Lorenzo Ghiberti


Lorenzo Ghiberti (Florence, 1378 – id., December 1, 1455), born Lorenzo di Bartolo, was an Italian sculptor, goldsmith, architect and art writer of the Quattrocento. He is best known as the creator of the bronze doors of the baptistery of Florence, called by Michelangelo the Gates of Paradise. Trained as a goldsmith and sculptor, he established an important workshop for metal sculpture. His book of Commentarii contains important writings on art, as well as what could be considered the oldest autobiography of an artist that has come down to us.

Ghiberti was born in 1378 in Pelago, a commune 20 km from Florence. Lorenzo is said to have been the son of Cione di Ser Buonaccorso Ghiberti and Fiore Ghiberti. However, there is some doubt as to whether Cione was Ghiberti”s real father. At some point in their marriage, Fiore went to Florence and lived with a goldsmith by the name of Bartolo di Michele. It is unknown who Ghiberti”s biological father was. There is no documentation of Cione”s death, but it is known that after Fiore and Bartolo died they were married in 1406. Regardless, Bartolo was the only father Lorenzo knew and they had a close and loving relationship. Bartolo was a skilled and popular goldsmith in Florence, and he trained Lorenzo in his trade. It was from this apprenticeship that Lorenzo learned the first principles of design. Lorenzo was interested in many art forms and was not limited to gold work. He copied models from ancient medals and also in painting. Lorenzo received formal training as a painter from Gherardo Starnina, an Italian artist from Florence. He then went to work in the Florentine workshop of Bartolo di Michele, where Antonio del Pollaiolo also worked. When the bubonic plague struck Florence in 1400, Ghiberti moved to Rimini. In Rimini he was fortunate enough to receive work in the palace of Carlo Malatesta for the lord of Pesaro, where he assisted in finishing the frescoes on the walls of the castle of Charles I Malatesta. In the palace Ghiberti was given a wall to paint, and he spent much time here. It is believed that this is where he gained his deep love for the art of painting. However, shortly after his arrival many of his friends in Florence told him that a competition was to be held and asked for masters skilled in bronze work. Despite his great appreciation for painting, Ghiberti asked Malatesta to be allowed to leave. In 1401 he returned to Florence to participate in the competition for the commission of a pair of bronze doors for the baptistery of the cathedral of Florence.

He began his artistic activity as a goldsmith. However, he did not gain fame until 1401, when he participated in the competition to decorate the second doors (north door) of the baptistery of the cathedral of Florence, winning the prize ex aequo (with equal merit) Filippo Brunelleschi, the other finalist.

Ghiberti”s career is dominated by his two successive commissions for the pairs of bronze doors for the Florence baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni). They are recognized as one of the great masterpieces of the early Renaissance, and were famous and influential from the time they were discovered. Ghiberti became famous when at the age of 21 he won the competition. The original plan was for the doors to depict scenes from the Old Testament, but the plan was changed to instead depict scenes from the New Testament. However, the piece with which he won the contest still survives, depicting the sacrifice of Isaac.

His triumph in the competition proved decisive for his life, since the magnitude of the task required the creation of a large workshop, which would become the main one in the city for half a century. It trained leading figures of the Italian Renaissance, including Donatello, Michelozzo, Uccello, Masolino, Antonio Pollaiuolo and Filarete. When the first group of 28 panels for the first set was completed, Ghiberti was commissioned to produce a second group for other doors in the church, this time with scenes from the Old Testament, as originally intended for the first set. Instead of 29 scenes, he produced 10 rectangular scenes in a completely different style. These were more naturalistic, with perspective and a great idealization of the subject. Michelangelo called them “The Gates of Paradise”, this second set remains a great monument of the Renaissance Humanist era.

Previous doors by Andrea Pisano

As recommended by Giotto, Andrea Pisano was awarded the commission to design the first set of doors in the Florentine baptistery in 1329. The southern doors were originally installed on the east side facing the Duomo, and were moved to their present location in 1452. These proto-Renaissance doors consist of 28 quatrefoil panels, with the upper 20 panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. The lower eight panels represent the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence. It took Pisano six years to complete them, finishing in 1336. In 1453, Ghiberti and his son Vittorio were commissioned to add a frame to Pisano”s existing panels. Ghiberti died in 1455, eight years before the frame was finished, leaving much of the work to Vittorio and other members of his workshop. There is a Latin inscription on the top of the door: “Andreas Ugolini Nini de Pisis me fecit A.D. MCCCXXX” (Andrea Pisano made me in 1330). The southern doors were undergoing restoration in September 2016.

