Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 21, 2017
Amy R. Bloch Lorenzo Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise": Humanism, History, and Artistic Philosophy in the Italian Renaissance New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 336 pp.; 16 color ills.; 269 b/w ills. Cloth $99.99 (9781107099166)

The critical fortune of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s art has suffered in the last centuries: first, because of the unfair assumption that it was the last gasp of Gothic art in Florence; and second, because Ghiberti was the subject of Richard Krautheimer’s influential monograph (with Trude Krautheimer-Hess, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), the effect of which was largely to foreclose further discussion. Ghiberti’s second set of bronze doors for Florence’s Baptistery, known as the Gates of Paradise, represent a watershed moment in Renaissance art history. Their recent restoration and cleaning (lasting thirty years) mean that viewers may now see details in ways not possible since their creation. Amy R. Bloch’s Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise”: Humanism, History, and Artistic Philosophy in the Italian Renaissance (which follows on the heels of The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece, ed., Gary Radke, exh. cat., Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 2007 [click here for review]) is a much-needed new interpretation of the doors’ meaning.

Bloch’s study is groundbreaking for a number of reasons. Her chief achievement is putting to rest Krautheimer’s assertion that “Ghiberti was no intellectual” (Krautheimer, 10), which she does by demonstrating the depth of the artist’s learning. Drawing from earlier scholarship, Bloch points out that Ghiberti read many vernacular and Latin texts, and he was familiar with the content of some in Greek, for which he would have required help from a humanist, a number of whom he counted among his circle of friends (4–6). Furthermore, Bloch plausibly argues that it was Ghiberti himself, not a humanist or theologian, who was behind the Gates’ design (4). The involvement of a humanist has long been presumed, based on the existence of a list and letter from humanist Leonardo Bruni (Krautheimer, 372–73, doc. 52), in which he suggests subjects and how they should be depicted. But Bruni’s proposal was rejected, and Ghiberti implies in his autobiography (which forms part of his treatise on art, the Commentaries [begun in the 1420s]) that he determined the doors’ subjects (4). Bloch convincingly connects the representations on the Gates to sources with which Ghiberti was (or could have been) familiar and, significantly, his peculiar interests, as laid out in the Commentaries, to argue that even if he was not the doors’ author, he was their designer.

The chief question that animates Bloch’s study is “how, as an artist interested in books and ideas, fascinated by the science of vision, and deeply engaged in his period’s revival of classical learning and culture [as revealed in the Commentaries], he approached a commission to represent the Old Testament" (2). She argues that in the Gates Ghiberti connected the Old Testament to the exegetical tradition but also to issues of special interest to him and his contemporaries (2). Through largely convincing analyses of specific details, Bloch presents an impressive consideration of Ghiberti’s engagement with textual and visual sources, noting how often Ghiberti’s scenes depart from tradition (4). One concludes that Ghiberti not only read widely and examined many works of art (ancient and modern), he also thought about the most effective ways to communicate the well-known stories he depicted. Important, too, is Bloch’s exploration of the Gates’ primary intended audience of literate men, although as a public work the Gates were accessible to various kinds of viewers. Bloch stresses the high literacy rate for Renaissance Florentine men across social strata (seventy to eighty percent in the 1420s) and the easy access to texts (evidenced by many libraries) (4–5). For Bloch, then, Ghiberti did not design the doors for an exclusively humanist audience. As Bloch’s study makes clear, humanism and vernacular culture informed one another, and most Florentines had a sophisticated knowledge of literature, classical philosophy, and theology from which to draw when viewing works of art. This is a welcome approach that bears exploring in relation to other fifteenth-century artists.

Bloch’s introduction establishes Ghiberti’s intellectual interests and the books he knew, while each of the other ten chapters considers an Old Testament panel. Certain themes emerge: in particular, interests in art making, what art is capable of showing, drama and emotion in narrative, and topics relating to Renaissance Florentine society. Bloch argues that in the Adam and Eve relief (chapter 1) God is presented as a sculptor, noting that the land on which Adam rests (from which he was formed) approximates his shape, so that like a sculptor—according to methods later described by Leon Battista Alberti—God perceived a form from within an earthy mass (19–20).

