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The goldsmith of the Florence Baptistery

The role of protagonist Ghiberti played within the Florence Renaissance is undisputable. But this is not only thanks to the enourmous artistic value of the masterpieces he left us with, but also thanks to his testimony, trough memorials and essays he wrote, which help us recomposing the history of art throughout time and tell us about facts and works concerning also his collegues, way before Vasari did so when writing his “Lives of the Artists”. Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) was a polyhedric artist, born goldsmith with an artistic preparation inside the father's workshop, but capable of transforming himself, for one of those characteristics common to many versatile Renaissance artists, into a sculptor, an architect and eventually an art historian and writer. His knowledge of goldsmithry accompained him troughout his life, and that millimetrical, scrupulous and meticulous precision in the execution of the details, typical of the golsdmith chiselling, can be found also in his gigantic masterpieces, as for instance the Doors of the Florence Baptistery. His personality was surely exceptional: a man who moved deflty, clever to the point of becoming tricky as we know, for instance, from the episode of his life in which he presented false birth documentation to the cityhall stating he was son of Sir Cione di Ser Bonnacorso Sabatini, rich and well-fixed notary of a little town in the province of Florence and first husband of the mother, instead of the goldsmith father. This was done in order to avoid accusations of not having paid the Florentine taxes. His very first occasion of success caught him while he was living in Pesaro, refugee from various disorders and the bubonic plague in Florence. His Florentine friends, while he was travelling, sent to him the news of a town contest announced for the construction of the north door of the Florence Baptistery. Resigning from Pesaro, he rapidly came back to Florence where in 1401 started working at a panel to be presented to the contest, a scene from the Sacrifice of Isaac. He worked incessantly and with various changes of mind, under the supervision of the father. In 1402, one year after, the winner was chosen among the works of art presented. The judging commission was made of experts ranging from painters, to sculptors of gold, silver and marble. When writing his Commentarii, his commentary book on art history, Ghiberti attributes to himself the undisputed victory, in a raise of self-satisfaction. Many critics though tend to state that the comission had difficulties in identifying a winner, and gave in the end an ex-aequo result. But Brunelleschi refused to collaborate in a cooperation with Ghiberti because of an unfillable difference in style. Even in this episode, the story tells us of how Ghiberti used many subterfuges to try to see the rival's panel before the end of the contest, or on how he managed to ask the help and the suggestions of the many people involved in an attempt to produce a panel that would please everybody. One thing can be asserted, that this competition, which in the end saw among the many rivals a head-to-head between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, marks the ending sign of the Gothic era and the beginning of the Renaissance. While eagerly working on the north door for over twenty years, Ghiberti also cast in lost wax the Saint Michael and the Saint John the Baptist sculptures for the Church of Or San Michele. His talent as a goldsmith and his versatility where also expressed in the manufacturing of two gold miters for Popes Martino V and Eugenio IV. He was also an architect by appointment of the board of the Opera del Duomo, but in front of the structural difficulties encountered in the construction of the vault of the cathedral, he was forced to take a step behind and leave space for Brunelleschi. Nevertheless Vasari tells us that Ghiberti was so well introduced and accepted among the workers of the Opera del Duomo, that he would often seat with no apparent reason, next to Brunelleschi, not only, he would also perceive a salary equal to that of Brunelleschi, who was indeed the only one in charge of the dome project. But the fame of Ghiberti was eternally affirmed when he received the commission for the making of the east door of the Florence Baptistery. This work was appointed to the “excellent master” directly in 1425, this time without having to sweat his gout out. The door was located after 27 years in front of the cathedral's facade, removing the previous door from Ghiberti, to where it is now located facing north. Even in this case Ghiberti proved himself to be incredibly capable in subverting all the techniques used in the previous north door. He infact renounced to the little and delicate polilobed frame in favour of a new so called albertian frame, a rectangualar shaped one, much bigger, thus allowing him to represent in one scene several different figures and episodes. Leon Battista Alberti, father of the perspective, saw his intuition magically represented in the Gates of Paradise panels by Ghiberti. Why the are the so called Gates of Paradise, it is worldwide renown nowadays, but it is not only thanks to Michelangelo's appellation that Ghiberti's fame was consecrated, but mostly due to the devotion and passion endlessly injected by the master and expressed in these few words: “I made this work with the greatest diligence and the greatest love”.