Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and the Beginnings of the Renaissance

The story of the rivalry between Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti and the creation of the Gates of Paradise is also the story of the beginning of the Renaissance in Florence and it unfolded in an interesting way.  Each of the works here are among my favorites and will be discussed in more detail in future posts.

In the 1300’s or “Trecento” the artist Giotto had introduced ideas of humanism and realism to painting.  He was also appointed head architect for the Santa Maria del Fiori, the main cathedral of the city.  Giotto designed and began work on the campanile (bell tower), which is a separate building.



"Il Duomo" Santa Maria del Fiore, dome by Brunelleschi, 1420-1436

However Giotto died in 1337 and was replaced by his assistant, Andrea Pisano.  Due to war in Europe, an uprising in Florence and plagues there were far fewer artistic works being created in the city.  The main cathedral “Il Duomo” was left without the dome that was envisioned for it.

Florence was a republic and ruled by its guilds, the most prestigious guild was the Calimala (wool merchants).  In a building separate from the duomo is the Baptistery, which had great significance for Florence as St. John is the city’s patron saint.  The Calimala were in charge of all artistic decoration for the Baptistery.  Andrea Pisano had constructed a set of doors with 28 small bronze panels which was considered a masterpiece.  The doors were hung on the east side of the building which faced the duomo.




In 1401 the Calimala decided to commission a 2nd set of doors for the north side of the building and held a competition.  Artists had to create one bronze panel with the theme of the Sacrifice of Isaac.  Lorenzo Ghiberti won the contest and began work on the doors which lasted for the over twenty years.


Last Supper, panel from north baptistery doors, Ghiberti, 1425-52

Filippo Brunelleschi was another participant in the contest, it is unclear whether he was not chosen or was chosen to work as a partner with his rival Ghiberti.  Their two entries alone were saved and remain on display to this day, over 600 years later at the Bargello Museum in Florence.  Either way Brunelleschi was upset that he wasn’t chosen as the clear winner and decided to go to Rome and take his friend the sculptor Donatello with him.  They studied classical Roman architecture and sculpture for several years in Rome.

Brunelleschi returned to Florence and entered another competition, to build the dome of the duomo and this time he won, however Ghiberti was also given roles to assist with this task.  Brunelleschi had studied the dome of the Pantheon and was influenced by it.  He designed a structure that used a dome within a dome to support its massive weight.  Constructing the dome was an arduous task but his plans worked and the dome was constructed fairly quickly.



The Tribute Money, Masaccio, 1425 (Santa Maria del Carmine)

Brunelleschi also did several studies in drawing to determine the method of perspective in painting that the ancients used.  He made a painting of the Baptistery using perspective and put a small hole in the center.  If a person stood behind the painting with their back to the Baptistery and looked through the hole, Brunelleschi would hold up a mirror and the viewer would see reflected how the actual building matched the painted one.  This was written about but sadly the painting has been lost.

The effect this had on artwork was immediate as can be seen in Masaccio’s fresco cycle of the life of St. Peter.  Artists now used a single vanishing point that all lines in the painting could be followed to for an extremely realistic depiction of three dimensional space.



Joseph, panel from east baptistery doors, Ghiberti, 1425-52 (Museo Opera di S. Maria del Fiore)

Even Brunelleschi’s rival Ghiberti began to use perspective in his work.  He was commissioned by the Calimala to create one final set of doors and he proposed his own design with 10 large bronze panels instead of 28 small ones.  The Calimala accepted his proposal and in creating sculptural reliefs in a new larger format began to use a new artistic style.

Compare the panel of Jospeh to the earlier Last Supper, the new larger panels are very shallow bronze reliefs but due to the artist’s use of perspective they give the illusion of great depth. These doors took over 25 years to construct but the effect is astounding, the artist Michelangelo later dubbed them “The Gates of Paradise.”  They were widely praised and were moved to the east side of the building so they would now face the cathedral (note- the originals are now in a museum and have been replaced by copies).

Gates of Paradise, East baptistery doors, Ghiberti, 1425-52

The artistic rivalry that had sprung forth from Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi had produced two sets of bronze doors, a completed dome for the cathedral and a new method of architecture in the dome.  It also brought a strong influence of Classical art to Florentine art in the 15th century (or Quatrecento), a rediscovery of perspective in painting and last but not least a return to the style of ancient sculpture now being created by Donatello who had gone to Rome with Brunelleschi.  The former spark of the Renaissance in Florence had been reignited.



Il Zuccone (prophet Habakkuk),Donatello, 1427-36 (Museo Opera di S. Maria del Fiore)

Suggested reading:
-Hartt, Frederick. History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture.
-King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. 
-Radke, Gary M.The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece.
-Walker, Paul Robert. The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World.


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