Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence, takes a look at Ghiberti’s restored masterpiece
Perhaps the most important restoration project to be completed in Florence in 2012 was that of Ghiberti’s bronze doors of the Baptistery, aptly described by Michelangelo as worthy to be used as the Gates of Paradise. Over the past few years some of the individual panels have been exhibited in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo as their restoration has been completed, but only this year has the entire door been installed in the enclosed courtyard of the museum (since 1997, an excellent copy has been in situ at the Baptistery). The project to restore it began in the 1980s and proved to be one of the most complicated restoration projects of a bronze work of art ever carried out in Italy. However, experts from Florence’s State Restoration Laboratory have now been able to reveal the original gilding which covers the wonderful reliefs, some with details in the round and some with incredibly delicate details in low ‘schiacciato‘ relief producing an extraordinary effect of depth (even though each panel is only 10cm thick).
Detail of The Story of Joseph
Apart from the beauty of the sculpture, the doors also represent a technical wonder of bronze casting (they weigh over 9 tons). Their present restoration—which took more or less the same length of time it took Ghiberti to produce them—was also fraught with difficulties because of previous interventions. The panels had been given a patina imitating bronze probably as early as the 18th century, and it was only after they had been removed for safety (to a disused railway tunnel) during the Second World War that the original gilding was revealed, but using highly corrosive caustic soda. During the 1966 Arno flood, the force of the water detached six panels, which swirled around in the muddy water before they could be retrieved. It is extraordinary to think that it then took months for the restorers to removed the other four panels from the door frame. The present restoration was begun using Rochelle salts in an attempt to remove the patina as well as layers of grime, until (in around 2000) the use of laser substituted this method with spectacular success. The huge door is now preserved in a special display case which keeps it fully protected in an inert state. Ghiberti’s original gilding (he used a highly toxic mercury amalgam) has now been returned to the surface but the problem of corrosion of the bronze has still not been solved, hence the need for the protective case to control the climate and try to eliminate the corrosive salts which threaten the gilding.
Lorenzo Ghiberti was given the commission to produce these doors by the Arte di Calimala, the institution in charge of Florence’s most revered building, the octagonal Baptistery, which stands in front of the west door of the cathedral. He had previously spent some 22 years working on another set of doors for the same building. For those doors, the Arte di Calimala had organized a competition, in which the young Ghiberti (then aged only 24; the date was 1402) had narrowly defeated Brunelleschi. This competition has often been seen by art historians as the moment when the ‘Renaissance’ began in Florence. The commissioners were so pleased with Ghiberti after he had completed those doors that they did not subject him to another competition but unanimously agreed he should forthwith begin work on a second set of doors for the south entrance to the Baptistery. The subjects he was asked to illustrate were episodes from the Old Testament. Instead of restricting the images to 28 small quatrefoil frames, as he had done with his panels at the north entrance, he elected to depict various episodes from each story in the same panel, so producing a quite new design with just ten large rectangular panels. He decorated the frame around these with statuettes of prophets and sibyls, as well as medallions with portrait heads, including, in the most prominent central position, his own self-portrait, shown dignified and bare-headed, no longer as an artisan but as a well-established artist with his new position in society. Next to him is the portrait head of his son, Vittorio, who is known to have worked with his father on the doors, especially in the later years. Here, too, is Ghiberti’s proud signature, asking us for our admiration. It took Ghiberti 26 years to complete the doors, and when they were finished the Arte di Calimala at once decided they should be used as replacements for Pisano’s 14th-century doors at the Baptistery’s main east entrance, despite the fact the subject was not the usual one (the life of St John the Baptist) for such a position.
Each panel is a marvel of sculpture and the eye is drawn at once into studying the details of the beautiful figures, the plants and trees, the architecture. There is a Gothic elegance in many of the figures, combined with a new conception of classical beauty. Many details of the upper panels, which are too high to be seen clearly, are illustrated in a multimedia display also installed in the courtyard (the fascinating restoration operation is also explained here). The doors will eventually be moved to a huge new display area in a former theatre next to the museum: work is underway there to adapt this space not only for these doors but also for the earlier doors by Ghiberti and those made in the 14th century by Andrea Pisano so that all three sets will be displayed together in a reconstruction of the space between the Baptistery and the Duomo façade (which itself will be partially reconstructed as it was when originally designed by Arnolfo di Cambio). Hopefully, in its new position, the wonderful Doors of Paradise may be even more visible, with perhaps even some sort of platform to enable the upper panels to be seen at closer range.
At the north door of the Baptistery itself there is currently a display of casts of some of Ghiberti’s quatrefoil panels, since that door is to be restored this year and will be replaced in situ by a copy. A recently instituted association, the Guild of the Dome, is inviting international sponsors to help pay for this, calling for donors to ‘adopt’ each panel, one by one.