The Gates to the City

John Haber
in New York City

Lorenzo Ghiberti: The Gates of Paradise

No artist has conducted a career in public quite like Lorenzo Ghiberti. For more than fifty years, he devoted himself and his workshop to the outside of a single two-story building.

The Baptistery had long served Florence as a central place of worship and Italy as a model for Romanesque churches. Even when dwarfed by the cathedral next door, the octagonal structure still anchored the city's public spaces. Twice Ghiberti won the commission to decorate its doors, starting with a competition for the north doors in 1401. He took time out mostly for statues of the evangelists on the exterior of Orsanmichele, a granary turned church not far away. Together, they show art as an engagement with civic life as rarely before or since. Lorenzo Ghiberti's Jacob and Esau (photo by Antonio Quattrone, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, 1425–1452)

Together, too, their history includes the mutual influence of the arts that marks the early Renaissance. Michelangelo so admired Ghiberti's second set of doors, in place in 1452, that he called it The Gates of Paradise. Significantly, he was punning on a term for the public square. A show of just three panels documents their restoration. It also helps in understanding the interplay of architecture, sculpture, painting, and civic life in Italy.

A career in public

Can one still imagine what it meant back then to have a career in the public eye? For that matter, try to imagine Ghiberti in today's terms. He did not carry on like a celebrity artist, although his own sculpted head peeps out from the Baptistery, and he took the significant step of signing some panels. He did not plant giant puppy dogs or inflatable Pinocchios, and he did not have reporters following his every move. He would not have fit in well with the Britpack. He might well have mistaken New York's annual performance art week for some kind of civic ceremony.

He did not become public by getting work into churches or museums, although the doors are going to end up indoors, safe from the weather, after restoration. (They return to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, with other works for Florence's cathedral.) He did not set out the bland face of much public sculpture today. He did not venerate a pope or emperor, like even Raphael or Jacques-Louis David. He left no statues of half-remembered generals to line the boulevards or Alexander Calder stabiles from a summer's sculpture to front a bank.

Ghiberti did more than create art for public spaces: he spent a long career on the most prominent public space in Florence, and citizens and artists alike could see it take shape. In the process, they could see something else take shape as well—an independent city, a new art to support it, and a religious narrative to give it meaning. Like artists now, Ghiberti was dealing with wealth and authority, but with a kind of wealth and authority new even to Florence.

The black death had decimated Europe. It also left money concentrated in fewer hands, and they used it to create the public fabric for a city. New mansions and loggias punctuated the broadened streets and plazas. The grain merchants had charge of Orsanmichele, and the cloth guild supervised the competition for doors to the Baptistery. There Ghiberti beat out six others, including Filippo Brunelleschi, who went on to design the city's best-known churches. Brunelleschi also solved the artistic and engineering challenge of a dome big enough for the cathedral.

All this gives architecture and sculpture a leading role among the arts, and these in turn could draw insights from classicists and mathematicians. Brunelleschi looked to Rome for help in designing the dome. Most famously, Leon Battista Alberti's treatises outlined the ideals of symmetry in church design and perspective in painting. A leading textbook calls Ghiberti's late work a visual summation of Alberti. Both architecture and perspective have much to do as well with how city streets framed human vistas.

In contrast, the Northern Renaissance has its roots in illuminated manuscript and panels on oil for private devotion. The Met itself, twice, has tried to position manuscript illumination at the origins of the Italian Renaissance, too. This show, stuck oddly in a kind of period room for antiquities under the main stairs, suggests that size matters after all.

Three panels and three generations

The Gates of Paradise consist of ten panels—one column of five panels to each side of the seventeen-foot-high double doors. From the story of Adam and Eve at the top left to Solomon at the bottom right, each panel represents a succession of events. Often the same characters appear two or three times. The scheme allows Ghiberti to make each panel an entire narrative. It also allows him to create a compendium of Renaissance forms.

Leonardo later called painting superior to sculpture, in that it left an artist's hands clean and an artist's mind receptive to music. He was reviving a classic dispute over the priority of the arts. He was also testifying to their rivalry in Florence, and he was saying something controversial. He was boasting of so much foresight that he did not have to quote the Baptistery. Michelangelo, for once, comes off as modest by comparison.

The Met's three panels represent Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. The first alone has more than enough ideas for a generation. God first awakens Adam, and Michelangelo took Adam's pose for the Sistine Chapel. In the center, Eve is born from his rib. She becomes Venus skidding across the waters, by Sandro Botticelli, and Eve expelled from Paradise at the right hints at the innocent maiden mournfully eying heaven in Botticelli's Calumny of Appeles. A cluster of angels, like the upward sweep of attendant draperies in a Raphael, connects the two births and manifestations of God.

