Florence day 3 (continuation 1)

The three bronze doors of the Baptistery, or, the San Giovanni and the 1401 competition for the second set of doors of the Baptistery

Baptistery large size
Baptistery Florence

picture: Jack Seikaly

The first door by Andrea Pisano Baptistery 1330-1336 southern side
Baptistery southern side doors Andrea Pisano Florence

The decision to cast the bronze door

The third most important sculptor, Andrea Pisano, from the trecento, also did not hail from Florence (for the architecture of the Baptistery, click here). He likely received his training in Pisa. Little is known of what Pisano did prior to 1330. He produced the first of the three bronze doors for the Baptistery. Andrea Pisano was commissioned by the wealthy wool guild: the Calimala. Sources in 1330 first mention him as a maestro delle porte. Originally, according to a 1329 document, the wool guild wished for the wooden doors to be lined with gilt red-copper or another metal.7  Some years later, they reach the decision to have the doors made entirely of bronze, instead. After all, Florence was to surpass cities like Pisa or Vernice. The goldsmith, Piero di Jacopo, is tasked with making sketches of the bronze doors in Pisa. These doors from the second half of the twelfth century by Bonanno da Pisa were a technical masterpiece for that period.

‘In said year of 1330 the beautiful metal doors of San Giovanni, of marvellous workmanship and expense, were begun. The parts were modelled in wax and the figures then chased and gilded by a Master Andre Pisano; they were cast in a furnace by Venetian masters. And I the present writer, on behalf of the merchants of the Calimala, wardens of the workshop of San Giovanni, was the official to direct said work.’ according to Giovanni Villani in his Chronica.

Cited from: Antonio Paolucci, ‘Het ontluiken van de Renaissancekunst De deuren van de Doopkapel te Florence’, Gallenbach, Baarn, 1996 p. 8.

Bronze doors Duomo Pisa large size
Bonanno da Pisa bronze doors Duomo Pisa

The first door by Andrea Pisano (now southern side)

Jacopo also had to scout the best bronze casters of that time. In Venice, which was known for its vast knowledge on bronze casting, they tracked down a man named Leonardo d’Avanzo. Under his supervision and with the help of workers from Venice, the panels and doors were cast. This is also how the mosaic in the Baptistery dome was made by craftsman from Venice. After all, Florence still lacked the know-how of casting such large doors. What we know from the sources is that there was a casting error, because ‘the doors were so slanted that they were impossible to use’.8  The wax models for this door were completed by Andrea Pisano in 1330, and the actual casting was done six years later. The frame and the panels were cast separately as can easily be seen from its backside. For more images of the door of Pisano, see  Wikipedia.

The door of  Andrea Pisano closed door southern side
Baptistery The bronze doors of  Andrea Pisano

photo: dvdbramhall

The reliefs were later mounted in the frame. Fourteenth-century chronicler, Simone della Tosa, wrote in 1336 about the inauguration of this door:

‘All of Florence convened to see the bronze door made by Andrea Pisano for the Baptistery chapel and which was located in the centre entryway [later transferred south]. The Signoria, who were not ones to usually leave the palazzo apart for on major holidays, came to see it erected, together with the ambassadors of both Crowns of Napels and Sicily, and they awarded Andrea citizenship of Florence for his efforts [later, Andrea Pisano was also granted permission to work on the Campanile].’

According to Tosa, cited and translated from: Antonio Paolucci, ‘Het ontluiken van de Renaissancekunst De deuren van de Doopkapel te Florence’, Gallenbach, Baarn, 1996 p. 27.

Pisano signed the door leaves anno 1330 with: Andreas: Ugolini: Nini: de: Pisis: me: fecit: A: D: M: CCC: XXX or ‘Andrea son of Ugolino Nino from Pisa made me in the year of the Lord 1330’

Ghiberti will keep the story running along the leaves from left to right with his doors. Usually, Old Testament stories were arranged from top to bottom. Scenes from the New Testament, however, were arranged from bottom to top. Pisano deviates from this. His arrangement is from top to bottom, while describing the history of John the Baptist in the New Testament. (click here for an overview of the panels with the scenes). By doing this, it probably becomes clear that John should be regarded as the prophet of the old law and as the predecessor of Christ. The panels are bronze, but the landscape, figures and inscriptions on the doors are gilded. For the many images of the door of Pisano, see Wikipedia.

