Pitt Art Historian Franklin Toker to Discuss His Findings From Florence Duomo Project

Issue Date: 
September 16, 2013

One of the major archaeological campaigns of our times—the decades-long excavation below the iconic cathedral in Florence, Italy—has allowed University of Pittsburgh Professor of Art History Franklin Toker to rewrite history.

At the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, most commonly called the Duomo, Toker led excavation teams from 1970-74 and again in 1980, discovering new information about the tombs of great Italian artists Giotto and Filippo Brunelleschi, and unearthing the fact that Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, once lived as a guest in the Roman palace that preceded the church. Toker has now studied the site for four decades, and his ongoing research has been generating new understandings of Florentine history. He is documenting his findings in a four-volume Florence Duomo Project being published by Brepols Publishers.

Toker’s latest discovery will be the subject of a talk titled “Archaeological Evidence for the Origins of Christianity in Florence ” at noon Sept. 18, in Room 125, the auditorium of the Frick Fine Arts Building. It will be the first public explanation of his findings.

Toker’s lecture will focus on a horseshoe-shaped pool found during excavations in 1912 under the Baptistery of St. John that stands opposite the Duomo. Scholars, including Toker, had presumed that the pool was decorative or symbolic because its small size and minimal height could not accommodate baptism by immersion. In his reconsideration, Toker realized that another very common type of baptism, called "affusion" (pouring) was perfectly suited to the pool under the Baptistery.

“This summer, as I worked on volume three of my four volumes on the Florence Duomo and its surroundings, I determined that this was a baptismal pool, and that the Roman house of which it forms a part may have been a domus-ecclesia (house-church) and, quite possibly, the very beginnings of Christianity in Florence,” he said.

Toker first noted the pool in his second volume—Archaeological Campaigns Below the Florence Duomo and Baptistery, 1895-1980 (Brepols Publishers, 2013)—of the Florence Duomo Project. His reinterpretation of the pool as a baptismal font, along with a full reconstruction of his findings below the Baptistery, will appear in the third volume of the series, Reconstructing the Cathedral and Baptistery of Florence in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, scheduled to be published in 2014. The final volume in the series will be The Florence Duomo Excavations in the Light of History, forthcoming in 2016.

Toker teaches the history of cities and the history of medieval and American architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, but his publications touch many other fields. His Church of Notre-Dame in Montréal (McGill-Queen’s Press, 1991) won the Hitchcock Award of the Society of Architectural Historians and an article on Florence Cathedral in the Art Bulletin won him the Porter Prize of the College Art Association, making Toker one of the rare scholars to receive preeminent awards from both art and architectural historians.

A scholar of international reputation, Toker has served as president of the Society of Architectural Historians, the world's leading organization for the study and preservation of the built environment. Among his appointments was a membership at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and as a Guggenheim and National Endowments for the Humanities Fellow. He lectures frequently in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has also addressed scholars in India, China, and Japan.

Born in Montréal to a family that has lived for seven generations in French Canada, Toker holds degrees in the history of art from McGill University (B.A.), Oberlin College (M.A.), and Harvard University (PhD). A visiting professor at three Italian universities, Toker was given the particular distinction of being the first-ever non-Italian invited to teach the history of art at the University of Florence.

A specialist in the evolution of North American buildings and cities, as well as in the archaeology of Early Christian Italy, Toker has published nine books and numerous articles on topics ranging from a Roman house to Gothic architectural drawings and modern architecture. Toker’s books have been reviewed both in academic circles and in national publications like The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker. His books or articles have been translated into French, Italian, Chinese, and Czech and his Fallingwater Rising (Knopf, 2005) has been optioned as a feature-length film.