1401 Competition

In 1401, the Arte di Calimala (guild of cloth importers) announced a competition to design doors that would eventually be placed on the north side of the baptistery (the original location of these doors was the east of the baptistery, but the doors were moved to the north side after Ghiberti finished his second commission, known as the Gates of Paradise).

These new doors would serve as a votive offering to celebrate that Florence had been spared from relatively recent outbreaks such as the Black Death of 1348. Each participant was given four bronze tablets, and asked to make a relief with the theme of the “Sacrifice of Isaac” on a piece of metal that was the size and shape of the door panels. Each artist was given a year to prepare their panel, and the artist deemed the best would receive the commission. While many artists competed for this commission, the jury selected only seven semi-finalists which included Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Simone da Colle, Francesco di Val d”Ombrino, Niccolo d” Arezzo, Jacopo della Quercia da Siena, and Niccolo Lamberti. In 1402 at the time of judging, only Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were finalists, and when the judges could not decide, they were commissioned to work together on it. Brunelleschi”s pride got in the way, and he went off to Rome to study architecture leaving the 21-year-old Ghiberti to work on the work by himself. Ghiberti”s autobiography, however, states that he had won “without a single dissenting voice.” The original designs for The Sacrifice of Isaac by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi are displayed in the Bargello museum in Florence. Differences between the Sacrifice of Isaac that Brunelleschi and Ghiberti created include the way the panel was constructed and the overall efficiency of the panel. Brunelleschi”s panel was made up of individual pieces of the figures of the artwork that was placed within a bronze frame. In contrast to Brunelleschi”s method of creating the arete work of his panel, Ghiberti”s mold had all the figures, with the exception of Isaac, created all as one piece. The pieces of the figures themselves were all cast inside. Because of the methods of how Ghiberti made the panel, it ended up being stronger, used less bronze, and had less weight than Brunelleschi”s panel. The panel used less bronze which was more cost efficient. Including the art aspect itself, these differences influenced how the competition board decided the winner.

The work on these doors lasted more than twenty years (from 1403 to 1424). They are twenty-eight bronze reliefs of relatively small quadrilobed format (45 × 38 cm had the model for the competition – a Sacrifice of Isaac), arranged in a grid of seven by four in the rectangle of the door (where were represented, on the five upper floors, twenty episodes of the cycle of the life of Christ from the New Testament (from the Annunciation to Pentecost). On April 19, 1424 they were placed on one side of the baptistery. Twenty panels show episodes of Christ”s life from the New Testament: The Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Jesus among the doctors, Baptism of Christ, Temptation of Christ, Expulsion of the merchants from the temple, Jesus walking on the waters, Transfiguration, the resurrection of Lazarus, Christ”s Entry into Jerusalem, The Last Supper, Agony in the garden, Capture of Christ, The Scourging, Christ before Pilate, Ascent of Calvary, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Pentecost.

On the two lower floors there are eight panels with figures of saints (the four evangelists – St. John, St. Matthew, St. Luke and St. Mark – and four doctors of the Church – St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Gregory and St. Augustine). The panels are surrounded by a frame of foliage in the door frame and gilded busts of prophets and sibyls at the intersections of the panels.

The style, meticulous, is close to Gothic. Originally installed on the east side in place of the Pisano doors, they were later moved to the northern side. The art historian Antonio Paolucci described them as “the most important event in the history of Florentine art in the first quarter of the 15th century”.

The bronze statues above the north door depict St. John the Baptist preaching to the Sadducees and were sculpted by Francesco Rustici. Rustici may have been assisted in the design by Leonardo da Vinci, who helped him in the choice of his tools.

After completion of the doors

After these doors were completed, Ghiberti was widely recognized as a celebrity and the foremost artist in his field. He was given further commissions, including some from the pope. In 1425 he obtained a second commission for the baptistery in Florence, this time for the eastern doors, on which he and his workshop (including Michelozzo and Benozzo Gozzoli) worked for 27 years, surpassing themselves. The design themes of the works were chosen by Leonardo Bruni d”Arezzo, then chancellor of the Republic of Florence. They have 10 panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament, and were at the time installed on the eastern side. The panels are large rectangles and were no longer inserted in the traditional Gothic quatrefoil, as in the previous doors. Ghiberti employed the newly discovered principles of perspective to give depth to his compositions. Each panel represents an episode. “The Story of Joseph” presents the narrative scheme of Joseph thrown into the well by his brothers, Joseph sold to the merchants, The merchants deliver Joseph to Pharaoh, Joseph interprets Pharaoh”s dream, Pharaoh honors him, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt, and Joseph recognizes his brothers and returns home. According to Vasari”s Lives, this panel was the most difficult and also the most beautiful. The figures are distributed in very low relief in a space with perspective (a technique invented by Donatello and called rilievo schiacciato, which literally means “flattened relief”). Ghiberti uses different sculptural techniques, from incised lines to practically round sculptures, further accentuating the sense of space.

