Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 25, 2005
Andrea Longhi, ed. L’architettura del battistero: Storia e Progetto Milan: Skira, 2004. 264 pp.; 176 b/w ills. Cloth €32.00 (8884912571)

The sacrament of baptism is the most fundamental initiation rite of Christianity. In the earliest centuries of Christian worship, it was a lustration that welcomed new converts into the church. During the Middle Ages baptism was typically performed only on Easter and Pentecost; rules that the rite should be performed during these two feasts held sway until the twelfth century. Baptism, like most rituals, evolved gradually over time, and eventually it assumed a new significance linked to the notion of salvation rather than conversion. By the eleventh century, the ritual was performed not only on Easter or Pentecost, but also immediately after the birth of a child. If a child did not survive infancy, he or she would still have been promised a place in heaven and would not spend time in the Limbo of Children if baptism had been performed before his or her death.

In central and northern Italy, the advent and then dominance of infant baptism were accompanied by the erection of architectural structures built specifically to house the performance of the baptismal rites. Between 1000 and 1600 many towns in Italy, including Florence, Pisa, Siena, Bergamo, Cremona, and Parma, oversaw the construction and decoration of magnificent new baptisteries that stood independently from other religious edifices. In other parts of Italy, the eleventh century marked the beginning of the gradual eradication of freestanding baptisteries; in later centuries, several other types of built spaces also housed the rite. By the seventeenth century, for example, baptism was frequently carried out in chapels in parish churches. While the nature and evolution of the baptismal rite have been investigated (for the medieval period, see Peter Cramer, Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages, c. 200–c. 1150 [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993]), the overall development of the baptismal structure in Italy during the Early Christian, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and modern periods—whether it stood as an autonomous building or was located inside a church—has received relatively little scholarly attention.

An analysis of the evolving forms and functions of Italian baptisteries and baptismal chapels lies at the heart of L’architettura del battistero. Storia e progetto, edited by Andrea Longhi and under review here. But the text is not strictly limited to an investigation of the appearance and use of the structures, and the essays that make up the book necessarily cover a wide variety of issues related to the evolution of the ritual of baptism and the development of structures that served as the setting for the rite. The text is divided into three broad sections: essays in the first section, “Percorsi di indagine storica: archeologia, liturgia, architettura,” form the core of the book and collectively examine the development of baptism and of baptismal edifices between the third and nineteenth centuries; the second section, “Contributi per la progettazione,” focuses largely on the baptismal rite and the baptistery structure in modern Italy; and the short but useful third section, “Repertori,” offers an extensive and useful bibliography, as well as a listing of documents regarding the significance and performance of the rite from a variety of conciliar and postconciliar sources.

Vincenzo Gatti’s essay (“Battesimo, mistero dell’acqua nella storia della Salvezza: le Scritture, i Padri, la liturgia,” 17–31) on biblical, patristic, and liturgical discussions and interpretations of the significance of the water used in the rite opens the first section and functions well as a general introduction to the text. The majority of the remaining essays in this first part—those by Paolo Demeglio, Carlo Tosco, Marco Frati, Andrea Longhi, Cecilia Castiglioni, and Carlo Ostorero—deal with the evolution of architectural structures used for baptism over time. The first section also contains Gaetano Barracane’s brief excursus (55–61) on illustrated rolls made for the cathedral of Bari in the eleventh century on which are inscribed the Exultet prayer and the Benedictional. Barracane’s largely descriptive analysis stands apart from the other contributions in this section because it studies not any architectural structure, but unusual images in the rolls, including the blessing of the paschal candle, a procession to the baptismal font, and the blessing of the baptismal water.

Demeglio’s essay, “ ‘Unus fons, unus spiritus, una fides’: dalle soluzioni delle origini agli sviluppi altomedievali” (33–53), which treats multiple aspects of the evolution of the baptismal structure between the third and tenth centuries, presents a nuanced picture of the development of urban and rural baptisteries and their placement in cities and in the countryside. A general strength of this volume is the authors’ citation of disparate and sometimes-obscure buildings, and Demeglio marshals evidence from an impressively wide variety of textual, visual, and archaeological sources and refers to a number of geographic sites and structures located throughout Italy. Frati’s essay (“Lo spazio del battesimo nelle campagne medievali,” 85–103) explores the way rural baptisteries built in Italy between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries looked and, through an analysis that is more descriptive than interpretive, examines their shapes and the appearance of their fonts, as well as a number of surviving decorative schemes.