The exception in the series of narrative panels is ‘the Birth of John the Baptist’.  Elisabeth, John’s mother, is lying on her bed and watching the women bathing her new-born. The bed she is on is situated implausibly to the floor. This unfortunate spatial arrangement that is not seen in the other panels is often interpreted as Pisano first having started on ‘the Birth of John’ and that he gradually grew better.9

Andrea Pisano ‘The Birth of John the Baptist’ big format
Andrea Pisano t'The Birth of John the Baptist' Baptistery doors

In ‘John baptizes the heathens’, a bent over John is pouring water over the head of a half-nude, kneeling heathen.  This scene is lacking in depth. The landscape is convincingly done with some simple elements like rocks, a tree, a bush, some shrubs and a watching bird. The story is legible with a single glance. Through gestures, postures and lines of sight, the eye of the spectator is being steered and the story is told. This applies equally to the other narrative scenes. The folds in the drapes of the various figures are all different.

Andrea Pisano ‘John baptizes the heathens’
Andrea di Pisano 'John baptizes the heathens' doors Baptistery Florence

This is very different from how Bonanno da Pisa did this for his 12th century reliefs in the doors of the Duomo in Pisa, as you can see below.

Bonanno da Pisa Bronze door detail Duomo Pisa

Examining the gowns worn by the figures of Bonnona, and comparing them to Pisano’s, you see an enormous difference. Pisano has portrayed the drapes in a much more convincing manner and you get more of an impression, though faulty as it is, that the garments are at least hiding a body. Besides, the rhythm of the pleating is different for each figure of Pisano, as opposed to the ones by Bonanno. This does not mean that Pisano is part of the Renaissance. For instance, he still uses the same nose or beard for his figures, and consequently many of them look pretty similar.

The influence of Giotto on Andrea Pisano’s door

There is a clear connection between the work of Pisano on the doors and the frescos of Giotto (Web Gallery of Art) in the Peruzzi-chapel (Santa Croce).10  Not only in terms of style, but even when it comes to the general theme like the naming of John the Baptist.

Andrea Pisano and Giotto John the Baptist large
Andra Pisano 'John the Baptist' Baptistery  


Andrea Pisano and Giotto Peruzzi Chapel large
Andrea Pisano 'The naming of John the Baptist' Baptistery

The interior is effectively portrayed by Giotto and Pisano by some simple elements like a kind of doll house and the occasional detail like a chair. Gestures and postures add immediate clarity to the situation. The figures all have sufficient volume and are modelled convincingly. For the virtue, Spes, Pisano copied the figure that Giotto pained in the Arena chapel in Padua.

Andrea Pisano ‘Spes Hope’ and Giotto Spes Padua
Andrea Pisano 'Spes Hope' Baptistery bronze door

Giotto invented the law of Apelles as can be read in the section about painting in Florence. This is very different from the figures of Bonanno da Pisa as can be seen below.

Bonanno da Pisa bronze doors Duomo Pisa

The relief of ‘Baptism of Christ by John‘ shows a remarkably body of Christ. A nude upper body, for the first time in a thousand years, which seems to come straight from the classical era because it looks so authentic. Genuine anatomical perfection would not be understood until the late 15th century by, for example, a sculptor like Michelangelo.11

Andrea Pisano ‘Baptism of Christ by John’      Large size
Andrea Pisano 'Baptism of Christ by John' detail Baptistery

The framing of the door by Pisano was later added by Ghiberti’s gallery, in a style that is far removed from the person who made the first door: Andrea Pisano (Wikipedia: framing door Pisano).

