The competition of the second set of doors of the Baptistery 1401
The first door was the result of a competition, not so much between artists, but between cities. Bonanno’s bronze doors from 1186 from the cathedral of Pisa had to be trumped. To boot, after the start of the new Duomo in Florence, their fiercest rival Siena had also commenced construction on an even larger cathedral. The mutual rivalries between 15th century Italian cities were increasingly becoming a rivalry between individual artists. In addition, the guilds and other organisations were also competing against each other. While the trader’s guild, Arte di Calimala (guild of wool traders), had ordered the Baptistery doors, the Arte della Lana (guild of wool workers) commissioned the decorations of the Porta della Mandorla at the Duomo.
In 1401, the Arte di Calimala launches a competition. The artist who would produce the finest work would be awarded the assignment for a second set of doors for the Baptistery. The theme was the Sacrifice of Isaac. A theme like this meant that the artist had to be very well-versed in all artistic aspects. Not only would he be required to accurately portray humans, but also animals, landscape and the art of portraying a legible story. In his ‘I Commentarii’, the writer, artist and ultimate winner, Lorenzo Ghiberti, names six out of the seven competitors: Filippo Brunelleschi, Symone da Colle (Simone da Colle), Nicholò d’Areco, Jacopo della Quercia, Francesco di Valdombrina and Nicholò Lamberti (See Wikipedia: competition 1401).
The judges, who were to evaluate the submissions, comprised 34 prominent Florentines: they had to choose between the seven reliefs. Two reliefs immediately stood out: one by Brunelleschi and the other by Ghiberti. Both reliefs have been kept to this day and can be seen in the Bargello, where they are placed together. The other five sample panels were likely melted. The judges eventually opted for Lorenzo Ghiberti. That said, there was definitely admiration for Brunelleschi’s work.
Manetti noticed: They were astounded by the intricacy with which he challenged himself: Abraham’s posture, the placement of his finger beneath Isaac’s chin, his resolute motion, his attire and expression, as well as the slender form of young Isaac. Additionally, they marveled at the portrayal and drapery of the Angel, the Angel’s posture and the way he clutched Abraham’s hand, and the elegance and detail in depicting the man extracting a thorn from his foot, along with the other man who leaned forward to take a drink (paraphrased). For the exact words of Manetti see: Manetti, di, A, ‘The life of Brunelleschi’, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park and London, 1970 (rules) 277-285 (Filippo di Ser Brunellesco Scott, Leader, 1837-1902 Gutenberg).
The difficulties described by Manetti are very appreciated in that time. It was a way to surpass other artists. This is definitely an example of a budding Renaissance. While Ghiberti and Brunelleschi use examples from Antiquity like the thorn remover and the nude upper body of Isaac (based on a classical torso of a centaur Metropolitan, NY), we cannot yet speak of a genuinely new style: the Renaissance.
For the final choice of Ghiberti’s panel, the amount of bronze involved likely played a part. The winning relief weighed a resounding seven pounds less than Brunelleschi’s. We can see this on the day we visit the Bargello. Some of the original panels of Ghiberti’s second door, the Paradise door, can also be seen from the back in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (see: JSTOR). There, you can see how nifty Ghiberti was in saving so much bronze. The entire door with its 28 panels have saved on a considerable amount of bronze, namely some two hundred kilograms.
According to Ghiberti, he was unanimously voted the best. In his I commentarii, Ghiberti describes the competition results as follows:
“My competitors were: Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, Symone da Colle, Nicholò d’Areco, Jacopo della Quercia da Siena, Francesco di Valdombrina and Nicholò Lamberti. With the six of us, we were to create the aforementioned sample [sacrifice of Isaac], and in doing so show that we have mastered the most important elements of sculpting. All experts and all those who took the trial with me awarded me victory. With general votes, with no exceptions, I was given the glory of winner. Others were of the opinion that I had far surpassed all the rest, with no exceptions, and after a lengthy evaluation and reflection by knowledgeable men. including painters and gold, silver and marble workers. The evaluators were 34 in total, from the city and its surrounding areas: all attributed victory to me, consuls and church custodians and the entire merchant guild that governs the temple of John the Baptist [Baptistery]. It was decided that I would be granted the honour of making the aforesaid bronze door for the aforesaid temple. And so I did, with great zeal.” Translated from: René van Stipriaan, ‘De jacht op het meesterwerk Ooggetuigen van twintig eeuwen kunstgeschiedenis’, Athenaeum-Polak&van Gennep, Amsterdam 2010 pp. 45-46
Vasari, who wrongly listed Donatello as one of the artists to have partaken in the competition, confirms this for the competitors, because:
“Filippo [Brunelleschi] and Donatello [agreed] that only the work of Lorenzo sufficed, and they considered him more suitable for the work than themselves or others who had submitted a sample. And so they visited the consuls and provided good reason for them to award the assignment to Lorenzo [Ghiberti], by showing that this would best serve public and personal interests; and they showed they were true friends, with talent devoid of envy, and with a good deal of self-knowledge, […]” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, part 1, 1992 p. 162 (original edition 1568).
The biographer of Brunelleschi, Manetti, has a very different story to tell. According to Brunelleschi, the competition was sabotaged. Manetti writes that the judges were divided and could not choose between the two works. Both artists would thus receive the assignment. In case Brunelleschi disagreed with this, then the assignment was at risk of being awarded to Ghiberti. With the judge’s report having gone lost, we will never know the real story. Ghiberti and Vasari or Brunelleschi’s biographer.
Still, the choice of the judges is an understandable one, if only because of the considerable bronze savings. Presumably, another factor weighing in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s favour was that he had a gallery that was very upstanding. For instance, Ghiberti only required 1 cast for the entire panel save for the figure of Isaac. Brunelleschi cast his panel in seven separate parts. The style difference is another thing that must have played a role in the judge’s musings.
Brunelleschi’s panel is clearly different from his rival’s. Brunelleschi is evidently realistic. Abraham, for instance, exudes something threatening. You are not sure if the dagger in the body of his son Isaac will end up piercing him, despite the Angel’s hand already firmly grabbing the father’s arm. This is very different from the work of Ghiberti, on which it is already very evident that the rescuing angel will prevent the sacrifice. Besides, Brunelleschi may have pushed his realism a bit too far in the opinion of the judges. For example, he has produce two figures who are definitely not aware of what is going on. One is removing a thorn from his foot (based on a famous classical sculpture), while the other is leaning forward and drinking. Even the sheep near Isaac is scratching its head with its back leg. Ghiberti’s work, on the other hand, seems more elegant as can be deduced from the folds in the cloak. Still, Ghiberti’s work is not without realistic details such as both figures left on the forefront who are saddling up the mule. What is striking is that Abraham’s gown has a more gothic and thus more decorative pleating, while the nude body of his son seems to have been taken straight from Antiquity.