Lorenzo Ghiberti (ca. 1381-1455) was an Italian sculptor, goldsmith, architect, painter, and writer. His east doors, called the Gates of Paradise, of the Baptistery of Florence are a supreme monument to the age of humanism.
Lorenzo Ghiberti was born in Florence about 1381. He learned the goldsmith's trade from Bartoluccio de Michele; though many small sculptural pieces have been attributed to Ghiberti, no goldsmith's article mentioned in contemporary documents is extant. He was accepted in the goldsmiths' guild in 1409, in the painters' guild in 1423, and in the stonemasons' guild in 1427.
In 1400 Ghiberti went to the Romagna to escape the plague in Florence and assisted another painter in executing frescoes (since destroyed) on the walls of the castle of Carlo Malatesta. On his return to Florence in 1401 Ghiberti took part with seven other Tuscan sculptors (including Filippo Brunelleschi and Jacopo della Quercia) in the historic competition for the gilded bronze north doors of the Florence Baptistery and won it. The theme was the sacrifice of Isaac, and both Ghiberti's and Brunelleschi's trial reliefs are preserved. In style Ghiberti's line suggests classical antiquity, but in the little gilded figure of Isaac he created the first truly Renaissance nude.
Baptistery North Doors
When the commission was given to Ghiberti in 1403 (and renewed in 1407), the subjects were changed from the Old to the New Testament. There are 28 scenes, placed within Gothic quatrefoils, as on the bronze south doors (1330-1336) of the Baptistery by Andrea Pisano. The figures are gilded and set in high relief against a neutral ground. Border strips separating the panels are filled with a rich continuity of vegetable and animal life, and 48 heads of male and female prophets occur at the intersections. Ghiberti formed a large workshop to carry out his great undertaking, and it was a training ground for the next generation of Florentine painters and sculptors, including Donatello, Masolino, and Paolo Uccello. The doors were completed in 1424.
Ghiberti made several other works during the period from 1403 to 1424, including two larger-than-life bronze statues of saints for the niches on the exterior of Orsanmichele in Florence. John the Baptist was completed for the cloth merchants' guild in 1416, and St. Matthew was installed in its niche in 1422 by the bankers' guild. John the Baptist still reflects the International Gothic style, as do the earlier panels of the north doors. St. Matthew represents the culmination of Ghiberti's new classical style; in pose the figure reflects an ancient Roman philosopher type.
Between 1417 and 1427 Ghiberti made two bronze reliefs for the font of the Baptistery in Siena. In these a new pictorial treatment of the relief, probably influenced by the contribution of his former pupil Donatello to the font, fore-shadows Ghiberti's own east doors of the Florence Baptistery. During this period he also became involved in the most important architectural enterprise of the time in Florence: the completion of the dome of the Cathedral. In 1418 he was paid for a model, though his share in the dome as built by Brunelleschi (1420-1436) remains open to question.
Gates of Paradise
After a trip to Venice in 1424, Ghiberti returned to Florence, and in 1425 he received the commission for the east doors of the Baptistery. The doors open on paradiso, the area between an Italian baptistery and its cathedral. Michelangelo is said to have remarked that the doors were worthy of being the gates of Paradise, and since then they have been called the Gates of Paradise. For this pair of doors Ghiberti was permitted to alter the whole layout and reduce the number of Old Testament scenes from 28 to 10. The constricting Gothic quatrefoils and the bronze background were abandoned; each large square was totally gilded, so that the sculptor could represent landscape and architectural depth as though he were a painter. All 10 scenes plus the surrounding sections of frieze (which includes in a medallion a self-portrait of the sculptor) were modeled in wax between 1425 and 1437, at which time they were cast in bronze. Finishing and gilding took longer, and not until 1452 were the doors installed.
In each panel there are several scenes, which flow from one to the next in correct perspective depth (owing to the contemporary researches of Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti). Thus in the first panel, the story of Adam, occur the episodes of the Creation of Adam, the Creation of Eve, and their Expulsion from the Garden, from left to right in the foreground, and the Temptation in the far distance, in very low relief. The nude figures of Eve in this composition are among the first sensuous female nudes of the Renaissance. Likewise advanced is the artist's study of drapery forms throughout the panels. They reveal a new grace and beauty rarely surpassed in all of Western sculpture.
Other works in bronze by Ghiberti include a tomb slab (1423) for Fra Leonardo Dati in S. Maria Novella, Florence, and the reliquary shrine of the Three Martyrs (1428), commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici for S. Maria degli Angeli, Florence (now in the Bargello). In 1428 he was enlisted to create another statue, St. Stephen, for Orsanmichele. Between 1432 and 1442 the artist designed and supervised the casting of another bronze reliquary, that of St. Zenobius, in the Cathedral, Florence, and also designed a number of stained-glass windows for the Cathedral.
Ghiberti's works in marble include the tomb slabs for Lodovico degli Obizi (died 1424) and Bartolommeo Valori (died 1427), both in Sta Croce, Florence. He also designed the tabernacle that encloses Fra Angelico's Linaiuoli Madonna of 1433.
During the last years of his life Ghiberti wrote his Commentarii, in which he reveals his knowledge, shrewdness, and cultivated sensitivity. This work, begun about 1447, was not completed at the time of his death in Florence on Dec. 1, 1455. The first commentary deals with the relative merits of artists of classical antiquity, whom Ghiberti knew solely through literary sources. The second commentary, in which he describes works of art in various cities that he had visited, is the principal source of our knowledge of 14th-century art in Florence and Siena; this section also includes Ghiberti's autobiography, the earliest by an artist that has survived. The third commentary takes up more than half the volume and deals with an analysis of the eye, its makeup and functions, and the relation of sight to the behavior of light.
Ghiberti in his writing as well as in his art was a vital link between the medieval Gothic past and the new world outlook he helped to create, the Renaissance. A son, Vittorio (1416-1496), continued the workshop after his father's death.
Further Reading on Lorenzo Ghiberti
There are two fine books in English on Ghiberti: a volume with large photographic details by Ludwig Goldscheider, Ghiberti (1949), and a lengthy scholarly study by Richard Krautheimer in collaboration with Trude Krautheimer-Hess, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1956).
Additional Biography Sources
Krautheimer, Richard, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.