The people entered and understood
After a restoration that took 27 years, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise will be presented to the public in the Florence Cathedral Museum on 8 September. The Museum’s Director explains their importance.
The mystery accompanying the human act of entering a building consecrated to God is strong in Christianity, for Jesus identified himself as the personal place of passage: “I am the gate”, he said: “Anyone who enters through me will be safe: he will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture” (John 10,9). This relationship was particularly clear in the case of the gilded doors fashioned by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florentine Baptistery and mounted at the main, eastern portal, because, when open, the doors framed a colossal figure of Christ in mosaic above the baptismal font.
The Gates were not originally meant for the eastern portal but for that on the north side of the building. At the east, Ghiberti’s first set of doors with scenes from the Life of Christ were supposed to remain: they had been set in place in 1424. But when the Gates of Paradise were finished in 1452, such was the impact of their beauty that it was decided to give them the place of honour opposite the Cathedral, even if their iconographic program treats Old and not New Testament themes. That was not really a problem, for Christ had presented himself as One come “to complete” the ancient Scriptures (Matthew 5,17).
Beyond their catechetical function, the Gates of Paradise also helped shape the sense of history of Florentines, who in the reliefs saw themselves inserted, through Baptism, in a millennial project of salvation. It is no accident, in fact, that Ghiberti represents the ‘temple’ in which Solomon received the Queen of Sheba as the Florence Cathedral, finally completed while he was working on the Gates.
Made between 1425-52, the ‘Gates of Paradise’, as Michelangelo would call them, are the last of three monumental bronze doors commissioned for the Florence Baptistery by the Arte di Calimala, the wealthy guild to whose care this church dedicated to the city’s patron saint, John the Baptist, was entrusted.
The other two doors – one made in the 14th century by Andrea Pisano and the other done by Ghiberti himself between 1403-24 – narrate, respectively, the life of Saint John and that of Christ, with – in both cases – 20 small stories in Gothic quatrefoil frames. This third set of doors, which illustrates events from the Old Testament, was meant to have the same format, as we know from a programme written by the humanist Leonardo Bruni and conserved in the archives. But the project was modified, and the 20 small Gothic panels became 10 large square ones, obliging Ghiberti to bring together in each of his compositions several episodes of the relative Bible account. The larger visual field allowed him, however, to exploit then new artistic skills such as linear perspective and the articulated and variegated narrative mode that Alberti called ‘istoria’.
In fact Ghiberti’s 10 narrative reliefs, together with the beautiful border figures, resume in sculptural form the conquests of early fifteenth-century painting and architecture, justifying the pride with which Lorenzo, alongside his self-portrait and the portrait of his son and collaborator Vittorio, put a solemn signature - LAURENTII CIONIS DE GHIBERTIS – , adding an invitation to viewers to admire the talent with which his work is done: MIRA ARTE FABRICATUM.
During the lengthy restoration of the Gates of Paradise numerous stamp marks were found: signs made by metal chisels with the figures to be stamped cut ‘in positive’ on their tip. These impressions are on the back of the right valve: forty figures, quite varied, mainly distributed on the door frame, especially in the upper centre of the valve. And, even though very different both in size and in their formal features, the images impressed are almost all related to the gold florin, the Florentine coin that, since it first appeared in 1252, bore on the front the likeness of the city’s patron saint, John the Baptist, and, on the other side, the lily.
The stamp marks thus derive from a series of tests for coinage. Dora Liscia Bemporad has pointed out that these probably date from 1448, when the frames of the Gates of Paradise were lying in Ghiberti’s shop, not yet mounted on their hinges. In all likelihood the authors of the stamp marks are Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, a coin cutter in the Florentine Mint since 1410 and Ghiberti’s collaborator since 1417, and Bernardo Cennini, who in 1448 succeeded Michelozzo in the position at the Mint and at the same time entered Ghiberti’s shop to help make the frame of the Gates. Later, Cennini will become a typographer, in 1471-72 producing the first printed book in Florence, and in 1481 will work on the Baptistery’s Silver Altar (exhibited here in the Museum), fashioning the panel that depicts The Annunciation to Zachary.
The present installation of the Gates of Paradise in the covered courtyard of the Cathedral Museum is temporary, as we wait to be able to place the work in a space proportioned to its size and in a context analogous to that which the artist, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and his patron, the Calimala guild, wanted.
The Gates will eventually be installed in the main room of the new Santa Maria del Fiore Museum, now in construction. This room – 36 metres long, 12 wide and 16 high – will host a reconstruction of the unfinished medieval façade of the Cathedral, which will serve as backdrop for the 40 sculptures in the Opera collection originally made for the church’s gothic front. These works, datable between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 15th – marble statues and reliefs by Arnolfo di Cambio, Giovanni Tedesco, Nanni di Banco and Donatello – will stand right across from Ghiberti’s Gates, which will thus reacquire the role assigned them when, at their completion, it was decided to put them on the eastern side of the Baptistery, opposite the Cathedral. They will once again stand out as the superb final expression of a Florentine sculptural tradition born in the early 14th century.
On exhibit in the same room of the new Museum will be two monumental Roman sarcophagi of the Imperial period that once stood in Piazza del Duomo, and the three 16th-century groups of colossal statues made to stand above the portals of the Baptistery. In effect the room will reconstitute a fundamental chapter of the history of European sculpture, with, in the place of honour, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise.