of Paradise (originally these columns stood free, in the space between Baptistery and Duomo), given by Pisa in 1117 in recognition of Florentine aid during the Balearic War. In the 19th-century the Square was further enlarged when parts of the Canons' Residence, on the south side, and of the Archbishop's Palace, to the west, were demolished.