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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Birth of the Renaissance

The Florence Baptistery

Being painters, we're tempted to see the past from a painter's perspective with all other arts somehow having secondary status. And, there are times in the history of art, such as the Impressionist era, when painting was making such great strides that it more than lived up to this ideal as first among equals in the arts. But at other times, the development of the painted illusion trailed other areas of art. The birth of the Renaissance was one of those times. It isn't often that such an important era in art has such a clear and concise genesis. The year was 1401, the start of a new century that would come to be known by art historians as the quatrocento. And the catalyst for this milestone century in art was a competition, not amongst painters, but among sculptors.

The competition was for the design and casting of the great bronze doors to the Baptistery of Florence. The competing artists were given a scene from the Old Testament to translate into a high-relief bronze sculpture. The scene was the sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham replete with an angel, a donkey, and a couple supporting characters. The format was the quatrefoil, which is basically diamond shape with semicircles on each of the four sides. There were dozens of entries in this highly prestigious contest, the winner of which would undoubtedly become the most important Florentine artist of his time. Only two entries have survived (undoubtedly the best of the lot), one by Filippo Brunelleschi and the other by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401,
Lorenzo Ghiberti

The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401,
Filippo Brunelleschi
 Brunelleschi's design features Isaac in the center, kneeling upon an altar, his neck and body distorted by his father's lunging grasp while above, the angel struggles to restrain him. A violent energy pervades the composition in spite of the rather static division of the upper space into two quadrants by the interaction of the two main figures, while the broadside view of the donkey in the lower half of the work forms a solid, stable base. Ghiberti's design, in contrast, has a nude, classically muscular Isaac, with both knees on the altar, struggling against the forward movement of his father. Both figures are placed to the right-hand side of the composition while a ridge of rocks divides the space diagonally. The donkey and other characters are subordinated to the lower left. Both designs had their strengths and weaknesses. Brunelleschi's depiction evoked a dramatic degree of anxiety appropriate to the scene, but it also tended to place equal visual emphasis on each and every figure, while Ghiberti's design, in placing Abraham near the center of the composition and the peripheral characters off to one corner, made a much more dynamic, if somewhat less intense, presentation. Ghiberti's design was declared the winner.  Today, his doors to the Baptistery in Florence, Italy, are among the city's greatest art treasures.

Meanwhile Brunelleschi chose to abandon sculpture in favor of architecture. He went on to achieve the greater fame as he designed and built the famous dome of the Cathedral of Florence (known as the Duomo) literally just across the street from Ghiberti's doors. Ghiberti was left with a commission for two bronze doors and bragging rights. "To me was conceded the palm of victory...  To all it seemed that I had...surpassed the others without exception..."  And the Renaissance was off and running!

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