As we have discussed before, at the beginning of the 15th century the art of sculpture renewed by Pisan artists ended up concentrating on Florence. By then, there was ongoing construction done in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, especially on the lateral facades, one of which includes the beautiful door called “Door of the Mandorla” which was completely decorated with sculptures. We have also seen that from all the students of Nicola and Giovanni of Pisa, Arnolfo di Cambio (a Florentine) was the most talented, and that during the time he spent in his homeland he managed to form a school of sculptors; these were the artists who brought the style of the Pisans to Naples by carving the tombs of the princes of the house of Anjou. Another sculptor from Nicola Pisano’s school, a certain Andrea also called by the nickname Pisano (1290–1348), perhaps more because of his art than because of his origin, had also worked in Florence where he executed, between 1329 and 1336, the bronze doors for the white marble baptistery facing the main facade of Santa Maria del Fiore and located in the center of Florence main square. These doors are divided into 28 spaces containing four-lobed frames (quatrefoil* panels), 20 of which represent scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist and the remaining eight (located lower on the doors) depict the eight Virtues, namely hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence. These are works of an artistic sensitivity that was simultaneously connected with the linearism of the French Gothic sculpture from the early 14th century and with the realistic grace of the works by Giotto. Inside each compartment, filled and empty spaces are balanced with such rigorous accuracy that they almost seem mathematically calculated.
When these baptistery doors were finished, Andrea Pisano undertook a very important cycle of reliefs for the lower level (base) of the cathedral bell tower (campanile) designed by Giotto. They included a series of scenes framed in regular hexagons on themes of the Old Testament and representations of Occupations or Trades. The latter group, perhaps the more modern in Andrea Pisano’s body of work, almost entirely ignored environmental (landscape) references to focus their interest on human figures who, with their different attitudes, express the passionate tension of all their physical and intellectual faculties. Thus, his depictions of The Astronomer, The Architect, The Blacksmith, The Weaver, The Painter, etc., all placed us face to face with a very typical humanistic vision of the Renaissance.
Around 1343, Andrea Pisano moved to Pisa and then to Orvieto. To this last stage of his life corresponded some statues of the Virgin with the Child, which current critics believe were made in collaboration with his son Nino Pisano; among all, the most famous are those in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo di Orvieto, and the Nursing Madonna (Maddona del latte, lit. “Maddona of the Milk”) and the Madonna of the Rose (Madonna della Rosa), which are both kept in Pisa. In them, the attitudes and the circular rhythm drawn by the position of their arms and the draping of their robes, recall the Virgins painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
John The Baptist was one of the patron saints of Florence; for this reason the small octagonal baptistery with its dome decorated with Byzantine mosaics, for which Andrea Pisano had cast the aforementioned bronze doors, came to be like a kind of national sanctuary. Leonardo planned to completely lift it on a plinth by means of large and ingenious machines to make it more slender, and Vasari still called it “the most ancient and important temple of the city”. This small octagonal building, with its baptismal fonts in its interior, has three facades: one in front of the cathedral and two more, one on each side; on its rear wall is the apse with the altar carved on the wall. These three facades have each their own set of bronze doors; the first are those by Andrea Pisano; the other two, which we will discuss ahead, were the work of Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1 December 1455), the first great Florentine sculptor of the century. It was precisely in 1401 when the merchants from the Arte di Calimala (the Cloth Importers Guild) decided to complete the decoration of the Baptistery of Saint John (Battistero di San Giovanni) with these two new bronze doors which would serve as a votive offering to celebrate Florence being spared from recent calamities such as the Black Death of 1348. For this purpose they called a contest, and from the many artists who participated the jury only selected seven semifinalists, all of them Tuscan: two from Siena, two from Arezzo, one from Val d’Elsa and two from Florence. The Florentine sculptors were Brunelleschi, who later would become the architect of the cathedral’s dome, and Ghiberti, who was just over 20 years old at the time. All contestants had to compose and cast, within a year, a model in the same shape and size as the ones Andrea Pisano had cast for the existing door, and all had to develop within the quatrefoil frame the same subject: the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham.
