by Roderick Conway Morris

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Paradise Lost, and Now Nearly Fully Restored

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 13 September 2012
Antonio Quattrone
Lorenzo Ghiberti's self-portrait
in the Doors of Paradise



When Michelangelo paused to look at Lorenzo Ghiberti's bronze portals in the Baptistery facing the Duomo and was asked by a friend if he thought them beautiful, the artist famously replied: 'They are so beautiful that they would do well as the Doors of Paradise.'

The restored works, including the third set, are on display at the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.

This month, more than two decades after the doors left the Baptistery for restoration, they are at last visible to the public once again at the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore on Piazza del Duomo in Florence, their fabric saved along with most of their original gilding and in a state of legibility that they have not enjoyed for at least half a century.

Artist, architect and writer, Ghiberti can lay claim to having been the first 'Renaissance man' in the breadth of his interests and achievements. Quite apart from their manifest artistic merits, the doors, installed in 1452, were a technical tour de force, as they could not have been made had Ghiberti not rediscovered the 'lost wax technique' of casting metals used in classical times.

The doors, which weigh eight tons, were built to last - perhaps until Doomsday, according to the thinking of Ghiberti's own era - but have not been immune to the assaults of time. Gloriously gilded when they were first installed, a patina of soot and other pollutants was allowed to build up, and in the 1770s a layer of brown varnish was applied to conform to contemporary tastes of what antique bronze should look like.

It was only when the doors were temporarily removed to the safety of a railroad tunnel during the Second World War and subsequently cleaned that their original, long-forgotten, gilded nature came to light again. But the gilding rapidly began to darken again, hastened by ever-rising levels of modern air pollution, which generated unstable salts that began to eat into the surface of the gilding and the metal.

During the disastrous flood of November 1966, the doors were semi-submerged in swirling water and debris. Five of the 10 large panels with Old Testament scenes were dislodged by the force of the current and fell into the sludge, while another was left precariously hanging.

These were rescued, cleaned along with the rest of the doors and reinserted. But, by 1990, it was decided that the only method of saving the doors and their original gilding was to remove them in their entirety and work on them in the laboratory conditions of the city's renowned restoration and research institute, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. They were replaced by replicas cast in Florence, financed by the Japanese entrepreneur Choichiro Motoyama, then gilded in Paris employing a modern technique without the toxic mercury used by Ghiberti himself.

The commissioning of the Doors of Paradise marked the culmination of a project to furnish the Baptistery with monumental doors for all three of its entrances, which took over a century to realize. Andrea Pisano made the first set between 1330 and 1336, when they were installed in the East portal facing the facade of the Duomo.

A competition was then held - perhaps the first of its kind since Antiquity - in 1400-1401, organized by the Arte di Calimala (the wealthy Clothmakers and Merchants Guild) to find an artist to make a second pair of doors. Seven artists were on the short list, including Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, both young and virtual unknowns at the time. The final runoff was between these two; the challenge they were set was to make a bronze panel of 'The Sacrifice of Isaac.' (The works they produced can be seen at the Bargello in Florence.)

As Ghiberti would have it in his autobiographical 'Commentaries,' he was the undisputed outright winner, victory being awarded to him 'by all the experts and by all those who had competed with me.' Other sources suggest that the Guild had great difficulty in reaching a verdict and proposed that the two artists work together. This Brunelleschi refused, leading to the final selection of his rival.

The awarding of the contract for this set of doors would decide the rest of Ghiberti's career, an enterprise that occupied him for half a century, as his first pair of doors, now called the North Doors (1402-1424), were so well received that he was commissioned to do the final pair, which became the Paradise Doors, (1425-1452). The original intention was that the doors commissioned in 1402 should depict Old Testament scenes, but for reasons unknown the Guild changed its mind and instructed the artist to illustrate from the New Testament with the 'Life of Christ.'

During the 20 years and more that Ghiberti spent working on the first pair of doors, not only did his own style diverge visibly from the one set by Pisano, but his busy studio became a fertile training ground for emerging artists who would go on to find fame in their own right, including Donatello, Paolo Uccello and Antonio Pollaiuolo.

So satisfied was the Guild with Ghiberti's efforts that when the doors were finished, Pisano's doors were moved to the south portal to make way for Ghiberti's doors, which were then put in place in the more prestigious East-facing position opposite the Duomo.

He was also awarded the commission for the final set of doors, showing Old Testament stories, without recourse to a competition. And just as important, when given this task he was, in his own words, 'permitted to execute it in whatever way I believed would result in the greatest perfection.' Thus the scene was set for a revolutionary work that not only influenced Renaissance and Baroque art but would be a point of reference and inspiration to sculptors for the next 400 years.

Ghiberti's first radical step was to drastically reduce the number of panels on the doors, compared with the two previous sets, from 28 to 10 - five on each door. This allowed him to open up the horizons of each panel, introducing majestic landscape and architectural settings, and scenes 'rich in figures,' in Ghiberti's own words. All this was executed using his superb modeling skills, a deep, painting-like perspective being achieved through the use of high relief in the foreground, grading into low relief in the background.

Framing each door are borders containing miniature niches and roundels with 26 miniature statues and busts of prophets and sybils, Ghiberti's own self-portrait (balding, avuncular) and a likeness of his son and assistant Vittorio.

The smaller number of panels meant that Ghiberti was obliged to illustrate more than one episode of a story in each panel, something he succeeded in doing by the brilliant orchestration of the perspective planes of each composition, without compartmentalizing them in comic-strip fashion.

Especially striking in the top panel of the left door, opening the whole cycle, is the way in which Ghiberti has put Eve center stage in the creation story - relegating the giving of life to Adam to a subordinate position in the left-hand side of the panel - and giving birth to perhaps the first of those graceful, self-possessed Florentine female nudes that Botticelli would later celebrate.

The Paradise Doors' new home, the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, is an independent lay foundation that dates from 1296, when the Opera was created to supervise the construction of the new Duomo and Campanile. It later became a treasure house of medieval and Renaissance sculptures and paintings, owning works by all the leading Florentine masters.

For the next three years, the doors will be displayed in a special climate-controlled case in the museum's (now covered) courtyard, where Michelangelo probably carved his 'David.'

The prospect of permanently housing the Paradise Doors - and, in due course, the two other sets of doors from the north and south entrances of the Baptistery, when exact copies have been made and restoration of them completed - has stimulated the museum, under its new director, Msgr. Timothy Verdon, to expand its premises by taking over a large hall, formerly a theater, next door.

This will make it possible to reconstruct within this lofty space the old facade of the Duomo, which was demolished in 1586-87 to make way for the new one, and to reposition the wonderful sculptures of Arnolfo di Cambio and Donatello in their proper settings, as well as to show in more spacious surroundings other historic sculptural groups, including two Roman sarcophagi that once stood in the Piazza.

As the pièce de résistance of this spectacular new addition to Florence's museum scene, scheduled to be inaugurated in November 2015, the Doors of Paradise will be placed facing the reconstructed medieval Cathedral facade, as they were when installed in the Baptistery in the mid-15th century.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023