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Friday, June 20, 2014

Lorenzo Ghiberti

The Florence Baptistery with the Duomo in the background.
One of Pisano's panels, The Baptism of Jesus.
The church had discontinued immersion by
that time. This panel is less medieval in style
than many of his others.
Very often art historians, in writing for those whose tolerance for art history can best be described as "limited," tend to discuss periods rather than people (which probably explains the limited tolerance). They discuss Impressionism, but barely get beyond Monet and Renoir. They discuss Abstract Expressionism as if Pollock and de Kooning were the beginning, middle, and the end of the era. And as for the Renaissance, it's the big three, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. That's not to say eras are unimportant. They put art and artists in context. But there are way too many eras, and the more recent the era, the more complexities. Eyes glaze over. Magnificent tomes slip from the knees to the floor; ZZZZs freeze above the heads of readers. Eras are boring. Artists are not. Therefore, study artists first, then categorize them by era. The art is far more interesting and important than the categories to which stuffy old art historians (like myself at times) have relegated them.
Andrea Pisano's 1336 baptistery doors.
Lorenzo Ghiberti Self-portrait,
Take the Renaissance, for instance; don't start in the middle with the big three but at the beginning with Lorenzo Ghiberti. You may have heard of him. He was a door designer. He won a contest to earn the commission. That was in 1401, the date when everyone pretty much agrees the (Early) Renaissance began. He was twenty-three at the time. The massive bronze doors were for the Florence Baptistery (top) across the street from the cathedral, called the Duomo. They were originally to depict the life of Christ, but later the theme was changed to the life of John the Baptist and other scenes from the New Testament.

For some reason I've never been able to discern, the baptistery was built first (though two earlier, smaller churches date from around the time of its construction, 1059-1128). Next came Giotto's campanile, completed by Andrea Pisano in 1359; followed by the current cathedral (dedicated in 1436, though the façade was not completed until 1887). Pisano, in fact, was responsible for the first set of baptistery doors (the east doors, completed in 1336, later moved to the south side). Stylistically they vary from Medieval to what's been called "Proto-Renaissance" but that's of little importance, adding trivia to the trivial. The important thing is that their Gothic quatrefoil panels (above) dictated the format for Ghiberti, and his nearest rival, Brunelleschi to follow as they competed for the commission to make the north doors. Ghiberti won.
Ghiberti's north doors, 1401-25. The Renaissance was off and running.
Everyone liked Ghiberti's north doors so, in 1425, they hired him (and his extensive workshop of future Renaissance greats) to do a set for the east side where Pisano's doors had originally been (below, left). It was here that Ghiberti rose to greatness, jettisoning the highly restrictive quatrefoil format from before in favor of simple squares, ten of them, depicting the original theme of Old Testament scenes. Ghiberti used the newly discovered principles of perspective to give depth to his images. Each panel depicts more than one episode. In The Story of Joseph (below), the narrative scheme includes Joseph being cast by his brothers into the well; his being sold into slavery; his delivery to pharaoh; the interpretation of pharaoh's dream; Jacob sending his sons to Egypt; Joseph recognizing his brothers; and their return home (whew, a whole Sunday school lesson in one panel). According to art historian, Giorgio Vasari, this panel was the most difficult and also the most beautiful. Ghiberti used different sculptural techniques, from incised lines to almost free-standing figure sculpture, further accentuating the sense of space. It took the sculptor and his "door factory" 27 years to complete them all. Vasari called them, "...the finest masterpiece ever created." No less an admirer of Ghiberti than the great Michelangelo dubbed them the "Gates of Paradise" (below, left). The name stuck.

The Story of Joseph, Lorenzo Ghiberti, panel from the east doors, 1427-55--a biblical narrative in bronze, considered Ghiberti's best work.
copyright, Jim Lane
The Gates of Paradise, 1425-53, Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Ghiberti was born in 1378 and died in 1455. That's an exceptionally long life for those living at the time. It was a career that did not end with the "Gates of Paradise" (perhaps at them). Ghiberti also did several free-standing bronze sculptors such as his St. John the Baptist (below, left, 1413), St. Matthew (below, right, 1419-20), and St. Stephen (bottom, 1428). During those years he wrote what is considered the first surviving artist autobiography (for which Vasari was ever grateful). He also trained, or strongly influenced, such Renaissance names as Leonardo da Vinci, Francesco Rustici, Michelangelo, Donatello, Masolino, Michelozzo, Uccello, and Antonio Pollaiuolo. Quite apart from his doors, his bronze statues, even his autobiography, it's the great Renaissance artists who came and went through the doors of his "door factory" over the course of half a century, who are undoubtedly Lorenzo Ghiberti's greatest contribution to the much-touted Italian Renaissance art era.

St. John the Baptist, 1413,
Lorenzo Ghiberti
St. Matthew, 1419-20,
Lorenzo Ghiberti

St. Stephen, 1428, Lorenzo Ghiberti


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