The Artistic (Un)Partnership that Ushered in the Renaissance

In 1399, at the end of the Middle Ages, a religious movement called Bianchi, a reference to the white robes practitioners wore, swept Italy. The pilgrims reached Florence in August of that year, and they made people rethink old customs and mores. Old enemies became friends, and some longstanding feuds between families were settled peacefully. Even some of the laws were changed to make justice more merciful.

The Bianchi brought something else to Florence: plague. In the winter and spring of 1400, twenty percent of Florence's population died from the black plague. This was not the first time the plague had swept the city. In 1348, two generations earlier, nearly fifty percent of Florence's population died from the plague. Unfortunately, it also wouldn't be the last.

The next year, 24-year-old Filippo Brunelleschi, a master goldsmith who had just finished his apprenticeship, was asked to enter a contest to design the north doors to the Florence baptistery. Brunelleschi came from a well-to-do family (his father was a notary, his grandfather had been a government official), and he had been well educated as a youngster in mathematics and Latin. He seemed like a shoo-in for the contest. Seven contestants in all were asked to participate: Lorenzo Ghiberti, Jacopo della Quercia, Simone da Colle, Niccolo d'Arezzo, Nicolo di Pietro Lamberti, Francesco di Valdambrino, and, of course, Brunelleschi. Some reports say that Donatello was also a contender, although not all records show his name, so it is disputed.

This contest was an attempt to bolster civic unity and pride in the people of Florence who had been dealt some blows. All of the artists that were asked to participate were from Tuscany, the region in Italy that Florence is in.

Above: Florence Baptistery

To enter the contest, artists had to design a bronze panel for the door depicting Abraham offering Isaac for sacrifice. They were supposed to depict the moment of divine deliverance, when Abraham, about to plunge a knife into his son, was prevented from doing so by an angel. Winning this contest meant winning the commission, which would have been an important economic boost to any of the artists. Since the patron saint of Florence is St. John the Baptist, getting the commission for the baptistery doors of the city's cathedral would have been a huge boost in confidence and prestige as well.

The Life of Filippo di Ser Brunelleschi, possibly written by Antonio Manetti between 1471 and 1487, says, "He did it quickly because he mastered his art boldly. When he had made it, chased it, polished it completely, he felt no impulse to talk about it to anyone, because, as I have said, he was no braggart, but he waited confidently until the time of the judging."

Brunelleschi's panel made reference to an Ancient Roman sculpture known as The Thorn Puller. It consisted of several bronze parts bolted onto the background plate. The book records the judges' reactions as well as the technical merit of Brunelleschi's piece.

But when the experts saw his model all were astonished and amazed at the problems he had set himself, such as the movement of Abraham, the position of his finger under Isaac's chin, his animation, the draperies and the style, the design of the boy's whole body, the style and draperies of the angel, his gestures, how he seizes the hand of Abraham; at the pose, style, and design of the boy drawing the thorn from his foot, and likewise the man drinking bent over. They were amazed at the many difficulties in those figures he had overcome and how well the figures performed their functions, for there was not a limb that did not have life. They admired the design of the animals that are there and every other detail as well as the composition as a whole.

Above: three views of Brunelleschi’s panel

Above: The Thorn Puller (see how Isaac’s head reflects the head on this statue.)

One of the other competitors, Lorenzo Ghiberti, chose to depict the scene differently. His panel showed more technical skill since it was cast as a single piece.

Ghiberti (1378-1455), a fellow Florentine who was only one year younger than Brunelleschi, was the son of a goldsmith. He was also an apprentice to Bartoluccio de Michele, the same goldsmith that Brunelleschi was trained under. No doubt, the two young men knew each other, and possibly even worked together on some projects. During the plague in 1400, Ghiberti fled to Romagna, a region in Italy that contains Ravenna and Rimini, along with other towns and cities. There, he assisted in completing a series of wall frescoes in a castle.