The competition of the second set of doors  of the Baptistery

The first door was the result of a competition, not so much between artists, but between cities. Bonanno’s bronze doors from 1186 from the cathedral of Pisa had to be trumped. To boot, after the start of the new Duomo in Florence, their fiercest rival Siena had also commenced construction on an even larger cathedral. The mutual rivalries between 15th century Italian cities were increasingly becoming a rivalry between individual artists. In addition, the guilds and other organisations were also competing against each other. While the trader’s guild, Arte di Calimala (guild of wool traders), had ordered the Baptistery doors, the Arte della Lana (guild of wool workers) commissioned the decorations of the Porta della Mandorla at the Duomo.

Youtube Khan Academy  Ghiberti and Brunelleschi and the  competition  1401 (5.24 minutes)

In 1401, the Arte di Calimala launches a competition. The artist who would produce the finest work would be awarded the assignment for a second set of doors for the Baptistery. The theme was the Sacrifice of Isaac. A theme like this meant that the artist had to be very well-versed in all artistic aspects. Not only would he be required to accurately portray humans, but also animals, landscape and the art of portraying a legible story. In his ‘I Commentarii’, the writer, artist and ultimate winner, Lorenzo Ghiberti, names six out of the seven competitors: Filippo Brunelleschi, Symone da Colle (Simone da Colle), Nicholò d’Areco, Jacopo della Quercia, Francesco di Valdombrina and Nicholò Lamberti.12

Lorenzo Ghiberti
Lorenzo Ghiberti 'portrait Ghiberti' Baptistery


Brunelleschi large size

The judges, who were to evaluate the submissions, comprised 34 prominent Florentines: they had to choose between the seven reliefs. Two reliefs immediately stood out: one by Brunelleschi and the other by Ghiberti. Both reliefs have been kept to this day and can be seen in the Bargello, where they are placed together (comparison reliefs from the sides). The other five sample panels were likely melted. The judges eventually opted for Lorenzo Ghiberti. That said, there was definitely admiration for Brunelleschi’s work, if we can go by the words of the artist Manetti, for he writes that the judges:

‘were amazed at how difficult he made it for himself: the posture of Abraham, the position of his finger under Isaac’s chin, his determined movement, his clothes and expression, and the slim young boy’s body of Isaac: and the depiction and drapes of the Angel and the latter’s posture and how he grasps Abraham’s hand; and the pose and the manner of depiction and refinement of the man removing a thorn from his foot and the other man who is leaning forward and drinking.

Brunelleschi Het offer van Isaak prijsvraag 1401

They were amazed about the level of difficulty in these figures and how well these figures operated in the whole […]

Manetti, di, A, ‘The life of Brunelleschi’, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park and London, 1970 (rules) 277-285.

Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Sacrifice of Isaac and large size
Brunelleschi and Ghiberti 'Sacrifice of Isaac' bronze
Brunelleschi Sacrifice of Isaac large size     Sacrifice of Isaac

Brunelleschi 'Sacrifice of Isaac' bronze Museo Bargello

Ghiberti Sacrifice of Isaac big size      Large size
Ghiberti 'Sacrifice of Isaac' bronze Museo Bargello

The difficulties described by Manetti are very appreciated in that time. It was a way to surpass other artists.13 This is definitely an example of a budding Renaissance. While Ghiberti and Brunelleschi use examples from Antiquity like the thorn remover and the nude upper body of Isaac (based on a classical torso of a centaur Metropolitan NY), we cannot yet speak of a genuinely new style: the Renaissance.

Ghiberti ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ detail
Ghiberti 'Sacrifice of Isaac' detail


Brunelleschi ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ detail
Brunelleschi 'Sacrifice of Isaac' detail

For the final choice of Ghiberti’s panel, the amount of bronze involved likely played a part. The winning relief weighed a resounding seven pounds less than Brunelleschi’s. We can see this on the day we visit the Bargello. Some of the original panels of Ghiberti’s second door, the Paradise door, can also be seen from the back in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. There, you can see how nifty Ghiberti was in saving so much bronze. The entire door with its 28 panels have saved on a considerable amount of bronze, namely some two hundred kilograms.

