Monday, 10 June 2013

Brown's Inferno and a Theoretical Analysis of the San Giovanni Baptistery

In my last post, I made a brief analysis of Rosslyn Chapel and contemplated the storyline of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  After the recent release of Inferno, I would like to follow up with a post on the San Giovanni Baptistery (SGB) in Florence. I was very fortunate during my MSc to take a Renaissance course with Dr. Jill Burke where we spent eight days in Florence visiting art historical sites and partaking in seminars in nearby Prado. While there I made several visits to SGB, thus increasing my liking of Brown’s use of the building in his novel. Taking cue from Samuel’s last post on perceptions, I would like to discuss in this post how Brown perceives the imagery of SGB, and follow with my own thoughts on the building. Brown has used SGB as a stage for his Dante theme, but I believe there is more to be told in the numerological qualities of the structure than Brown reveals in his publication.

Brown uses the imagery of the SGB and the neighboring Duomo in his story to emphasize Dante’s Purgatorio, the nine-layered mountain of suffering and spiritual growth before reaching Eden.  As Robert Langdon & Sienna (his new female companion) enter SGB, Robert looks to the glittering ceiling and notes the “multitiered representation of heaven & hell, very much like the depiction in The Divine Comedy.”[1] Similar perhaps, but not a true likeness. SGB was in fact the location of Dante’s baptism, and as a native of Florence, he likely frequented the building in the process of writing. I agree that Dante was potentially inspired by the tesserae ceiling of SGB, but Dante’s Purgatorio consists of nine levels, where the mosaics of SGB are set in six or seven registers(depending on if you count the “oculi” as a layer, on right). The nine-tiered “cosmic mountain” is a creation of Dante’s and was not featured in art until after the release of his publication. The mosaics depict the life of Mary, Joseph and Christ, including The Last Judgement. The three-headed Satan in this scene is also similar to Dante’s, perhaps serving as further evidence as inspiration for the publication. I consider the inclusion of a known Dante site successful, but it should be noted that the ceiling is NOT a representation of Dante’s Purgatory, but an influence for his written work.

Dante's Nine-Layered Purgatory
Satan in the SGB mosaic

7-registers of SGB mosaic, Octagonal frame

Although the mosaics are the true treasure of this structure and a fine tie into Brown’s novel, I can’t help but note the geometrical and numerological features of the structure over the tesserae. Nine may be the magical number of Dante, but it is not the number to be searching for at SGB. The first feature to be noted is that the building, including the roof which supports the mosaic, is octagonal. Eight is a reference to God’s infinite power as the figure 8 is infinity when turned on its side. Eight is also commonly seen in Christian art in reference to God’s creation of heaven and earth on the Sabbath, followed by the eighth day in which Christians were reborn through baptism. Also to be considered is the flooding of the world where Noah rescued eight people on his Ark, an event considered a “mass baptism.” This would have been ideal reference for Brown to have made as his “villain” attacks by means of water to cleanse what he considers to be an overpopulated earth. Brown may not have taken advantage of SGB's symbolic numbers, but Dante, "who [was] versed in geometric lore,"  likely admired the features I have noticed. [2]

Seven is also a number of interest. As mentioned earlier, the ceiling is made of seven registers depicting the life of Mary, Joseph, and Christ. Seven is significant in Dante’s Purgatory as he uses the Seven Deadly Sins to make up the first seven layers of his cosmic mountain, but in the case of SGB, the number seven is not likely related to the Seven Deadly Sins. I find it more likely that the use of seven registers in the mosaic refers to the Seven Virtues, the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Menorah (which is seven-lamped), or perhaps Peter asking Jesus to forgive those who have sinned against him seven times. There is no evidence to prove one idea over another, but I am partial to the reference to the Menorah. The Menorah symbolizes universal enlightenment. The seven candle holders represent the branches of human knowledge. I prefer this reference because of the lantern that tops the baptistery. The emission of light atop the octagon potentially represents the eternal light of God. This is of course all theoretical, but the potential symbolism is intriguing and poetic; the seven branches of knowledge are lit eternally by the power of Christ.
Exterior of SGB

Although Brown has made a nice link between SGB and Dante for the sake of his novel, there is much to be uncovered in the images and format of the building. My suggestions in this post just scratch the surface of potential meanings within layout and art of this building. Brown has thus proven that the structure has served as inspiration and been interpreted by many individuals for centuries, including Dante, including Brown, and now myself.


[1] Brown, Dan. Inferno: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2013. 239. Print.
[2] "Paradise. Canto XXXIII. Dante Alighieri. 1909-14. The Divine Comedy. The Harvard Classics." Paradise. Canto XXXIII. Dante Alighieri. 1909-14. The Divine Comedy. The Harvard Classics. Bartleby Online Books, n.d. Web. 10 June 2013.

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