When he returned to Florence and participated in the baptistery door contest, he had an interesting method for creating his panel. While Brunelleschi hurriedly finished his panel in secret, Ghiberti invited the public into his studio to view and even critique his art. Some of the people who came to offer suggestions later became judges in the competition when the panels were finished. Whether it was this feeling of ownership that swayed the judges, or the superior technical skill of casting the whole panel in one piece, or the preference for his style (or a combination of all three) that swayed the judges, Ghiberti won the contest. But, Brunelleschi got a nod from the judges because Ghiberti was to share his commission with Brunelleschi. Filippo Brunelleschi, however, would not hear of sharing a commission with his rival, and he refused to work on the project unless he got the sole commission. Therefore, the city fathers had no choice but to reward Ghiberti with the full commission.

Above: Three views of Ghiberti's panel.

At the age of 25, Lorenzo Ghiberti began work on the commissioned bronze doors on the north side of the baptistery. The project took him 21 years to complete. When the contest was announced, the bronze doors were going to have panels that depicted Old Testament scenes, but when the commission was actually given to Ghiberti, it was decided that the panels would depict scenes from the New Testament. The door has 28 panels in all, and 23 depict scenes from the life of Christ.

Above: Flagellation

Above: Adoration of the Magi

Above: North Doors of the Florence Baptistery

Of all the entries, the only two that survive are those from Brunelleschi and Ghiberti.

Ghiberti's work on the doors was so beautiful that the city fathers commissioned him to do a second set of doors on the eastern side of the baptistery. That set, coined "The Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo, took him 27 years to complete. His sculpting was well-known and he rediscovered the lost wax method of sculpting, which had been lost since Ancient Roman times. Because of this, most artists in Florence and even in regions beyond wanted to work in Ghiberti's studio to learn the art of lost wax sculpting.

Above: “Gates of Paradise” the eastern doors to the Florence Baptistery
Adam and Eve detail panel from Gates of Paradise

After losing the contest, a bitterly disappointed Brunelleschi went to Rome with his close friend Donatello to study the art of the ancients. Although much of the ancient artwork and architecture had been lost through the ages, they studied both the whole and ruined artworks to try to unlock the secrets of the ancients, specifically Ancient Greeks and Romans.

The term Renaissance is well known to mean "re-birth," but what exactly was being reborn? It was the classical style, the artistic knowledge that the Ancients knew but had been lost through the ages as society changed and all things Roman fell out of favor. The Renaissance began in Italy because of its proximity to Rome although, at the time, Italy was not actually a unified country, but rather a bunch of city-states and neighboring regions that shared some aspects of culture and language but did not actually like each other very much. Donatello used his study of Ancient Roman sculpture to make the first freestanding equestrian sculpture Europe had seen in over 1,000 years. And Ghiberti, as has already been pointed out, relearned how to sculpt using the lost wax system.

However, Brunelleschi wasn’t finished in the art world. He went on to get other commissions, many of them architectural. His mathematical mind and study of classical art helped him to be the first to develop the theories of hidden point perspective, something every art student studies even to this day. The first painting to use hidden point perspective was, ironically, a picture of his lost commission, the Florence baptistery. The painting has now been lost to the ages, but it was so important it was described by other artists of his day. Based on descriptions, it probably used two-point perspective.

But, another competition was announced. This time, it was architectural. The Florence Cathedral was begun in 1296, and it had an insanely large roof area. It still wasn’t finished, and in 1418, the city fathers announced a contest for an artist to figure out how to put a dome on the cathedral.

Brunelleschi was up for a challenge, and so was Ghiberti. The feud was still on!

Models of the cathedral were made by the artists vying to compete, some of them as large as a house. The city didn’t allow for the erection of buttresses, and no dome of this size had been built since antiquity (or possibly ever, since the dome of the Florence Cathedral is larger than that of the Pantheon of Ancient Rome).

The cathedral had been laid out in the usual floor plan of a cross, and the exterior walls were made of elegant green, red, and yellow sandstone. From its beginnings, the usual waves of politics stretched the construction of the cathedral out to more than a century, with each successive generation adding on to the foundation laid out in the years prior. However, each generation recognized and avoided the problem of what was considered an unsolvable dome. It had to be 140 feet across, and no one knew how to build a dome that large. By 1410, however, the construction of the cathedral was finished, except for the dome, and with nothing else to be done, the city turned its attention to finding a solution for this “unsolvable dome.”

