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Astronomical Heritage Finder

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International Astronomical Union

Short Description (ICOMOS-IAU Case Study format):
Baptistery of Parma, Italy

Presentation

Geographical position 
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Parma, Emilia Romagna, Italy

 

Location 
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Latitude 44° 48′ 10″ N, longitude 10° 19′ 50″ E. Elevation 62m above mean sea level.

 

General description 
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The Baptistery of Parma is a religious building in Parma, located adjacent to the Cathedral. It is one of the most important medieval monuments in Europe.

Fig. 1: The Baptistery of Parma. Photograph © Philip Schäfer, Creative Commons Licence

 

Brief inventory 
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The main axis (from the baptismal font to the altar) points to the rising sun on the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Feb 2). The patron saints of the Baptistery are the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist, and the episode of the Purification is also displayed in the inner lunettes. Other alignments indicate sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes and solstices.

Fig. 2: Groundplan of the Baptistery of Parma. Note the positions of solstitial and equinoctial sunrise and sunset, and the internal depictions of the zodiac and the seasons. After M. Incerti, “Architettura sacra medioevale ed archeoastronomia”, in L’Uomo Antico e il Cosmo, edited by F. Bertola, G. Romano and E. Proverbio, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Atti dei Convegni Lincei, 171), Rome, 2001, pp. 346–384, fig. 1

 

The solstitial direction (very close to the feast of St John the Baptist, Jun 24) is indicated by numerous elements found in the fifteenth sector: the bas-relief of St John the Baptist, the beginning of the Cycle of the months, the unexpected appearance of St John the Evangelist in the sector reserved for the Prophets, and the unique cross with leaves in the starry sky.

It is likely that the placement of the statues of the months and of Antelami’s zodiac were influenced by astronomical considerations. The annual cycle starts with summer solstice sunrise. The statue of spring is aligned with the equinoctial axis, although it is not positioned between the appropriate statues of the month. The anomalous position of spring (between Gemini and Cancer) can thus be explained on archaeoastronomical principles.

Fig. 3: Part of the Zodiac: Aries, Taurus and Gemini. Photograph © Manuela Incerti

 

On the feast of St John the Baptist (Jun 24) many light effects occur. The main baptismal font is struck by a ray of sunlight, while other events involve the smaller baptismal font and the altar.

Fig. 4: Sunlight falling on the Large Baptismal Font on the Feast of St John the Baptist. Photograph © Manuela Incerti

 

On the fifth level of the cupola, a ray of light strikes the painting of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan during the Easter period, beginning on Mar 25 and ending around Apr 10. This corresponds to the early church’s practice of only celebrating baptismal rites on a few days: Easter and Pentecost (movable fests), and the nearly-solstitial feasts of St John the Baptist, Epiphany and Christmas.

Fig. 5: Sunlight falling on the Baptism of Christ close to the equinoxes. Photograph © Manuela Incerti

 

History 
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The Cathedral was built in 1046 and rebuilt after an earthquake in 1117; the Baptistery was begun in 1196 under the direction of Benedetto Antelami, and completed in 1270.

 

Cultural and symbolic dimension 
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There are three different design aspects of the relationship between medieval architecture and the heavens that have influenced the history of humanity. The first is the alignment of buildings towards visible points on the horizon on certain days of the astronomical calendar or of the liturgical year, governed by the rising or setting of the sun, the moon, the planets, or the stars. The second is the three-dimensional relationship between the ground plan and the building elevations that can produce spectacular and impressive light effects (hierophanies) on certain days of the year. The third is decorative elements such as wall paintings, frescoes or statues, sometimes added long after the date of construction, carefully placed so as to catch a ray of light on a specific day. The Baptistery of Parma encapsulates examples of all three elements.

 

Authenticity and integrity 
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The baptistery meets the criteria of authenticity both as regards its medieval structure and the architectural conception, sculpture, and building materials.

 

Management

Present use 
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The baptistery is a church building, the property of the Diocese of Parma.

 

Protection 
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The site falls under the protection of national and municipal legislation concerning cultural heritage, respectively Decree n. 42/2004 (Codice per i beni culturali ed il paesaggio) and the Town Planning–Municipal Plan of Operation, which guarantees the conservation of its historic and artistic features.

 

State of conservation 
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The building is well preserved. The most recent restoration works were undertaken in 1988–92 (interior paintings and exterior marble) under the direction of the Ministero Beni Culturali (MIBAC).

 

Context and environment 
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The Baptistery is in the historic centre of the City of Parma, which is also a centre of tourism.

 

Management, interpretation and outreach 
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The building is open daily to tourists.

 

References

Bibliography (books and published articles) 
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  • Incerti M. (2001). “Architettura sacra medioevale ed archeoastronomia”, in L’Uomo Antico e il Cosmo, edited by F. Bertola, G. Romano and E. Proverbio, pp. 346–384. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Atti dei Convegni Lincei, 171).
  • Incerti M. (2001). “Antiche geometrie solari nel Battistero di Parma”, Arte Cristiana 805, 293–306.

 

Entity Data

Thematic essay: Medieval astronomy in Europe

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