Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455)
The Florentine sculptor, designer and goldsmith, Lorenzo Ghiberti, was an important artist of the Early Renaissance. In the sculpture of the quattrocento period, in Florence, he was superceded only by his genius pupil Donatello (1386-1466), and had a fine grasp of antique forms although critics allege that he was over-influenced by the International Gothic idiom and lacked the very deep appreciation of classical art possessed by Donatello and his two great contemporaries Tommaso Masaccio (1401-1428) and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446).
One of the great figures in Italian Renaissance sculpture, Ghiberti is best known for his two sets of sculptural reliefs made for the doors of the Baptistry in Florence, a task which occupied him for much of his life: the first set (1403-24) and the second set - the so-called "Gates of Paradise" (1425-52).
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His autobiography (the first to be written by a Western artist) starts with his professional debut in 1400, when he left Florence for Pesaro to paint murals for Pandolfo Malatesta. He had been trained in goldsmithing in the studio-workshop of Bartoli di Michele, known as Bartoluccio.
Ghiberti returned to Florence in 1401 upon receiving news of the competition announced by the Arte di Calimala (cloth guild) for the commission of a new bronze door to the Baptistery, to match the one completed by Andrea Pisano in 1338. It involved casting a specimen panel in relief on the Biblical subject of the Sacrifice of Isaac. The Florentine Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the outstanding Siena sculptor Jacopo della Quercia (1374-1438), and Ghiberti were among the seven finalists. Ghiberti, the youngest, won; a comparison between his competition relief and Brunelleschi's (the only two to survive: both in the Museo Nazionale, Florence) suggests he deserved to do so. Artistically more mature than his rival's and technically more advanced, it already establishes his taste for figures all'antica (in the antique manner) - the nude kneeling figure of Isaac derives from an antique torso. In fact, the relief combines a mixture of Classical and Gothic influence which was, in varying measures, to persist in his art to the end.
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When the contract for the new Baptistery door was eventually signed in 1403, a New Testament program of 28 quatrefoil panels, arranged four in a row, was stipulated. The work, which was interrupted by other commissions, spanned two decades. Ghiberti's workshop increased in size during this period. In 1407 he was employing 11 assistants, and later he added more - Donatello (1386-1466), Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), Michelozzo, and Benozzo Gozzoli among them. It was the largest and most influential sculptor's workshop in Florence during the first half of the 15th century.
By about 1415 most of the quatrefoil reliefs had been cast. The frame surrounding them was done afterwards. There were 48 heads of prophets at its corners (many derived from Roman sculpture), and the bronze jambs and lintel were foliated with wild flowers, pine cones, and hazel nuts. It was not until April 1424 that the Baptistery north door was finally installed. Ghiberti, who had begun it as a young man, was now in his mid-40s.
Meanwhile he had undertaken other commissions: designs for stained glass (for Florence Cathedral), papal miters, and jewellery. Three Florentine guilds had commissioned him to produce three bronze statues for the exterior niches of the guild church of Or San Michele: John the Baptist (1413-14); St Matthew (1419-22); and St Stephen (1425-29). The first of these was predominantly International Gothic in style; the second was Classical (influenced by Donatello and Nanni di Banco); and the third synthesized the two. Technically, all three show Ghiberti's unrivalled mastery of large-scale casting in bronze.
A number of shallow, bronze reliefs belong to the same years: the two reliefs for the Baptismal Font of Siena (1420-7), the tomb plaque of Leonardo Dati (1425-7; S.Maria Novella, Florence), and the shrine of Saints Protus, Hyacinth, and Nemesius (Museo Nazionale, Florence). Their growing pictorial accomplishment culminates in the four superb reliefs of the shrine of St Zenobius (1432-42; Florence Cathedral); the Classical nature of this relief sculpture reflects Ghiberti's visit to Rome (1425-30). The visit profoundly influenced the new style he developed during the 1430s, as exemplified in the new Florence Baptistery door commissioned by the Arte di Cali mala in 1425 (eight months after the north door had been installed).
Ghiberti claimed he had been given carte
blanche over the design of the new door, but it is possible that the Old
Testament program was drawn up by Florentine humanists. In any case, the
new door abandons the quatrefoil pattern of its predecessor. The
doors measure roughly 9 feet by 4 feet, and consist of ten square relief
panels. Each wing, consists of five panels, and is surrounded by a frame
ornamented with 24 heads of prophets in roundels, alternating with 24
statuettes in niches, with four reclining figures above and below. Michelangelo
is said to have dubbed the new door "The Gates of Paradise",
though the story may be apocryphal.
The ten panels of the "Gates of Paradise"
took ten years to cast (c.1428-37), but work on the chasing and the frames
continued into the 1440s. It was not until 1452, after the final process
of gilding, that the Gates of Paradise - Ghiberti's finest achievement
- were installed at the east entrance to the Baptistery. Three years later
Ghiberti was dead.
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