Above: Floor plan of the Florence Cathedral

The biggest problem the architects faced was how to keep the dome stable while it was being built. Once the dome was finished, everyone recognized that it would be kept in place with keystones and ribs, but while it was under construction, it would simply be hanging out, unsupported, over that large space.

The other artists in the competition proposed building temporary scaffolding from the ground, or permanent columns to support the weight. But Brunelleschi figured out a way to build the dome without piers or scaffolding during construction. Not only was that interesting from an aesthetic point of view, but from an economic one as well, since the extra scaffolding or columns would have cost the city quite a bit of money.

The committee wasn’t sold on the idea, however, and they thought Brunelleschi’s proposal was impossible and absurd. Brunelleschi told the committee that not only was it possible to build the dome in such a way, it was necessary, as none of the other methods would actually work with such a large expanse that the dome was supposed to cover.

The committee didn’t want to give Brunelleschi the commission because they could not fathom how such large stones could be hoisted to the top of the building without scaffolding. Brunelleschi told them he had a plan, but he kept the details secret. The committee grew impatient with the secretive Brunelleschi because he would not reveal his plan (for fear others would steal it and get the commission). But, none of the other artists in the competition had satisfactory plans, either, so the committee pressed the confident Brunelleschi for his plan. Brunelleschi’s secrecy cost him the commission years earlier on the baptistery doors, and now, it was threatening to cost him the commission on the dome. However, with no other satisfactory proposals, they granted the commission to Brunelleschi, but they didn’t feel confident enough in his plans to let him do it alone. Instead, the town fathers granted a dual commission to both Brunelleschi and Ghiberti for the dome, even though they were going to use Brunelleschi’s plans.

Brunelleschi put up with this partnership for a few years, but one day in 1426, he did not show up for work. Ghiberti visited him and Brunelleschi said he was sick. Without Brunelleschi’s plans and direction, construction stalled (remember, he kept a lot of things secret). Brunelleschi was sick with some mysterious illness for several weeks, and a frustrated Ghiberti finally decided he had too many other projects and commissions to keep working on the stalled dome project. Ghiberti angrily walked away from the dome’s commission, and Brunelleschi miraculously recovered from his mysterious illness, but with sole possession to the dome’s commission.

The revolutionary ideas Brunelleschi had were mathematically brilliant and quite forward thinking. First of all, his proposed dome used a cupola design, a double-shelled dome within a dome. The double-shell gives the cupola strength and lightness. Also, the lantern at the top of the dome is massive and heavy. The committee thought Brunelleschi was crazy to have such a huge, heavy lantern sitting on top of a dome unsupported by scaffolding, but Brunelleschi was right. The weight of the lantern locks and holds the eight arches of the dome in place. He designed holes and fluting to ease the pressure the wind would put upon the structure, and he designed gutters and spouts to move rain quickly away from the surface of the dome. He also designed stairwells to make it possible to climb all the way up to the lantern.

The completed cathedral rises nearly 400 feet, including a prodigious 70 feet for the lantern alone. The dome itself is 90 feet high and spans 140 feet at its base. It's an astounding achievement. Brunelleschi used more than four million bricks in the construction of the dome. He had to design a device that could hoist the bricks that high, and he was granted one of the very first patents for that machine he used to put the dome on the cathedral. (Interestingly enough, Brunelleschi was actually granted the very first modern patent, but it was for a river transport vessel and had nothing to do with his art or architecture.)

Above: The dome on the Florence Cathedral, lovingly called "Duomo" by the Italians.

Was it a rivalry, a feud, or just two brilliant artists who just happened to live at the same time? Whatever the relationship between Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti actually was, one thing is for certain. Their competitiveness brought the art world into the Early Renaissance, and their techniques paved the way for the next wave of spectacular Italian artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

1 comment:

Anuj said...

this was a very nice read. May I ask you how have you managed to put together this story? (I am a teacher of history of Architecture, and your post is really helpful)