Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian: [loˈrɛntso ɡiˈbɛrti]; 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 Florence Baptistery, 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.
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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 di Michele, where Antonio del Pollaiolo also received 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.
Ghiberti's career was dominated by his two successive commissions for pairs of bronze doors to the Florence Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni). 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, with Brunelleschi as the runner up. The original plan was for the doors to depict scenes from the Old Testament, but the plan was changed to depict scenes from the New Testament instead. However, the trial piece made was of the sacrifice of Isaac and still survives.
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. These were more naturalistic, with perspective and a greater idealization of the subject. Dubbed "The Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo, this second set remains a major monument of the age of Renaissance humanism.
As recommended by Giotto, Andrea Pisano was awarded the commission to design the first set of doors at the Florence Baptistery in 1329. The south doors were originally installed on the east side facing the Duomo, and were transferred to their present location in 1452. 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. Pisano took six years to complete them, finishing in 1336. In 1453, Ghiberti and his son Vittorio were commissioned to add a door case to Pisano's existing panels. Ghiberti died in 1455, eight years before the frame was finished leaving a majority of the work to Vittorio and other members of his workshop. 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 South Doors were undergoing restoration during September, 2016.
In 1401, the Arte di Calimala (Cloth Importers Guild) announced a competition to design doors which would eventually be placed on the north side of the baptistry (the original location for these doors was the east side of the baptistry, but the doors were moved to the north side of the baptistry after Ghiberti completed his second commission, known as the "Gates of Paradise").
These new doors would serve as a votive offering to celebrate Florence being spared from relatively recent scourges such as the Black Death in 1348. Many artists competed for this commission and a jury selected seven semifinalists which included Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia. At the time of judging, only Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were finalists, and when the judges could not decide, they were assigned to work together on them. Brunelleschi's pride got in the way, and he went to Rome to study architecture leaving 23 year-old Ghiberti to work on the doors himself. Ghiberti's autobiography, however, claimed that he had won, "without a single dissenting voice." The original designs of The Sacrifice of Isaac by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi are on display in the museum of the Bargello in Florence.
It took Ghiberti 21 years to complete the 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 and were sculpted by Francesco Rustici. Rustici may have been aided in his design by Leonardo da Vinci, who assisted him in the choice of his tools.
After the completion of these doors, Ghiberti was widely recognized as a celebrity and the top artist in this field. He was given many commissions, including some from the pope. In 1425 he got a second commission for the Florence Baptistery, this time for the east doors, 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. They have ten panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament, and were in turn installed on the east side. The panels are large rectangles and were 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. "The Story of Joseph" portrays 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, with 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 considered exquisite, there are some known mistakes. For example, in panel 15 of the North Doors (Flagellation) the casting of the second column in the front row has been overlaid over an arm, so that one of the flagellators appears 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".
Ghiberti was commissioned to execute monumental gilded bronze statues for select niches of the Orsanmichele in Florence, one of Saint John the Baptist for the Arte di Calimala (Wool Merchants' Guild) and one of St. Matthew for the Arte di Cambio (Bankers' Guild). Finally, he also produced a bronze figure of St. Stephen for the Arte della Lana (Wool Manufacturers' Guild).
He was also a collector of classical artifacts and a historian. He was actively involved in the spreading of humanist ideas. His unfinished Commentarii are a valuable source of information about Renaissance art and contains what is considered the first autobiography of an artist. This work was a major source for Vasari's Vite. Ghiberti died in Florence at the age of seventy-seven.
Ghiberti's "Commentario" includes the earliest known surviving autobiography of an artist. He discusses the development of art from the time of Cimabue through to his own work. In describing his second bronze portal for the Florence Baptistry, he states: "In this work I sought to imitate nature as closely as possible, both in proportions and in perspective ... the buildings appear as seen by the eye of one who gazes on them from a distance." The language Ghiberti used to describe his art has proved invaluable to art historians in understanding the aims Renaissance artists were striving for in their artworks.
Paolo Uccello, who was commonly regarded as the first great master of perspective, worked in Ghiberti's workshop for several years, making it difficult to determine the extent to which Uccello's innovations in perspective were due to Ghiberti's instruction. Donatello, known for one of the first examples of central-point perspective in sculpture, also worked briefly in Ghiberti's workshop. It was also about this time that Paolo began his lifelong friendship with Donatello. In about 1413 one of Ghiberti's contemporaries, Filippo Brunelleschi, demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective used today by artists, by painting the outlines of various Florentine buildings onto a mirror. When the building's outline was continued, he noticed that all of the lines converged on the horizon line.
Recent scholarship indicates that in his work on perspective, Ghiberti was influenced by the Arab polymath Alhazen who had written about the optical basis of perspective in the early 11th century. His Book of Optics was translated into Italian in the 14th century as Deli Aspecti, and was quoted at length in Ghiberti's "Commentario terzo." Author A. Mark Smith suggests that, through Ghiberti, Alhazen's Book of Optics "may well have been central to the development of artificial perspective in early Renaissance Italian painting."
Gates of Paradise, Baptistery, Florence. The doors in situ are reproductions.
Angled view of a panel with the story of Abraham from the Florence Gates of Paradise (see above).
Tomb of Ghiberti in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence
It is noticeable nonetheless that the casting of one column has been mistakenly overlaid over a flagellator's arm, as it were trapping his hand.
|Brunelleschi & Ghiberti, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Smarthistory|