The bronze models presented in this competition by the Florentines Brunelleschi and Ghiberti are kept in the National Museum of Bargello (Florence). In Vasari’s time they were already admired, commented and compared in all their details. Presumably, those who proposed the theme also established the number and position of the figures, because both models have the same number of characters; the sculptors only had to arrange them according to their own artistic invention. In both reliefs, Isaac is on an altar while Abraham grabs him by the neck; in both, the lamb-bearing angel appears at the top, and at the bottom are two servants, with the donkey that has brought the wood for the sacrifice. In Brunelleschi’s relief we can appreciate his prodigious ability as a sculptor, later overshadowed by his dominant hobby, architecture, and above all by his work on the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Notice also some curious details of great naturalism in Brunelleschi’s relief such as the lamb scratching its neck, and the singular imitation of the ancient statue of the Spinario (boy who removes a thorn from his foot) reproduced as one of the servants. This relief by Brunelleschi demonstrates that Florence was well prepared to give life to its school of sculpture during the quattrocento, when a man like Brunelleschi, who was mostly known as an skilled architect, came to compose and execute such a high quality relief within the difficult space delineated by a four-lobed frame.
However, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s relief surpasses Brunelleschi’s. In this wonderful composition, the young sculptor shows the discipline he acquired during his study years in his stepfather’s workshop, who was himself a great and popular goldsmith in Florence. The artistry, neatness as well as the technique of this cast (Ghiberti’s version actually used much less bronze than Brunelleschi’s) seems to be what led the 34 judges to decide in favor of Ghiberti; he himself during his old age, in his book of Commentarii, speaks with pride about his triumph in that contest, assuring that the other competitors withdrew when they recognized his superiority. It is possible, however, that for a moment it was thought to commission the door to both Florentines and that Brunelleschi, according to a biographer, only gave in so as he didn’t have to work collaboratively. Whatever be the reason, this time the result from this competition was extremely favorable for art: Brunelleschi further confirmed in his vocation as architect, and Ghiberti was able to freely work in these doors developing an ideal never dreamed before for sculpture.
Thus, Ghiberti won the commission to work on these second set of doors, which were to be placed on the northern facade of the Baptistery. These doors also featured a series of quatrefoil panels (almost Gothic in outline), following the design of those by Andrea Pisano’s first doors; but in Ghiberti’s scenes he confirmed the grace and beautiful naturalism that characterized the relief he presented for the competition. In their backgrounds, landscapes with trees are gracefully delineated, the figures are grouped and move with fine gestures. These doors with biblical scenes were the school in which Ghiberti became familiar with the art and technique of casting. Vasari tells that when Ghiberti cast the large door frame, the mold broke and he had to redo it again. A century later, the doors still aroused such curiosity, that the place where they were cast was remembered, and even remains of the furnace Ghiberti used were shown behind the weavers’ hospital.
After finishing these second doors for the baptistery, in which he worked for 21 years (until 1424), Ghiberti’s fame was already so great that he was commissioned with the third set of doors (which are considered as his masterpiece) without taking part in any competition, and he was even allowed to change the number of scenes that were initially proposed according to the program designed by the scholar Leonardo Bruni, then Chancellor of the Republic of Florence. Additionally, the panels were no longer enclosed within the traditional Gothic quatrefoil, as in the previous doors, but were large rectangles. According to Bruni, the third door, which was to be placed on the eastern side of the baptistery facing the main facade of Santa Maria del Fiore, had to be dedicated to the Old Testament, with 28 frames depicting the main themes of the Creation and history of Israel. Each one of the door’s halves would be divided into seven zones, with two reliefs each. Ghiberti accumulated several scenes in one same relief, executing Bruni’s program in ten compartments large enough to be able to develop the backgrounds in perspective, the landscapes and picturesque representations with many figures. “In some of these ten reliefs,” says Ghiberti in his Commentarii, “I have introduced more than a hundred figures, in some others less, always working with conscience and love. Observing the laws of optics, I have come to give them such a real appearance that sometimes, seen from afar, the figures appear to be of whole bulk. In different planes, however, the closest figures are larger, and those farther away diminish in size to the eyes of the observer, as happens in nature.” This paragraph of the Commentaries indicates how consciously the Florentine sculptor invented the pictorial relief, which hadn’t been executed since Classical antiquity. In the pulpits by the Pisan sculptors, the figures, all of the same size and carved in the same high relief, indicate the role they represent in the scene only by their gestures and positions they occupy.