The naturalism of God walking on earth or the sleeping Adam leads to any number of examples of a robed saint or reclining nude. That still leaves the temptation at the panel's upper right, the angel of the expulsion careering through the actual gates of Paradise, and God above it all in a papal tiara. It also leaves nine more panels still to come. Three women carrying their wares toward Jacob and Esau, for one more example, supply Boticelli's with his three graces.

Where the first panel belongs to ideal human forms and a landscape of low-lying rock and tall, slim trees, Jacob and Esau belong to architecture. Ghiberti has created a city, in debt to the real one that nurtured his art. A succession of tall arches, staggered and overlaid, pushes to the scene's very edges and recedes into depth. From his own former student, Donatello, he has learned to mix foreground low relief with lines incised into the plane, to further the illusion of infinite space. In this ideal city, the young men bargain, stride confidently, and receive a father's blessing. Even the narrow roof of an arch serves improbably for their mother to receive the prophecy of all that is to come.

A busy city appears in the third panel, too, barely outlined at the top. Significantly, it fills the place in the first panel occupied by God. Beneath an army presses slowly forward, just giving way for David in victory and, in a separate event, Goliath fallen below. If Florence itself takes shape in the course of the doors, here it surges out onto the world. However, Ghiberti's evolution begins earlier still. To see the real place of The Gates of Paradise, it helps to go back to its setting.

From figure to space

The influence of the arts on one another does not run merely one way. Giotto himself had designed the bell tower, or campanile, for the cathedral. His paintings also guided Andrea Pisano in designs for the very first set of Baptistery doors, in 1336, roughly when Taddeo Gaddi was finishing his panel now in the New-York Historical Society. Reasonably enough, Pisano had to illustrate the life of John the Baptist. He set each of twenty-eight panels in a quatrefoil, with lots of blank space above block-like figures and furnishings. He could be painting the laws of gravity.

The 1401 competition kicks off the early Renaissance in earnest. Ghiberti unveiled the north doors in 1424, around the time of Masaccio's paintings. That means twenty years for the design, wax molds, cast bronze, and gilding, while painters and others could observe. In turn, The Gates of Paradise could learn from the new painting, including the first continuous landscape by Fra Angelico. Ghiberti undertook them in 1425 and completed the design by the late 1430s, but the image evolved right down to marks of the artist's hand in burnishing. He died in 1455, as a second Renaissance style was beginning.

In his competition panel, Brunelleschi constructs a violent but carefully structured scene. He places the sacrifice of Isaac at the top of a pyramid, with Abraham's knife and stunned look at its peak. One must step visually over the steed at its base, with a servant to either side, then to Isaac's pedestal, his crouched body, and his father's arm restraining him. At top left the angel rushes in, while at top right Abraham's cloak billows behind him. They complete the symmetry and use each corner of the quatrefoil, but they further destabilize the pyramid as much as offering a happy ending. One gets the feeling of emotions that exceed an architect's best attempt to rein them in, and that pretty much sums up Brunelleschi's daring and rationality.

By comparison, Ghiberti cleans house. The servants in his competition panel fit snugly beneath a rock, which rises to fill the left-hand side but also recedes toward the sacrificial lamb waiting to take Isaac's place. The angel at upper left, too, comes forward, heavily foreshortened. That leaves the focus on Abraham's arm drawn back and Isaac's bare chest held out as if proudly awaiting the blow. He kneels on a pedestal, its front carved and in perspective, his left thigh prominent. Everything focuses on father and son, but Ghiberti subordinates even the threat to the Renaissance's first graceful and heroic nude.

Needless to say, he won out over the more experienced artist, as well as a budding rival in art from Siena, Jacopo della Quercia. The assignment changed—from the Old Testament to the New—and Ghiberti's first set of doors cleans house much further. Scenes come down to simple stage sets, tilted to connect to the viewer's space. They come down, too, to the relation between only a few figures each time. And each time the figures sway gently while standing heroically, with hardly a trace of physical or psychological conflict. When the angel of the annunciation flies toward Mary, he seems to tread just above the ground.

Ghiberti's first doors are all about the human figure, his second about space. Both sets have plenty of fictive architecture and landscape, but with two distinct uses. In the first doors, the background helps focus attention on the central actor. In the second, it subordinates a cast of actors to the larger scene. Together, the uses illuminate just why a three-dimensional medium sculpture mattered so much to painting.

War is hell

With The Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti gets to the Old Testament at last. The scheme also pares back to just those ten panels. The clover-leaf frame vanishes, too. So does elaborate decoration between panels, although the portrait heads and other motifs run vertically alongside. The change brings out the weight of the doors. It also makes each panel aspire to the continuous space of a painting.

Within that space, a lot is going on. Ghiberti has had to cut back the number of panels, but not the number of scenes. Painting had combined scenes before, perhaps with an expulsion from Paradise in the background to give meaning to Jesus's sacrifice on the cross. Here, though, Ghiberti had to combine many scenes within one panel—and to treat each as the present moment. He also had to draw on all his resources to hold things together. War is a messy business, even for King David, and in his last work Ghiberti as the radical aspirations of capturing the mess.