The panels are enclosed in a frame richly decorated in gold foliage and fruit, with many statuettes of prophets and 24 busts. The two central busts are portraits of the artist and his father, Bartolomeo Ghiberti.

The panel of the Annunciation depicts the scene with a clothed angel, with tunic and wings as well as a trumpet, appearing to Mary, who shows an expression of surprise leaving the door. The panel of the Nativity depicts the birth of Christ with an ox, an ass, Joseph and Mary, an angel, and the shepherds. All the characters in the panel are depicted near a cave while all but Mary show reverence to him. The panel of the Adoration of the Magi shows the three magi praising Christ and Mary, with Joseph and the angels in the background. In the panel of Christ among the doctors, Christ is depicted as a child seated on a throne-like chair surrounded by the doctors arguing with him. The narrative of the doctors being surprised at how intelligently Christ speaks is demonstrated by how all the doctors talk to each other in an intense discussion around Christ. The Baptism of Christ panel shows Jesus surrounded by onlookers, a dove and his cousin, John the Baptist, being baptized in a river. The background includes intensely detailed trees with leaves, rocks, and a flowing river. The Temptation of Christ panel shows Christ surrounded by angels as he confronts the fallen angel, Satan, raised on rocks. Satan is depicted as a human with bat wings and robes. The Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple panel presents the scene with Christ expelling a group of merchants with their fists raised inside the temple. The temple in the background is depicted with columns and arches with complex designs, the merchants are also shown holding merchandise while pushing them out. The Christ walking on the waters panel shows Jesus standing on the water and the disciples while Peter is drowning. The panel shows a ship detailed with sails showing individual mast ropes as well as the ship itself with artistic designs. The ocean is also detailed with the waves rippling and where Jesus rises above the water, it bends to show him rising above them. The Transfiguration panel shows Jesus rising with the prophets Moses and Elijah above his disciples Peter, James and John. The awe of the three disciples is expressed with them on the ground and looking away from Christ and the prophets. The panel of the Resurrection of Lazarus shows Lazarus leaving his tomb surrounded by Christ, his sisters, and disciples. The astonishment of Lazarus” sisters is shown with one of them on the ground and the other holding Lazarus while kneeling. The Entry into Jerusalem shows Christ on a donkey being greeted by a large crowd with the gates of Jerusalem in the background. Each individual in the group has a different face with different hairstyles and clothing. The Last Supper shows the well-known scene in the New Testament of Christ eating with the twelve apostles. The background is decorated with grapes on the columns and drapery in the background as Christ presides over the table and the disciples seated together. Jesus in the Garden features Christ praying toward an angle and disciples behind him, asleep. The garden imagery is detailed with highly detailed bushes, rocks, and trees. The capture of Christ shows Jesus being marked by Judas and going to be arrested by Roman soldiers while the disciples are fighting the soldier. The soldiers each have individualized armor and weapons such as a spear, axe, and sword. In the Flagellation Jesus is scourged by the Roman soldiers holding reeds in a swinging motion. The Crucifixion of the Northern Gates presents the scene with Mary and John at the foot of the cross, mourning with angels near Christ hanging. Mary is presented in mourning looking away from the cross.

Although the overall quality of the casting is considered exquisite, there are some known errors. For example, in panel 15 of the northern doors (The Scourging) the casting of the second column in the front row has been covered with an arm, so that one of the scourgers appears to be trapped in stone, with his hand sticking out.

Michelangelo referred to these doors as suitable companions to the gates of Paradise (in it. Porte del Paradiso), and they are still invariably referred to by this name. Giorgio Vasari described them a century later with “undoubtedly perfect in every way and must be considered the finest work of art ever created.” Ghiberti himself said they were “the most singular work I ever did”.

Paradise Gate (second gates)

The first doors were so successful that later the Florentine guild of merchants commissioned him to build a third double door for the baptistery itself, which he completed in 1452.