In the reliefs of this last door, Ghiberti performed marvels of atmospheric effect, even surpassing the same results of the ancient Hellenistic picturesque reliefs. The accumulation of scenes, instead of being an obstacle for the artist, is a reason for invention and a source of new effects to represent all the gathered scenes. Thus, for example, the creation of man allows to make the beautiful transition to the relief with the figure of Eve and the group of the Almighty with a cloud of angels that are lost in the atmosphere giving light and space to the landscape of the Garden of Paradise.
The same atmospheric effect is seen in the wonderful landscape of the history of Cain and Abel; the various scenes are separated by a ravine with pine trees, so that in the distance, at the highest part, the two altars are raised with the sacrifices to the Lord, and in the background is their parent’s house (Adam and Eve) within a beautiful perspective with mountains.
However, when Ghiberti designed a grandiose composition, he granted it without hesitation, as in the theatrical scene of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba or in that of the story of Isaac and his sons, where the figures form animated groups all occupying a common perspective within a background with porticos.
Perhaps the most surprising of these ten compositions are their backgrounds with brilliant definitions of space and atmosphere. Even when Ghiberti uses the “vanishing point” of the theory of perspective invented by Brunelleschi, not everything is solved with a cold geometrization of the space, but he uses with incredible subtlety the atmospheric effects produced by blurred shapes. Ghiberti distributed his figures in very low relief (a technique invented by Donatello and called rilievo schiacciato*, literally “flattened relief”), and used different sculptural techniques within the panels, from incipient incised lines to almost free-standing figures, further accentuating the sense of space. This last was achieved thanks to the influence the Arab polymath Alhazen had on Ghiberti’s treatment of perspective; Alhazen wrote a book in the early 11th century (the “Book of Optics”) about the optical basis of perspective. This book was later translated into Italian during the 14th century with the title of “Deli Aspecti”, and was quoted several times in Ghiberti’s “Commentarii“.
With all these tools, Ghiberti achieved results reminiscent of the Alexandrian Hellenistic reliefs with their landscape scenes. See for example the panel depicting scenes of the Story of Joshua, in which the procession of the first term is seen again -at a later time- in the distance, preceded by the trumpets that sound before the walls of Jericho, or the scene of the story of David. In this last one, in a few centimetres of area, the relief suggests an enormous distance when passing from the high relief of the foreground, with the slaughter of Goliath, to the farthest scene with the high towers of the city, lost between mist and distance. Between the first term and the background, the successively lower reliefs with characters, trees and mountains, indicate in detail the intermediate space. By closely studying the groups of characters on these doors, we understand the genius of Ghiberti who, with these small figures so well placed in the impalpable atmosphere that they seem to breathe, inaugurated a new poetic understanding of man and life: that of the Renaissance.
