Florence is synonymous with Art, thanks to the numerous talented artists coming out of this small Italian city. The famed Renaissance period has given us countless examples of art across media. So when I came across the words “The Florentine Renaissance: The City as a Crucible of Culture” on one bus shelter at CST station, it was really a no-brainer that this was one exhibition I wasn’t going to miss.
While I am aware of masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Boticelli, Bellini and Raphael, the name Lorenzo Ghiberti did not really ring a bell when I was reading about the exhibition at Bhau Daji Lad museum. Call it my ignorance, but I haven’t really explored the Renaissance art period as much as I would love to. But after today’s visit to the Bhau Daji Lad museum wherein I got a guided tour of the installation titled Gates of Paradise, I know that I have a lot of reading ahead of me about this master Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The installation at the museum is a replica of the original Gates of Paradise, but it has been made from the original mould with guilded patina. It has been cast by Frilli Gallery in Florence, and is loaned from the Guild of the Dome association in Florence. The original Gates of Paradise had to undergo 27 years of restoration and are now securely lodged at Museo dell’ Opera in Florence.
I will not go into the history of Ghiberti’s life as there is enough data on that available online. But the Gates of Paradise – a name given by Michelangelo to the 10-panelled doors sculpted by Ghiberti – was commissioned as a result of a previous work, another masterpiece known as North Doors which had 28 panels depicting Biblical themes. How he got that is an interesting story.
In 1401, the cloth merchants in Florence held a competition whereby they wanted artists to design the north doors of the Florence Baptistry. Artists were asked to make submissions in the form of gilded bronze panels. The then 20-year old Ghiberti, the son of a goldsmith, submitted his work. His peer, another artist named Fillipo Brunelleschi also submitted his work which was equally appreciated. This is where things get interesting. According to Ghiberti’s autobiography, he had won that competition fair and square, but other sources claim that works of both Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were equally appreciated. The guild decided to let both the artists work on the North Door together.
As is human nature, ego got in the way. Brunelleschi left off for Rome leaving Ghiberti to work on the doors himself. That took 21 years. The next commission was the East doors – now known as Gates of Paradise. This took another 27 years.
Just get your head around those numbers – one artist (with his team) spent 48 years on these making these doors.
Forty-eight years is a long time, almost a life-time for most of us. Forget 20 years, it is difficult for most of us to last even 5 years working on just one single project. And here you have an artist who did that twice over. One look at the Gates of Paradise will tell you that this enterprise should have taken years to complete. But it is equally mind boggling to see the consistency maintained over this long duration.
The first thing that hit me was the sheer detailing on these doors. You have two doors divided into 10 square panels each depicting a different story from the Old Testament such as the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, and so on. The doors are surrounded by human figures on the edges interrupted with floral designs. The dark brown wood on the doors is wonderfully complemented by the golden finish on the sculpted panels. Ghiberti used the lost wax casting process for the sculpting.
Closer inspection of at least the lower four or six panels (based on your height as the entire structure is 16 ft in height) gives you an insight on how Ghiberti wasn’t just a master sculptor, but also paid attention to perspective. Till this point I was under the impression that perspective was a headache of only the painters (again, maybe this is just my limited knowledge), but I was so wrong. Many of the sculptures come out of the plane of the door, giving it a three-dimensional outlook. One would believe that the non-visible side of a subject’s profile wouldn’t have the same level of detail as the visible side, but again I’m proven wrong.
Even though it is one installation, each panel is an art work in itself, and could have very well stood out on its own. Instead of leaving the edges unattended, you are treated to sculptures of people standing in different costumes, which is demarcated by just faces of others. One of these faces is a self-sculpture of Lorenzo Ghiberti himself. That may very well be the only sculpted selfie from the Renaissance period I must have heard of (but then again, I maybe wrong).
Spending around two hours admiring a work which took 27 years to complete, certainly seems unjust. Last time I was this beguiled was when I visited Dilwara Temples in Mount Abu. I know two completely separate periods, completely separate artistic styles, completely different artists. But both of them have a universal artistic language – one that immediately speaks to you.