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Ghiberti, "Gates of Paradise," east doors of the Florence Baptistery

Video transcript

we're in Florence at the Museum of the works of the Cathedral of Florence and we're looking at de birdies the gates of paradise 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 baptistry an incredibly important building in the history of Florence so the heart of Florence is the cathedral and the baptistry these two buildings that stand side by side and the baptistry was the place where the citizens of Florence would be baptized and like many Baptist Rees 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 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 baptistry the first set were coming out of the medieval tradition they were by Andrea Pisano and the subject of those stories was the life of st. John the Baptist and that makes sense for a Baptistery the second set of doors were at 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 on to cast quite famously this extraordinary earlier set of doors when those were finally finished he received this commission even though these doors by Gioberti were intended for the north side when they were done they were considered so beautiful that they were placed on the east side facing the cathedral itself the place of honor 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 the extraordinary detail here is visible and we can see why the Florentines wanted to move them to the most prominent place and why michelangelo referred to them as the gates of paradise now we should say first too that this was commissioned by the wealthiest of the guilds of Florence so this was commissioned by the guild of wool merchants we might wonder why so much energy was spent on doors doors historically hippy 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 we go back to ancient Rome there is a great tradition of bronze doors right so we have the great bronze doors on the Pantheon and it makes sense that the Florentines would want bronze doors in this tradition on the baptistry since the Florentines believe that their baptistry 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 Quattro foils that is they had four corners and four lobes but here instead of those quatrefoil shapes gioberti is giving us 10 square scenes 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 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 is a window that was so important in the Renaissance well so much it happened in the period since ghiberti's first commissioned well Brunelleschi had developed linear perspective this mathematical way of constructing a really convincing illusion of space in relief sculpture or in painting you call this relief sculpture and in fact some of the primary figures are almost in the round they're almost freestanding 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 that way of creating an illusion of space goes back to Donatello's relief sculpture of Saint George and the dragon the kind of relief called Riviera Ski chato or flattened relief and so we have this transition from the full sculptural form to what becomes almost drawing so everything here is not only about an illusion of space but also about an illusion of reality in terms of the figures or they move gracefully and stand in contrapposto there's an ease of the figures that is so different than the Gothic doors that came before them 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 race so Esau and Jacob were two brothers the sons of Rebekah and Isaac so we've got seven different moments of this story within a single frame and the scene starts in the extreme upper right corner where we see God appearing to Rebekah she's pregnant and she's asking God why is there so much turmoil in my womb 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 Rebekah gives birth to these twins Esau and Jacob 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 a doubt 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 so Esau not being very clever sells his birthright right sells his inheritance for a bowl of stew 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 and we see Esau going out hunting on that right edge of the panel and in fact Esau is Isaac's favorite and Rebecca's favorite is David so what's next in a way the climax of the story is next Rebekah says to Jacob while your brother's out hunting I want you to bring me a couple of goats I'm gonna make the stew for your father and you're gonna bring him that stew and you're gonna trick Isaac into thinking that you're Esau and have him give you his blessing instead of the older son Esau and in the lower right we see Isaac blessing Jacob thinking he's blessing he saw Rebecca and Jacob have tricked Isaac into blessing the wrong son 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 could the clarity of the line look at the clarity of the geometry all of that would have signaled the return to the classical tradition and the round arches and the plasters with Corinthian capitals and the way that the figures stand in contrapposto and what that does is it sets up a stage set where this complex narrative can be clearly represented and within the space it's constructed by linear perspective we see the orthogonals those diagonal lines that recede into space in the floor I also see them in the arches 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 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