Ghiberti ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ backside and Brunelleschi ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ backside
Ghiberti 'Sacrifice of Isaac' backside relief


According to Ghiberti, he was unanimously voted the best.14 In his I commentarii, Ghiberti describes the competition results as follows:

‘My competitors were: Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, Symone da Colle, Nicholò d’Areco, Jacopo della Quercia da Siena, Francesco di Valdombrina and Nicholò Lamberti. With the six of us, we were to create the aforementioned sample [sacrifice of Isaac], and in doing so show that we have mastered the most important elements of sculpting. All experts and all those who took the trial with me awarded me victory. With general votes, with no exceptions, I was given the glory of winner. Others were of the opinion that I had far surpassed all the rest, with no exceptions, and after a lengthy evaluation and reflection by knowledgeable men. The church custodians of the aforesaid administrators wanted to write their verdict personally – they were knowledgeable men, including painters and gold, silver and marble workers. The evaluators were 34 in total, from the city and its surrounding areas: all attributed victory to me, consuls and church custodians and the entire merchant guild that governs the temple of John the Baptist [Baptistery]. It was decided that I would be granted the honour of making the aforesaid bronze door for the aforesaid temple. And so I did, with great zeal.’

Cited and translated from: René van Stipriaan, ‘De jacht op het meesterwerk Ooggetuigen van twintig eeuwen kunstgeschiedenis’, Athenaeum-Polak&van Gennep, Amsterdam 2010 p. 45-46

Vasari, who wrongly listed Donatello as one of the artists to have partaken in the competition, confirms this for the competitors, because:

‘Filippo [Brunelleschi] and Donatello [agreed] that only the work of Lorenzo sufficed, and they considered him more suitable for the work than themselves or others who had submitted a sample. And so they visited the consuls and provided good reason for them to award the assignment to Lorenzo [Ghiberti], by showing that this would best serve public and personal interests; and they showed they were true friends, with talent devoid of envy, and with a good deal of self-knowledge, […]’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, part 1, 1992 p. 162 (original edition 1568).

The biographer of Brunelleschi, Manetti, has a very different story to tell. According to Brunelleschi, the competition was sabotaged. Manetti writes that the judges were divided and could not choose between the two works. Both artists would thus receive the assignment. In case Brunelleschi disagreed with this, then the assignment was at risk of being awarded to Ghiberti.15 With the judge’s report having gone lost, we will never know the real story. Ghiberti and Vasari or Brunelleschi’s biographer.

Still, the choice of the judges is an understandable one, if only because of the considerable bronze savings. Presumably, another factor weighing in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s favour was that he had a gallery that was very upstanding.16 For instance, Ghiberti only required 1 cast for the entire panel save for the figure of Isaac.17 Brunelleschi cast his panel in seven separate parts. The style difference is another thing that must have played a role in the judge’s musings.

Brunelleschi’s panel is clearly different from his rival’s. Brunelleschi is evidently realistic. Abraham, for instance, exudes something threatening. You are not sure if the dagger in the body of his son Isaac will end up piercing him, despite the Angel’s hand already firmly grabbing the father’s arm. This is very different from the work of Ghiberti, on which it is already very evident that the rescuing angel will prevent the sacrifice. Besides, Brunelleschi may have pushed his realism a bit too far in the opinion of the judges. For example, he has produce two figures who are definitely not aware of what is going on. One is removing a thorn from his foot (based on a famous classical sculpture), while the other is leaning forward and drinking.

Even the sheep near Isaac is scratching its head with its back leg. Ghiberti’s work, on the other hand, seems more elegant as can be deduced from the folds in the cloak. Still, Ghiberti’s work is not without realistic details such as both figures left on the forefront who are saddling up the mule. What is striking is that Abraham’s gown has a more gothic and thus more decorative pleating, while the nude body of his son seems to have been taken straight from Antiquity.18     

Read more about the competition See E.J. Duckworth e.art=history

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