Ghiberti retains his mix of heroic nudes and gracefully clothed men and women. He can allow female nudes now, and God at the creation seems to have strolled in from an afternoon on the town. God, like Adam and Eve with the apple, also derive from Masaccio. Like painters, too, Ghiberti eliminates disjunctions in scale between foreground and background figures. Influence truly has started to run both ways.

The idealism and realism alike reflect Ghiberti's native optimism. He still has little or no interest in psychology. The young, androgynous David by Donatello has a curiously lurid interest in Goliath's head. Ghiberti's David dresses like a warrior and gets on with the job. Jacob and Esau seem equally at ease, with no sign of Esau's famished cry or pain at the loss of a birthright, and neither Adam nor Eve shivers at the Fall. Even in Paradise, Ghiberti populates a comfortingly familiar world.

He has all he can do to unify a scene, and he does not always succeed—or at least not in the same way. One can roughly divide the door vertically in thirds, and the Met's panels fairly represent each third. Some have preferred the middle third, with the calm, glorious logic of its architecture. The life of Joseph takes place in front of and within a colonnade in the round. The arches and piers for Jacob and Esau multiply the simple settings of Ghiberti's earlier set of doors to the point of opening onto a world. The upper scenes can feel relatively loose in structure, the lower ones crowded to the point of illegibility—almost a throwback to ivory relief carvings of the late Middle Ages that Ghiberti must have known as well.

Some have explained the differences in terms of Ghiberti's growth or, perhaps, decline. However, the design of the doors and their wax mold took shape in only a few of those twenty-seven years, from a commission in 1425. Simon Schama ingeniously relates the differences to the observer's point of view. The artist, he argues, emphasizes perspective in the middle scenes, because they extend the viewer's line of sight. Things look looser at top only because the landscape necessarily fades into the sky. The heads clump together at bottom because one is looking down on them.

Birth of a nation

Actually, the middle scenes loom well above eye level. The lower scenes can encompass so much because the eye can get close enough to examine them in detail. The Met even gives a good sense of the challenge, with a full-scale photograph of the doors. It seems so impenetrable that, next to it, the Met places a smaller photograph of the whole, along with text to explain each and every scene. After that, Ghiberti's extraordinary clarity in person, in the three panels on loan, comes as a pleasant surprise. It also comes as a reminder that sculpture really is three dimensional, and Ghiberti's illusion of life makes full use of its solid outlines and shadows.

The doors have been cleaned more than once before, and each time restorers and textbooks have spoken of capturing the vibrancy of the original. Gilding long lay hidden beneath soot but for the most part, if not entirely, intact. One can forgive the Met for so much fuss about the achievement this time. One can almost forgive it, too, for focusing more on the restoration and the plot of the panels than on their style, their meaning, or their significance to the Renaissance.

The three panels themselves get separate display cases on pedestals near the center of the room. A little text by the entrance introduces the story. Elsewhere text and images dwell on the doors' manufacture and restoration. The exhibition hardly bothers to note Ghiberti's earlier set. It does not reproduce Brunelleschi's competition panel or mention Pisano at all.

Along with other explanations, the changing style of The Gates of Paradise has to do with distinct subjects. At top God oversees the earth, at middle a city takes care of itself, and below the city provides a backdrop to history. Where the first panel describes the birth of a race and the second of a nation, the third shows it triumphant. In the Old Testament, the nation is Israel. In sculpture, Florence is its worthy heir.

The scenes also have more unity in common than one might think. Each time, solid ground runs beneath the scene, extending to its edges and tilted in perspective toward the space of the viewer. Each time, prominent actors appear at the lower left and right. Each time, space opens above, to complete a pyramid with a key act and to supply a visual center. Each time, an incised mass at top—God and his angels, a city's walls—sets the scene as on a stage, and each time the burnished gold adds to the illusion, much like the ground for a painting. And each time, Ghiberti places art in the space of civic culture.

Modern art comes wrapped up with the idea of privacy. It is supposed to begin in the artist's imagination, and it typically vanishes into someone's home. Michelangelo set the precedent when he shut out rivals and assistants alike so that he could finish the Sistine Ceiling, while Renaissance bronzes by Andrea Riccio retreated into a scholar's study. That can make art's public side controversial or censored, especially when religion, politics, and sex enter the mix. It can make public art simply unwelcome, like Richard Serra's Tilted Arc or a cultural center at Ground Zero, or simply an event, like a more modern set of The Gates—by Christo in Central Park. That makes it a little hard to grasp what public art meant for Florence, but a small show gives a taste of why it took Ghiberti a lifetime.

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"The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 13, 2008.


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