Art making is a central theme, too, in the Joshua panel (chapter 8) in which, Bloch proposes, Ghiberti presents the origins of substances, along with his anxiety about the survival of objects (especially in bronze) and how viewers would engage with his reliefs visually and tactilely (214). Bloch proposes convincingly that Ghiberti left evidence that he wanted viewers to touch his sculptures—an important topic in the Commentaries (227)—noting that he did not remove excess wax behind the high-relief stone carrier, placed at eye level (whereas he did this for all other figures to lessen their weight and cost). Cast solid, Ghiberti prevented the fracturing of the bronze surface at this point, which would have occurred through centuries of touch. By preparing for it, Ghiberti provides proof that he anticipated his beholders’ tactile engagement with the Gates (230). In the Noah panel (chapter 3), Bloch argues, Ghiberti’s Noah is presented as one of architecture’s first practitioners working in the Vitruvian mode (85).

The Abraham and Isaac and Moses reliefs (chapters 4 and 7) are interpreted as explorations of what the visual arts can show. Bloch demonstrates that Ghiberti altered almost every detail of Abraham and Isaac from his competition panel, created approximately thirty years earlier (96–101). In the version on the Gates, the angel grasps the blade of Abraham’s falcion while Abraham gazes at the angel (rather than at his son Isaac). Bloch notes how the later version resembles Brunelleschi’s relief, but that Ghiberti corrected his competitor’s scene by showing how the angel, who was not seen by Abraham (110–11), could be represented in tangible form (100–1, 118–19). In the Moses panel, Bloch claims, Ghiberti took on the challenge of representing natural effects that cannot be expressed in visual form (such as thunder and earthquakes) or that do not last long (lightning) (193–204).

According to Bloch, drama and emotion are of interest to Ghiberti in the Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, and David panels (chapters 2, 5, 6, and 9). She notes that the unusual emphasis on Cain—presenting him as a complex character—allows the artist to elaborate the story’s emotional range, which she reads as a response to Pliny (54), whose Natural History Ghiberti knew well. She argues that Ghiberti uses perspective to enhance emotion and drama in Jacob and Esau (131), but challenges Krautheimer’s insistence on Ghiberti’s adherence to Alberti’s rules, pointing out that the perspective is not mathematically consistent (146–47). She argues that Ghiberti instead favored legibility of the story’s distinct parts (148–57) so that viewers must ponder “the thoughts, emotions, memories, hopes, predictions, and dreams of the protagonists” (157). Bloch interprets the Joseph panel as showing the moment when Joseph is filled with a flood of memories and emotions, causing him to change course. And she claims the subject of the David panel is Saul, rather than David. She proposes that in this relief Ghiberti “translates the model of classical tragedy into sculpted form” (237), depicting Saul’s vision of his tragic fate, with Saul reclining outside the frame in a pose of divinatory frenzy. (236, 249)

In the final chapter—on the Solomon and Queen of Sheba panel—Bloch follows previous scholarship in reading the building as referencing Florence’s cathedral (254). She interprets the relief as a representation of Ghiberti’s Florence with its intellectual community (in the foreground) engaged in vigorous debate (255, 272–73).

The book’s organization into chapters on individual panels leads to exceptionally fine descriptions and analyses. Some might question the validity of readings dependent on miniscule features (such as the placement of God’s and the angels’ fingers in the Creation of Eve in the Adam and Eve panel; 32), but Bloch points out that the Gates could have been viewed up close by visitors to Ghiberti’s workshop during the fifteen years they were being made (8). Furthermore, if one queries Bloch’s consideration of small details, one must acknowledge that Ghiberti chose to include them (and thus he assumed someone would see and think about them). Bloch’s dense analysis is therefore a fitting mirror to her subject’s detail.

Given the care paid to establishing how Ghiberti appealed to his audience’s interests, one might have hoped for a consideration of the doors in their ritual context. But to do this would have made a long book much longer, and it answers many other important questions. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” reinvigorates early fifteenth-century sculpture studies, and readers come away with a new appreciation of Ghiberti as inventive designer and of his Florentine audience as thoughtful, knowledgeable viewers.

Christina S. Neilson
Associate Professor of Renaissance and Baroque Art History, Oberlin College