Gates of Paradise on the East door of Baptistry (now removed)
approx. 15′ (4.6 m)
Museo delle Opere del Duomo, Florence
In the winter of 1400-1401, Lorenzo Ghiberti, entered the competition to design a new set of bronze doors for the Baptistry of San Giovanni. At this time there was no facade on the Santa Maria del Fiore and there would not be until the nineteenth century. Construction on the dome had begun, but would not be completed structurally until 1436 with the engineering plan of the prickly Filippo Brunelleschi, Ghiberti’s oft-rival and–much to Brunellschi’s chagrin–his oft-collaborator.
Ghiberti would win the competition for the doors. Although many commissions in Renaissance Florence were determined through competition, Ghiberti would be handed the commission for a second set of doors without having to go through a competition. This second set of doors, completed in 1452, were dubbed “The Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo, who was not known to give out praise lightly. Ghiberti said his doors were made “with the greatest diligence and greatest love.”
There are ten panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament from Creation to Solomon. They are: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon and Sheba. They are known for their vivid illusion of deep space in relief (Radke, 23) which came from the construction of perspective based a mathematical theory of the representation of three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional plane, a theory borrowed from Brunelleschi. The doors are not only beautiful, but also a technical marvel. (Bietolletti, 200)
Ghiberti was a popular artist in his time. His work was beautiful and appealed to a wide audience. Ghiberti was also known for his ability to work well with others, a useful skill in Renaissance Florence. Artists worked under patronage and for commission, so despite whatever genius they possessed, they were always answering to someone else. Ghiberti was good at charming and manipulating his patrons, which was particularly useful as he almost never made a deadline. In addition to this, he had control over his workshop. His assistants included Donatello, Paolo Uccello, and Michelozzo. Artists rarely worked by their hand alone and many of them had assistants and collaborators. Both sets of Ghiberti’s bronze doors present a single, coherent whole, and art historians have had trouble discerning individual sets of hands in the work. (Radke, 51-57)
Over the centuries, exposure to the elements and questionable cleaning methods had darkened the doors, but they remained there until the Second World War when they were removed to protect them from potential bombardment. After the war they were restored to their rightful place on the east side of the Baptistry and remained there peacefully until November 4, 1966. The flood had wrenched five of the ten panels from the doors. On the morning of November 5th Monsignor Poli, the head priest of the Duomo and the custodians were poking through the mud with staves in search of the missing panels. (Clark, 156)
Collaboration was the order of Ghirberti’s day and it was the order in post-flood Florence. These efforts extended beyond Florence and beyond Italy. After the disaster, money and people poured in from all over the world. The people in particular, the experts and mud angels who volunteered their time by salvaging, cleaning, restoring damaged works of art, books, buildings, and other materials from the water, mud, and oil, many without pay and in deplorable conditions, helped to save Florence’s art and history for future generations.
Although they are currently undergoing another round of restoration, Ghiberti’s original panels maintain their permanent address nearby in the Museo dell’Opere del Duomo and replicas now hold their place on the Baptistry doors.
• Clark, R. (2008). Dark water: art, disaster, and redemption in Florence. New York: Anchor Books.
• Bietoletti, S., & Ray, L. (2007). Florence: Art and architecture. Königswinter, Germany: H.F. Ullmann.
• Radke, G. M. (2007). The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance masterpiece. Atlanta, Ga: High Museum of Art.