Tosco and Longhi consider the evolution of the baptismal structure in light of broader social and religious developments during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Tosco’s essay (“Dal battistero alla cappella battesimale: trasformazioni liturgiche e sociali tra Medioevo e Rinascimento,” 63–83) traces the civic and social significance of baptism and baptismal edifices during the late medieval and Renaissance eras and links changing perceptions of baptism to the evolution of architectural structures built throughout Italy to house the rite. Tosco calls attention to the upsurge in baptistery construction in northern and central Italy during the periods he surveys, and rightly connects it to the rapid urban development of the late Middle Ages, to the continuing significance of baptism, and to the institutional influence of late medieval Italian bishoprics. Longhi’s contribution (“Battisteri e scena urbana nell’Italia comunale,” 105–27) centers on the monumental baptisteries built in the central and northern Italian communes between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, and systematically describes decorative and architectural characteristics of such buildings. Like Tosco, Longhi offers explanations as to why monumental baptisteries were built in some Italian cities while remaining conspicuously absent in others; the construction of freestanding baptisteries in northern and central Italy, Longhi proposes, was a response not only, and not even primarily, to changes in the liturgy of baptism but also to the structures’ increasing role in civic and social life. And, as Longhi further and rightly stresses, their social and civic function conditioned their appearance, their placement in the city, and the function and meaning of their decorative elements. Castiglioni’s essay (“La riforma cattolica tridentina e la stagione del Barocco: la marginalizzazione del ruolo del battistero,” 129–39) outlines the evolution of the baptismal rite in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and relates the erection of baptismal chapels in parish churches, and the discontinuation of the construction of independent baptisteries, to changes in the baptismal rite that were instituted as a result of the Counter Reformation; the increasingly private nature of the rite led to the construction of more intimate chapels. The first section ends with Ostorero’s brief discussion (“Lo spazio per il battesimo dai revival ottocenteschi al movimento liturgico preconciliare,” 141–47) of baptismal fonts built in the nineteenth century and his consideration of them in light of architectural eclecticism in Europe during this period.

The second major section, “Contributi per la progettazione,” focuses on the baptismal ritual and baptisteries in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Italy. This section is both descriptive and prescriptive: in addition to a discussion of the post–Vatican II rite and an examination of proposals and designs for existing baptisteries, it contains suggestions for potential approaches to the design of new baptismal structures. Current approaches to baptismal construction, and the mode of forging new types of baptismal edifices in modern Italy, are the subject of an essay by Paolo Mauro Sudano (“Il battistero nella chiesa contemporanea,” 165–89); Sudano focuses on structures designed by the twentieth-century Italian architects Giovanni Michelucci and Glauco Gresleri. Silvano Maggiani (“L’iniziazione cristiana: dalla ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ al ‘Rito del Battesimo dei bambini’ e al ‘Rito dell’iniziazione cristiana degli adulti,’ ” 151–63) scrutinizes in particular the liturgical reforms of Vatican II related to baptism, as well as those formulated after 1965, while Lamberto Crociani (“Battistero: una struttura architettonica per l’oggi, che ‘dice’ la chiesa. Per una progettazione dell’edificio battesimale,” 191–205) evaluates the place of the baptistery structure in modern Italy and proposes new ways to restore the significance of baptism through liturgy and architecture. Fabrizio Capanni’s related essay (“Temi iconografici per il battistero e la sua decorazione: memoria e innovazione,” 207–23) briefly surveys historical approaches to the presentation of baptismal iconography in decorative cycles and suggests possible modes of decorating modern baptismal structures with similar schemes. The last essay (“Il battesimo dei credenti: l’esperienza battista in Italia,” 225–29), by Franco Scaramuccia, explores the Baptist church in modern Italy and looks at the spaces built to serve as backdrops for the performance of rites in modern Baptist churches. The volume concludes with a section that includes relevant bibliography and transcriptions of portions of documents from conciliar and postconciliar sources regarding the performance and theological basis of the baptismal rite.

The greatest achievement of this volume is its clear presentation of the global evolution of baptismal architecture: the essays collectively examine buildings and structures built over a period of approximately two thousand years, and the volume thus provides a remarkably comprehensive description of the general evolution of edifices built in connection with the performance of the baptismal rite. In order to produce such a complete picture of this overall development, however, the authors frequently attempt to describe in their analyses as many examples as space permits, and certain essays—those by Frati and Longhi, for example—read in parts more like listings of data than critical analyses.

While the usefulness of this volume lies primarily in its comprehensiveness, one hopes it will additionally encourage the focused study of individual buildings, and perhaps in particular the magnificent and singular examples completed and decorated during the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance periods in Italy. Baptisteries and baptismal structures play significant roles in the history of art and architecture; moreover, they held, and continue to occupy, an essential place in the spiritual landscapes of Christian believers. Since rituals like baptism allow for the expression and acknowledgment of emotions in a controlled setting, baptisteries and baptismal structures function as places where art, architecture, and emotions—anticipation, wonder, and, hope—intersect. Studies such as L’architettura del battistero thus potentially reveal as much about the affective history of men and women as they do about the history of architecture and art.

Amy R. Bloch
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University at Albany, State University of New York

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