Lorenzo Ghiberti was born in Florence and trained as a goldsmith by his father, Bartoluccio Ghiberti, and as a painter prior to taking up sculpture. Ghiberti rose to prominence in 1401, with the announcement by the Opera of the Baptistery of a competition to construct a second set of bronze doors for the Baptistery in Florence.
The competition, to be supervised by the powerful woolen cloth guild, the Arte di Calimala, required the set of doors to illustrate scenes from the Old Testament. In addition, the doors had to complement the first set of doors completed by Andrea Pisano in the 1330s by continuing the quatrefoil design of the scenes.
The doors designed by Pisano illustrated the life of John the Baptist, a patron saint of Florence. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was chosen as the competition subject. The allure of such an important commission drew a number of entries from noted artists including Jacopo della Quercia and Filippo Brunelleschi.
The young Ghiberti impressed the judges with his design and the fact that, save for the fi gure of Isaac, Ghiberti’s entry was cast in one piece. A work that required fewer castings required less bronze and was cheaper to produce. Ghiberti’s ability as a caster was cited by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects as his reason for placing Ghiberti in front of Donatello and Brunelleschi as a sculptor.
Art historians have struggled to date the beginning of the Renaissance, and many set it at 1401 and the competition for the Baptistery in Florence because of Ghiberti’s attention to illustrating depth, the use of classical references such as the nude Isaac, and the importance of patronage.
While the competition was to illustrate the Old Testament, the subject was changed to the New Testament once Ghiberti was awarded the contract. Ghiberti’s winning Abraham panel was included in the third set of doors completed in 1452. The door contains 28 quatrefoils in seven rows of four scenes.
The lowest two rows illustrate the four Evangelists and the four Fathers of the Church, while the New Testament scenes begin with the Annunciation. Now known as the North Doors, the commission for the New Testament scenes was completed in 1425.
In addition to the Baptistery, Ghiberti received importance commissions for the niches at Orsanmichele. The Orsanmichele in Florence is an unusual building that served both as a granary for the city and as a shrine. The outside of the building contained niches that were assigned to various guilds to decorate with statues of their patron saint.
The Calimala guild commissioned a bronze sculpture of their patron, John the Baptist, for their niche. Standing nearly eight feet tall the completed John the Baptist exhibits naturalism in its stance and the drape of the clothing that is one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance art. In 1419 the Arte del Cambio, the banker’s guild, commissioned for their niche a bronze St. Matthew noted for its classical style and exquisite gilding.
In 1425 Ghiberti returned to the Baptistery to work on the North Doors commonly referred to as the Gates of Paradise. Focusing on the Old Testament, Ghiberti abandoned the preferred quatrefoil plan of partially gilded 28 scenes in favor of 10 fully gilded square scenes. In addition, in his own Commentaries (c. 1450–55) Ghiberti wrote regarding the doors: “I strove to imitate nature as clearly as I could, and with all the perspective I could produce, to have excellent compositions with many figures.” With the completion of the Old Testament series, Ghiberti retired in 1452.