Sculpture and architecture in central Italy
Ghiberti, "Gates of Paradise," east doors of the Florence Baptistery
- [Steven] We're in Florence at the museum of the works of the Cathedral of Florence. And we're looking at Ghiberti's the Gates of Paradise. - [Beth] Although we're in the museum for the works of the cathedral. These doors were not for the cathedral of Florence. These doors were for the baptistery, an incredibly important building in the history of Florence. So the heart of Florence is the cathedral and the baptistery. These two buildings that stand side by side. And the baptistery was the place where the citizens of Florence would be baptized. And like many baptisteries it is an octagonal building. They were called the Gates of Paradise because they were so beautiful. And this goes back to Michelangelo who referred to them this way, but of course this is legend. - [Steven] Well, he said that these doors were so beautiful that they could actually be the doors of heaven itself. This was the final set of bronze doors to be cast for the baptistery. The first set were coming out of the medieval tradition. - [Beth] They were by Andrea Pisano and the subject of those doors was the life of St. John the Baptist. And that makes sense for a baptistery. - [Steven] The second set of doors were by Ghiberti but at the beginning of his career. He had won a competition that had come down to him and Brunelleschi, and he was victorious. And would go onto cast, quite famously, this extraordinary earlier set of doors. When those were finally finished, he received this commission. - [Beth] Even though these doors by Ghiberti were intended for the north side, when they were done they were considered so beautiful that were placed on the east side facing the cathedral itself, a place of honor. - [Steven] Now the doors have recently been conserved and they are spectacular. Only a few years ago they were black with grime, but now all that original gilding is visible. All of the extraordinary detail here is visible. And we can see why the Florentines wanted to move them to the most prominent place. - [Beth] Any why Michelangelo referred to them as the Gates of Paradise. Now we should say first too, that was commissioned by the wealthiest of the guilds of Florence. So this commissioned by the Guild of Wool Merchants. We might wonder why so much energy was spent on doors. - [Steven] Doors historically have been the place where one focuses sculptural attention. If you look at medieval cathedrals, the doors are often surrounded by the most elaborate carving. But if you go all the way back to the classical tradition, if you go back to ancient Rome, there is a great tradition of bronze doors. - [Beth] Right, so we have the great bronze doors on the Pantheon. - [Steven] And it makes sense that the Florentines would want bronze doors in this tradition on the baptistery, since the Florentines believed that their baptistery had ancient roots. That it was a classical Roman building. So when we walk up to the doors, the first thing I notice is just how big they are. Now these are very different from the earlier doors, which were much more gothic in their design. And most specifically, each of the main scenes were in the shape of quatrefoils. That is they had four corners and four lobes. - [Beth] But here instead of those quatrefoil shapes, Ghiberti is giving us ten square scenes. - [Steven] Well look how these square panels are really pictorial spaces. They are allowing us to look into an infinitely deep space. If we compare these to the earlier quatrefoil forms, what I see is a sculptor who's trying to fit into a predefined space. Whereas here there is now this confidence, this renaissance notion that the artist is capable of creating an entire world within that space. - [Beth] Before you basically had a ledge with some figures on it and a schematic architectural setting. Here, you're right, the artist can open up that space and make it deep, make it wide, and really create a virtual reality. That idea of the picture as a window that was so important in the Renaissance. - [Steven] Well so much had happened in the periods since Ghiberti's first commission. - [Beth] Well Brunelleschi had developed linear perspective. This mathematical way of constructing a really convincing illusion of space in relief sculpture or in painting. - [Steven] You call this relief sculpture and in fact, some of the primary figures are almost in the round. They're almost free-standing figures. But then as we move back into the pictorial space, figures get smaller and they get shallower, until figures are only described by lines that are cut into the surface. - [Beth] That way of creating an illusion of space goes back to Donatello's relief sculpture of St. George and the dragon. It's a kind of relief called rilievo schiacciato, or flattened relief. - [Steven] And so we have this transition from the full sculptural form to what becomes almost drawing. - [Beth] So everything here is not only about an illusion of space, but also about an illusion of reality in terms of the figures. They move gracefully and stand in contrapposto. There's an ease of the figures that is so different then the gothic doors that became before them. - [Steven] These ten scenes are Old Testament. They are from the Jewish bible, from the Book of Genesis. They start with the creation of Adam, the creation of Eve, the fall. They show Noah and then perhaps most famously on these doors, the scene of Esau and Jacob. - [Beth] Right, so Esau and Jacob were two brothers, the sons of Rebecca and Isaac. So we've got seven different moments of this story within a single frame. - [Steven] And the scene starts in the extreme upper right corner, where we see God appearing to Rebecca. She's pregnant and she's asking God why is there so much turmoil in my womb? - [Beth] Why do my two future children seem to be already fighting and they're not even born yet? And God answers and says those two children represent two nations and two peoples. And the younger will supplant the older. And this is of course, the opposite of the way things were. The older son would normally inherit. So in the very next scene, Rebecca gives birth to these twins, Esau and Jacob. - [Steven] And then just to the right, we see a significant moment in the story. Esau has gone hunting, he likes to go hunting. And he's come back really hungry. He goes to his brother Jacob who's about to eat a bowl of stew and says, can I have the stew, I'm famished. The brother says, I'll give you my stew if you give me your birthright. - [Beth] So Esau not being very clever sells his birthright, right? Sells his inheritance for a bowl of stew. - [Steven] Then in front we see Isaac sending his son, Esau out to hunt for him. Isaac likes the meat that Esau brings back and he also tells him, when you come back I will give you my blessing. - [Beth] And we see Esau going out hunting in the right edge of the panel. - [Steven] And in fact, Esau is Isaac's favorite. - [Beth] And Rebecca's favorite is Jacob. - [Steven] So what's next? - [Beth] In a way the climax of the story is next. Rebecca says to Jacob, while your brother's out hunting I want you to bring me a couple of goats. I'm going to make the stew for your father. And you're going to bring him that stew and you're going to trick Isaac into thinking that you're Esau. And have him give you his blessing, instead of the older son, Esau. - [Steven] And in the lower right, we see Isaac blessing Jacob, thinking he's blessing Esau. - [Beth] Rebecca and Jacob have tricked Isaac into blessing the wrong son. - [Steven] This is a pretty complicated story and yet the artist has been able to delineate it quite clearly. This early Renaissance moment is so proud of their knowledge of the classical tradition and of their ability to reinvent it. Look at the clarity of the line. Look at the clarity of the geometry. All of that would have signaled the return to the classical tradition. - [Beth] And the round arches and the plasters with corinthian capitals and the way that the figures stand in contrapposto. - [Steven] And what that does is it sets up a stage set, where this complex narrative can be clearly represented. - [Beth] And within the space it's constructed by linear perspective. We see the orthogonals, those diagonal lines that recede into space, in the floor. - [Steven] I also see them in the arches. - [Beth] And they lead to a single vanishing point in the middle distance. This is a masterpiece of early Renaissance clarity in terms of the space. Early Renaissance interest in the human body. Look at that figure of Esau, he stands in this lovely contrapposto. That space is so believable, everything that we expect about the early Renaissance is here.