Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378 – 1 December 1455), born Lorenzo di Bartolo, was a Florentine Italian artist of the Early Renaissance best known as the creator of the bronze doors of the Baptistry of Florence Cathedral, called by Michelangelo the “Gates of Paradise”. Trained as a goldsmith and sculptor, he established an important workshop for sculpture in metal. His book of Commentari contains important writing on art, as well as what may be the earliest surviving autobiography by any artist.
Ghiberti was born in Pelago, 20 km from Florence. His father was Bartoluccio Ghiberti, an artist and goldsmith, who trained his son in goldsmithing. He then went to work in the Florence workshop of Bartoluccio de Michele, where Brunelleschi also got his training. When the bubonic plague struck Florence in 1400, Ghiberti emigrated to Rimini, where he assisted in the completion of wall frescoes of the castle of Carlo I Malatesta.
Baptistery of San Giovanni
Ghiberti’s career was dominated by his two successive commissions for pairs of bronze doors to the Battistero di San Giovanni or Florence Baptistery. They are recognized as a major masterpiece of the Early Renaissance, and were famous and influential from their unveiling. Ghiberti first became famous when as a 23 year-old he won the 1401 competition for the first set of bronze doors; Brunelleschi was the runner up. The original plan was for the doors to depict scenes from the Old Testament, and the trial piece was the sacrifice of Isaac, which survives. However, the plan was changed to depict scenes from the New Testament, instead.
To carry out this commission, he set up a large workshop in which many artists trained, including Donatello, Masolino, Michelozzo, Uccello, and Antonio Pollaiuolo. When his first set of twenty-eight panels was complete, Ghiberti was commissioned to produce a second set for another doorway in the church, this time with scenes from the Old Testament, as originally intended for his first set. Instead of twenty-eight scenes, he produced ten rectangular scenes in a completely different style. They were more naturalistic, with perspective and a greater idealization of the subject. Michelangelo dubbed these scenes the “Gates of Paradise.” “The Gates of Paradise” is a major monument of the age of Renaissance humanism.
Earlier doors by Andrea Pisano
As recommended by Giotto, Andrea Pisano was awarded the commission to design the first set of doors in 1329. The south doors were originally installed on the east side, facing the Duomo, and were transferred to their present location in 1452. This took six years, the doors being completed in 1336. These proto-Renaissance doors consist of 28 quatrefoil panels, with the twenty top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. The eight lower panels depict the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence. The moulded reliefs in the doorcase were added by Ghiberti in 1452. There is a Latin inscription on top of the door: “Andreas Ugolini Nini de Pisis me fecit A.D. MCCCXXX” (Andrea Pisano made me in 1330).
The bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery
It took Ghiberti 21 years to complete these doors. These gilded bronze doors consist of twenty-eight panels, with twenty panels depicting the life of Christ from the New Testament. The eight lower panels show the four evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine. The panels are surrounded by a framework of foliage in the door case and gilded busts of prophets and sibyls at the intersections of the panels. Originally installed on the east side, in place of Pisano’s doors, they were later moved to the north side. They are described by the art historian Antonio Paolucci as “the most important event in the history of Florentine art in the first quarter of the 15th century”.
The bronze statues over the northern gate depict John the Baptist preaching to a Pharisee and Sadducee. They were sculpted by Francesco Rustici and are superior to any sculpture he did before. Rustici may have been aided in his design by Leonardo da Vinci, who assisted him in the choice of his tools.