It is decorated with ten gilded bronze bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Old Testament, in a totally different format and style from the previous ones, consciously applying the rules of Renaissance perspective. Michelangelo baptized this door as the “door of Paradise”, the name by which it is still known today.

By 1417 Lorenzo Ghiberti was married to Marsila, the 16-year-old daughter of Bartolommeo di Lucca, a worthy comb maker. They had two sons. In 1417 they had Tommaso Ghiberti, and a year later Vittorio Ghiberti. Ghiberti was wealthier than most of his contemporary artists, and his success gave them great financial advantages. A tax receipt from 1427 shows that he owned a considerable amount of land, and outside of Florence. He also invested a substantial amount of money in government bonds to his credit. Over the years, his real and monetary property continued to grow. Lorenzo Ghiberti lived to be 75 years old, and succumbed to fever and died in Florence. He was buried on December 1, 1455, in Santa Croce. Vittorio followed in his father”s footsteps as a goldsmith and bronze caster, but never achieved great fame. Tommaso joined his father”s business, helping as a collaborator with Lorenzo”s assistants. After his father”s death it is unknown whether he continued with the business, as he is not mentioned in documents after 1447. Later, Vittorio had a son whom he named Buonaccorso who followed his father”s art. However, Buonaccorso had a different purpose in his grandfather”s work, with his metal castings taking the form of artillery and cannonballs. His manufacture of these weapons made him famous, mainly for providing weapons for the wars of Sarzana and Pisa.

Ghiberti was commissioned to execute monumental gilded bronze statues for selected niches in the Orsanmichele in Florence, one of St. John the Baptist for the Arte di Calimala (wool merchants” guild) and another of St. Matthew for the Arte di Cambio (bankers” guild). The sculpture of St. John the Baptist was made in 1412-1416. This statue was a technological breakthrough for the time. Ghiberti had an incredible ability when it came to casting bronze. He was influenced by the Gothic style in Italy, which is shown in the elegant curves of the sword and the drapery.

The statue of St. Matthew, the one financed by the bankers, was executed in 1419-1423. It reached a height of 2.69 meters. It is made of bronze. It is also located in a niche in Orsanmichele. The guild specified that they wanted a statue as tall or taller than that of St. John the Baptist.

Finally, he also produced a bronze figure of St. Stephen for the Arte della Lana (wool weavers” guild).

He was also a finalist with Brunelleschi in the competition for the construction of the dome of the cathedral (1419), but this time the work was entrusted to Brunelleschi.

He also collected classical artifacts and was a historian. He was actively involved in the dissemination of humanist ideas.

In his later years he wrote the three volumes of I Commentari (“the Commentaries”), which included references to Italian painters and sculptors. They are a valuable source of information on Renaissance art. This work was a major source for Vasari”s Vite.

Ghiberti”s Commentaries include what is considered to be the oldest surviving autobiography of an artist. He discusses the development of art since the time of Cimabue through his own work. On discovering his second bronze portal for the baptistery in Florence, he states, “In this work I sought to imitate nature as realistically as possible, both in proportions and perspective … the buildings appear as seen by the eye of someone looking from a distance.” The language Ghiberti uses to describe his art has proved invaluable to art historians in understanding the purpose Renaissance artists pursued with their works.

Paolo Uccello, who is usually considered the first great master of perspective, worked in Ghiberti”s workshop for several years, making it difficult to determine to what extent Uccello”s innovations in perspective are due to Ghiberti”s instruction. Donatello, known as one of the earliest examples of center-point perspective in sculpture, also worked briefly in Ghiberti”s workshop. It was also around this time that Paolo began his long friendship with Donatello. Around 1413 one of Ghiberti”s contemporaries, Filippo Brunelleschi, demonstrated the geometric method of perspective used by artists today by painting the outlines of several Florentine buildings in a mirror. When the outline of the building was continued, he realized that all the lines converged on the horizon line.

Sullivan, Mary Ann. “Puertas del Paraíso, Baptisterio de Florencia”. Imágenes de la puerta del paraíso por Ghiberti, Baptisterio de Florencia, Florencia, Italia. Proyecto de imagen digital: Imágenes históricas de la arquitectura y la escultura europeas y norteamericanas desde la Grecia clásica hasta la posmodernidad. Escaneado de diapositivas tomadas in situ por Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton College.


  1. Lorenzo Ghiberti
  2. Lorenzo Ghiberti
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