Ghiberti, LORENZO DI CIONE, sculptor; b. at Florence about 1381; d. there, December, 1455. He ushered in the early Renaissance in his native city of Florence as a sculptor in bronze, just as Masaccio led the way in the art of painting, and Brunellesco in architecture. In a competition for the best design for the second bronze door, the one on the north side of the baptistery, Ghiberti carried off the prize offered by the merchants’ guild of Florence in 1401; among his many rivals was Brunellesco. The designs presented by Ghiberti and Brunellesco, the subject of which was the Sacrifice of Isaac, are preserved in the Museo Nazionale of Florence. The work of Andrea Pisano on the south portal served as a model for the north portal. The style of the Trecento (Italian Renaissance of the fourteenth century) is apparent in the typical heads, in the lines, and the somewhat stiff character of the action, but there is more freedom in the forms, the expression, and the handling of the spaces. The wings of the doors are divided by vertical and horizontal bands into twenty-eight panels, in each of which the relief is enclosed in a modified quatrefoil. The jambs, lintels and friezes are decorated with leaves and flowers. At the angles of the panels are the heads of prophets and of sibyls. The twenty upper scenes are taken from the life of Christ, the eight lower ones represent the four Evangelists and four Fathers of the Church. The whole composition is sober, pleasing, and harmonious. This portal finished (1403-1424), Ghiberti undertook the eastern, main portal, the work in this showing greater freedom in the treatment and an advance in style. It includes ten scenes from the Old Testament, most of which are subdivided into several subjects. The reliefs produce a pictorial effect by reason of the number of figures, perspective, grouping, landscape and architectural background. They were completed in 1452. Ghiberti here shows himself in the development of sculpture the rival of his contemporary Masaccio. In fact he compels the less responsive art of sculpture to vie with the more vivacious sister art of painting. His “Paradise”, for instance, includes a number of lesser subjects from the creation of Adam to his expulsion from Eden; the foremost figures are almost in the round, the relief becoming less marked as the figures, that at the same time grow smaller, recede from the foreground. His effort to follow nature is furthermore shown by the character expressed in the faces and the action; there is withal no loss of grace or beauty. Ghiberti is a master of technic; its perfection is everywhere evident, even in details of ornament. Vases containing vines intertwined with fruits and supporting the figures of various animals, adorn the frames of the doors. Each wing has a separate frame ornamented with statuettes in niches divided from each other by decorative busts. Of this gate Michelangelo declared that it was worthy to be the entrance of Paradise. Ghiberti himself, in a description of the work found among his papers, pronounced it his foremost achievement. In one of the small medallions of the framework of the houses, doubtless with a dust pride in his achievement, he has preserved his own portrait.
The same high art characterizes his treatment of the reliquary of St. Zenobius in the cathedral of Florence. On three sides are scenes descriptive of the miracles of the saint, the fourth is adorned with a wreath and angels. The reliquary of San Giacinto is decorated with hovering angels, but on the front only. Among the grave-slabs designed by Ghiberti the bas-relief of Leonardo Dati in Santa Maria Novella deserves especial mention. The church of Or San Michele possesses many specimens of the new plastic art of this era of the Renaissance, among them three statues by Ghiberti, the latest and best of the three being that of St. Stephen. Apart from their many great merits these large statues exhibit one weakness of the master, i.e. the treatment of draperies and the pose. Originally a goldsmith, and working mostly in relief, he lacked practice in the larger style of sculpture. In fact, from Vasari’s time, Ghiberti was often unduly admired. He falls occasionally below some of his contemporaries in sharp characterization, in vigorous movement and unaffected naturalness. It must, however, be admitted that in contrast to the harsh realism of Donatello he observed always the dictates of grace and beauty, approaching therein Lucca della Robbia. His art belongs to a period of transition. Clear traces of the earlier Gothic art survive in Ghiberti, e.g. the mannerism of his slender and pleasing rather than expressive figures, also a similar treatment of the background. On the other hand his study of classic art is visible in the draperies and often in the heads of his figures. His fidelity to nature, moreover, developed in him a strong drift towards realism.
His sense of the beautiful and his originality stamp Ghiberti as the precursor of Raphael. He was no pioneer like Donatello, yet his work, especially his bronze doors, had a lasting influence on his successors. In him native genius was aided by reflection and theory. In a certain sense, therefore, a new era in art may be said to date from him. In his “Commentaries” he critically reviewed the development of art from the time of Cimabue to his own day. While giving an account of his own works he clearly suggests that he consciously strove after a new art. He seems to characterize himself in his description of the second bronze gate, when he says: “In this work I sought to imitate nature as closely as possible, both in proportions and in perspective as well as in the beauty and picturesqueness of the composition and the numbers of figures; some of these scenes contain nearly one hundred figures, others less, but all were executed with the utmost care; the buildings appear as seen by the eye of one who gazes on them from a distance.”.