Ghiberti was now widely recognized as a celebrity and the top artist in this field. He was showered with commissions, even from the pope. In 1425 he got a second commission, this time for the east doors of the baptistry, on which he and his workshop (including Michelozzo and Benozzo Gozzoli) toiled for 27 years, excelling themselves. The subjects of the designs for the doors were chosen by Leonardo Bruni d’Arezzo, then chancellor of the Republic of Florence. These had ten panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament, and were in turn installed on the east side. The panels are large rectangles and are no longer embedded in the traditional Gothic quatrefoil, as in the previous doors. Ghiberti employed the recently discovered principles of perspective to give depth to his compositions. Each panel depicts more than one episode. In “The Story of Joseph” is portrayed the narrative scheme of Joseph Cast by His Brethren into the Well, Joseph Sold to the Merchants, The merchants delivering Joseph to the pharaoh, Joseph Interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream, The Pharaoh Paying him Honour, Jacob Sends His Sons to Egypt and Joseph Recognizes His Brothers and Returns Home. According to Vasari’s Lives, this panel was the most difficult and also the most beautiful. The figures are distributed in very low relief in a perspective space (a technique invented by Donatello and called rilievo schiacciato, which literally means “flattened relief”.) Ghiberti uses different sculptural techniques, from incised lines to almost free-standing figure sculpture, within the panels, further accentuating the sense of space.
The panels are included in a richly decorated gilt framework of foliage and fruit, many statuettes of prophets and 24 busts. The two central busts are portraits of the artist and of his father, Bartolomeo Ghiberti.
Although the overall quality of the casting is exquisite, some mistakes have been made. For example, in panel 15 of the North Doors (Flagellation) the casting of the second column in the front row has been mistakenly overlaid over an arm, so that one of the flagellators looks trapped in stone, with his hand sticking out of it.
Michelangelo referred to these doors as fit to be the “Gates of Paradise” (It. Porte del Paradiso), and they are still invariably referred to by this name. Giorgio Vasari described them a century later as “undeniably perfect in every way and must rank as the finest masterpiece ever created”. Ghiberti himself said they were “the most singular work that I have ever made”.
Gates of Paradise | Lorenzo Ghiberti, Story of Abel and Cain
1. Adam and Eve
The Adam and Eve Panel documents Ghiberti’s earliest work on the doors and features a splendid depiction of nude figures in a landscape set off by angelic hosts. Ghiberti combined four major episodes from the story of Adam and Eve into this harmonious panel. The creation of Adam, illustrated in the foreground on the far left, shows Adam in a state of semiconsciousness, rising in response to God’s life-giving touch. In the center, as angels look on, God forms Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. The temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent is shown in the background on the left, while the right side of the panel depicts the couple’s expulsion from Eden. Subtle shifts in the scale of the figures reinforce discrete episodes in the story of the Creation. Ghiberti modulated the scale and degree of projection of the angels to visually separate the four scenes.
2. Cain and Abel
5. Isaac with Esau and Jacob
In the Jacob and Esau Panel, Ghiberti employed a new system of linear perspective to construct the narrative. He arranged the episodes of the story around a vanishing point framed by the central arch of a Renaissance loggia. This panel, with its nearly three-dimensional foreground figures, masterful use of scientific perspective, and impressive architecture, shows that the artist was at the vanguard of Florentine illusionism and storytelling. In the panel, Jacob obtains the birthright of his elder brother, Esau, and the blessing of their father, Isaac, thus becoming the founder of the Israelites. Rebekah is shown giving birth to the twins beneath the arcade on the far left. On the rooftop in the upper right, Ghiberti depicted her receiving the prophecy of her sons’ future conflict.
Framed inside the central arch, Esau sells his rights as firstborn to Jacob, who offers his hungry brother a bowl of soup in exchange. In the front center of the panel, Isaac sends Esau hunting, and, in the right foreground, Jacob kneels before the blind Isaac, who, feeling a hairy goatskin on Jacob’s back, believes him to be Esau and mistakenly gives him the blessing due to the eldest son.
In the David Panel, Ghiberti illustrated the young David’s victory over the giant Goliath. David is shown in the foreground cutting off the giant’s head after knocking him down with a stone. Above this episode, King Saul—clearly labeled and elevated over the fighting Israelites and Philistines—leads his troops in a rout of the enemy. A cleft in the mountains beyond reveals David and his followers carrying Goliath’s head in triumph toward Jerusalem.
10. Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
South and north doors
Original publication: Art in Tuscany