The craggy old man sat under the receding shadow of Giotto’s campanile. He was selling cheap replica’s of Michelangelo’s David, postcards that depicted Tuscan landscape’s and other tidbits. I pointed over his shoulder and asked if the kind senor knew anything about those doors. He did not even bother to look behind. He gave me the high two shouldered I-do-not-care Italian shrug and continued to brood.
I even saw some tourists, head buried deep into Frommers’ , walk right past it. Right past the very doors Michelangelo dubbed porta caeli – The Gates of Paradise.
It is easy to see why. There is just so much going around here on the cobbled courtyard west of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. There is the iconic dome that caps not only the church, but metaphorically, caps Florence, The western neo-gothic façade of the basilica is stunning. Nearby, Giotto’s tower soars up in the Duomo’s airspace, unleashing a cunning optical illusion that leads the viewer to believe that all levels of the tower are of the same size (where as they mushroom out as the tower goes up.) Amidst these gigantic structures, both in size and reputation, the tiny octagonal Baptistery can be inadvertently ignored and the iconic bronze gates, just a spec on the spectacular Florentine art landscape.
Perchance, a visitor with a basic eye for the fabulous were to glance sideways, the view is guaranteed to stop the most frantic dash mid-step. And for those, like me, who came looking for them, put the backpack down, pull a chair, for there is a lot to soak in here.
For a twenty-first century frequent flier, digital SLR totting, email on iPhone, Rick Steve on iPad globe trotter, it would be difficult to imagine the early years of the fifteenth century to be anything but idyllic, laidback, easy, uncomplicated. Right here in Florence, the times were anything but that. The art frenzy in Florence c1400s matched the dot-com madness of Silicon Valley in late 1990s. Art was the currency, artists were cult icons and time was of essence. In 1401, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Fillipo Brunelleschi, two superstar artists came face to face, each bidding their superlative expertise to blow life into inanimate materials to earn the commission of the century, to design a new set of bronze doors for the baptistery. After one year of labor, the two artists presented their wares. (It is firmly believed that Giorgio Vasari first used the word concorrenza - competition in the context of this race.) The council could not cleanly choose between the two and they declared Ghiberti and Brunelleschi joint winners. Confident that he was second to none, even in the first place, Brunelleschi walked away from the contract, a decision that would ultimately pave another golden brick in the history of Florence and mankind. Ghiberti spent the next twenty-one years of his life in a workshop not too far from her, aided by apprentices like Donatello, to create a masterpiece that is today largely dated, insignificant and forgotten.
Brunelleschi went into a self imposed exile and appeared in time to participate in another competition in 1418 to design and build the dome for the church. Brunelleschi and Ghiberti competed again and this time Brunelleschi won. The rest is history. Brunelleschi managed to design and build a structure that has not been attempted for 500 years. Had Brunelleschi won the competition for the doors, it is quite likely the church would still have been an uncapped building. While Brunelleschi was busy figuring out the ingenious “dome within a dome”, Ghiberti was quietly granted the commission for a second set of doors, the Gates of Paradise, this time depicting scenes from the Old Testament.
For almost 25 years after that, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti co-existed on this very courtyard that I now stand. I wonder how the two humongous personalities persisted so claustrophobically together without taking a sledgehammer at each other’s work.
Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455). Jacob and Esau Panel, from Gates of Paradise
Do not miss the Easter egg the master planted. In the bottom right corner above, you can see Ghiberti's self portrait. Had he tried this trick a century ago, he would have been hanged for it.
Not only did they survive around each other, they chose to inextricably weave themselves into each others work: Ghiberti was the inspector for Brunelleschi’s dome – often offering needless advice, while Brunelleschi used the very Baptistery as the subject as he reinvented the lost art of Linear Perspective, that Ghiberti gleefully incorporated in his new ten panels in bronze.
Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455). Joseph Panel, from Gates of Paradise
Notice the clever use of depth to reinforce linear perspective?
Each bronze door is one monolithic piece of bronze. A 4 foot tall fence prevents visitors from going too close. The fence is understandable. The urge to touch the panels is extremely strong. Paul Walker’s well researched and peppy book on the lives and times of the two artists adds a whole different dimension that makes is even more worthwhile to be here. In his words “…the two young masters, full of dreams and promise, and Florence herself – already old and storied-stood at a crossroad, not only in Italy but in the history of western world, a crossroad that could only lead in one of two directions: destruction or rebirth.”