Lorenzo Ghiberti finished these doors in 1452, that is he spent 27 years (beginning in 1425) in the execution of these ten reliefs, which he enriched with a richly decorated gilt framework with plant ornaments (foliage and fruits), statuettes of prophets and busts, and surrounding it all, an additional magnificent frame, also in bronze, with the most exquisite decoration of leaves, flowers, fruits and small animals that sculpture has ever produced. Vasari in a way was right when he said that it is “the most beautiful work that has ever been seen between the ancient and the modern”; and it is truth that the plant decorations of the most perfect Roman friezes of the time of Augustus do not reach this wonder of life and freshness shown in the foliage of the frame of these last doors by Ghiberti. Some of its leaf blades seem to be taken straight from the natural, with all its wealth of details. Ghiberti himself, in his Commentaries which he began to write in 1447 but that were interrupted in the third chapter because of his death, says that he endeavored to imitate Nature to the extreme. These last doors by Ghiberti with their frames were placed where those by Andrea Pisano’s had been before, on the facade facing the cathedral, in the place of honor. They are still called today by the people of Florence the “Gates of Paradise”, perhaps because of their Creation scene or for the same reason that motivated Michelangelo to say, according to Vasari, that when “… he stopped to see this work and was asked what he thought of it … he replied: ‘They are so beautiful that they are worthy of being placed at the gates of Paradise’ ” …
If Ghiberti’s work on these doors is exquisite, he was not so fortunate when executing various figures of saints he was commissioned. Ghiberti is really the master of a single work, as is the case with so many other artists, whose abundant production is nothing more than the cold repetition of previous inspirations. The statue of St. John the Baptist, cast in bronze between 1412-1416 for a niche of the Orsanmichele (the church used as the chapel of the city’s powerful craft and trade guilds) in Florence, was commissioned by the Arte di Calimala guild, the wool merchants guild, and at the time represented a technological advance in the technique of bronze casting due to the size of the sculpture (8ft 4in or 2.56 mt height). This statue shows influences of the Italian Gothic as seen in the elegant curves of the Baptist’s drapery.
Other statue cast by Ghiberti in Bronze was St. Matthew, commissioned by the Arte del Cambio guild (the Bankers Guild), and made between 1419-1423. Like his statue of St. John the Baptist, this statue also has high dimensions (8’ 10” or 2.43 mt in height), and as well it was also placed in a niche in the Orsanmichele in Florence. The coincidence between the Baptist’s and Matthew’s heights is explained by the request of the Bankers guild that their statue should be as tall or taller than the St. John the Baptist statue.
However, even in old age, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s reputation in Florence was taken in high esteem and is justified to some extent by some of his works from this last period, such as the bronze ark for the relics of Saint Zenobius (San Zanobi) that he made ca. 1432-1442. It is because of this reputation that some wanted him to be associated with Brunelleschi to direct the works of the dome, as if the famous sculptor had to be a guarantee of moderation for the genius of the great architect.
Vasari tells a multitude of anecdotes about the disagreement between the two masters. Brunelleschi, he says, felt humiliated by this proposed collaboration that had been imposed on him, but he ended up victorious and was left as the sole architect-in-chief. Today it is believed that there is a lot of fantasy in Vasari’s story. The truth is that in one of the last letters that Leon Battista Alberti wrote to Brunelleschi, he entrusted him to greet Ghiberti as one of his very close friends, and at the same time he sent his regards to Brunelleschi’s most intimate friends, all great sculptors and painters: Donatello, Luca della Robbia and the painter Masaccio, of whom we know with certainty were all close friends of the cupola’s director. We can notice here that, of all this group of Florentine artists, the center, the superior intelligence, recognized by all, seems to have been Brunelleschi; he was, as we have said, the “Phidias” architect of the Florentine quattrocento.
Quatrefoil: (From Latin “quattuor“, “four”, and “folium“, a leaf, referring specifically to a four-leafed clover). A decorative element consisting of a symmetrical shape which forms the overall outline of four partially overlapping circles of the same diameter. It is found in art, architecture, heraldry and traditional Christian symbolism. A similar shape with three rings is called a trefoil.
Rilievo schiacciato: A technique which allows a sculptor to create a recessed or relief sculpture with carving only millimetres deep. To give the illusion of greater depth, the thickness gradually decreases from the foreground to the background. In some ways it is more similar to a 2D image than a 3D sculpture and so the relief can use perspective. The technique was mainly used in the 15th and 16th centuries, begun and dominated by Donatello.