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Lorenzo Ghiberti
(1378 - 1455)

See also: Renaissance Artists


Ghiberti, Lorenzo. Italian designer, sculptor, goldsmith, architect and writer. He was Florentine and first came to prominence as winner of the 1401 competition for a set of bronze doors to the Florence Baptistry, intended to match those of Andrea Pisano. The original brief seems to have been for a set of 28 Old Testament scenes, the trial subject being The Sacrifice of Isaac. Both Ghiberti's winning relief and that of the runnerup, Brunelleschi, survive (Florence, Bargello). The programme was subsequently changed to a series of New Testament scenes, plus saints, but the format of 28 quatrefoils (foils) was retained. Each scene employs just a few figures, dramatically set in high relief against a neutral background, with the context conveyed by minimal stage like settings (though with some minutely observed details in the landscapes), and all executed in the graceful linear rhythms of the International Gothic style. Executed between 1403 and 1424, the commission necessitated the establishment of a large workshop in which many of the future masters of the Florentine school received their training, including Donatello, Masolino, Uccello and Antonio Pollaiuolo.

As soon as the first set was completed, the Merchants' Guild (which was responsible for the upkeep of the Baptistry) commissioned Ghiberti to produce a second set for the last remaining doorway. These, the celebrated Gates of Paradise (as Michelangelo later admiringly dubbed them), took from 1425 to 1452 and, instead of 28 quatrefoils, there are just ten rectangular window like frames containing scenes presented in a radically new style, conveying a sense of depth through linear perspective, with the relief graded through to very low for distant objects and a rational diminution of figure scale. Since the commencement of the first doors, Donatello had used exactly these means to revolutionize narrative relief (e.g. St. George and the Dragon, c. 1417, Florence, Or San Michele), and Ghiberti quickly assimilated them.

The Merchants' Guild, taking advantage of Ghiberti's unrivalled bronze casting facilities, had also commissioned him in 1412 to execute a monumental gilded bronze statue of St. John the Baptist, their patron saint, for their niche on Or San Michele. Still in the graceful International Gothic style, it was the first monumental bronze figure since antiquity. In outright competition with the Merchants' Guild, the Bankers' Guild then commissioned Ghiberti to design and execute a gilded bronze figure of St. Matthew (1419) for their niche on Or San Michele. The surviving contract reveals unequivocally their aspirations: St. Matthew had to be 'at least as large' as the Merchants' Guild figure, 'or larger if it seems better'. This figure was, like the second set of doors, in the new classical language of the Renaissance; again, perhaps, Donatello had provided the challenge with his St. Mark (1411-13). Ghiberti's last bronze figure for Or San Michele, St. Stephen (1428), for the Wool Guild, is something of a return to a more graceful Gothic style.

A keen collector of classical antiques, he was also a historian, his Commentarii (uncompleted at his death) providing a valuable source of information about trecento artists, as well as containing the earliest surviving autobiography by an artist.

- From The Bulfinch Guide to Art History

Ghiberti images

1425-52 The Gates of Paradise (East Door)
1425-52 Detail from the Gates of Paradise (East Door):
The story of Joseph

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