Below: Self-Portrait. Bronze. Baptistery, Florence. 

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LORENZO GHIBERTI (1378-1455)

Vasari's Lives of the Artists


THERE IS NO DOUBT that in every city those who, by reason of any talent, come into some fame among men, are a most blessed light and example to many who are either born after them or live in the same age, not to mention the infinite praise and the extraordinary rewards that they themselves gain thereby while living. Nor is there anything that does more to arouse the minds of men, and to render the discipline of study less fatiguing to them, than the honour and profit which are afterwards won by laboring at the arts, for the reason that these make every difficult undertaking easy to them all, and give a greater stimulus to the growth of their talents, when they are urged to greater efforts by the praises of the world. Wherefore infinite numbers of men, who feel and see this, put themselves to great fatigues, in order to attain to the honor of winning that which they see to have been won by some compatriot; and for this reason in ancient times men of talent were rewarded with riches, or honored with triumphs and images. But since it is seldom that talent is not persecuted by envy, men must continue to the best of their power, by means of the utmost excellence, to assure it of victory, or at least to make it stout and strong to sustain the attacks of that enemy; even as Lorenzo di Cione Ghiberti, otherwise called Di Bartoluccio, was enabled to do both by his own merits and by fortune. This man well deserved the honor of being placed before themselves by the sculptor Donato and by the architect and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi, both excellent craftsmen, since they recognized, in truth, although instinct perchance constrained them to do the contrary, that Lorenzo was a better master of casting than they were. This truly brought glory to them, and confusion to many who, presuming on their worth, set themselves to work and occupy the place due to the talents of others, and without producing any fruits themselves, but laboring a thousand years at the making of one work, impede and oppress the knowledge of others with malignity and with envy.

Lorenzo, then, was the son of Bartoluccio Ghiberti, and from his earliest years learnt the art of the goldsmith from his father, who was an excellent master and taught him that business, which Lorenzo grasped so well that he became much better therein than his father. But delighting much more in the arts of sculpture and design, he would sometimes handle colors, and at other times would cast little figures in bronze and finish them with much grace. He also delighted in counterfeiting the dies of ancient medals, and he portrayed many of his friends from the life in his time.

Now, while he was working with Bartoluccio and seeking to make progress in his profession, the plague came to Florence in the year 1400, as he himself relates in a book by his own hand wherein he discourses on the subject of art, which is now in the possession of the Reverend Maestro Cosimo Bartoli, a gentleman of Florence. To this plague were added civil discords and other troubles in the city, and he was forced to depart and to go in company with another painter to Romagna, where they painted for Signer Pandolfo Malatesti, in Rimini, an apartment and many other works, which were finished by them with diligence and to the satisfaction of that Lord, who, although still young, took great delight in matters of design. Meanwhile Lorenzo did not cease to study the arts of design, and to work in relief with wax, stucco, and other similar materials, knowing very well that these small reliefs are the drawing exercises of sculptors, and that without such practice nothing can be brought by them to perfection. Now, when he had been no long time out of his own country, the pestilence ceased; wherefore the Signoria of Florence and the Guild of Merchants since at that time sculpture had many excellent craftsmen, both foreign and Florentine determined that there should be made, as it had been already discussed many times, the other two doors of S. Giovanni, a very ancient temple, indeed, the oldest in that city; and they ordained among themselves that instructions should be sent to all the masters who were held the best in Italy, to repair to Florence in order that their powers might be tested by a specimen scene in bronze, similar to one of those which Andrea Pisano had formerly made for the first door.

Word of this determination was written to Lorenzo, who was working at Pesaro, by Bartoluccio, urging him to return to Florence in order to give a proof of his powers, and saying that this was an occasion to make himself known and to demonstrate his genius, not to mention that he might gain such profit that neither the one nor the other of them would ever again need to labor at making earrings.

The words of Bartoluccio stirred the spirit of Lorenzo so greatly, that although Signor Pandolfo, with all his Court and the other painter, kept showing him the greatest favor, Lorenzo took leave of that lord and of the painter, and they, with great unwillingness and displeasure, allowed him to go, neither promises nor increase of payment availing to detain him, since to Lorenzo every hour appeared a thousand years until he could return to Florence. Having departed, therefore, he arrived safely in his own city. Many foreigners had already assembled and presented themselves to the Consuls of the Guild, by whom seven masters were elected out of the whole number, three being Florentines and the others Tuscans; and it was ordained that they should have an allowance of money, and that within a year each man should finish a scene in bronze by way of test, of the same size as those in the first door. And for the subject they chose the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, wherein they thought that the said masters should be able to show their powers with regard to the difficulties of their art, seeing that this story contained landscapes, figures both nude and clothed, and animals, while the foremost figures could be made in full relief, the second in half relief, and the third in low relief.

The competitors for this work were Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, Donato, and Lorenzo di Bartoluccio, all Florentines; Jacopo della Quercia of Siena, and Niccolo d' Arezzo, his pupil; Francesco di Valdambrina; and Simone da Colle, called Simone de' Brozzi. All these men promised before the Consuls that they would deliver their scenes finished within the said time; and each making a beginning with his own, with all zeal and diligence they exerted all their strength and knowledge in order to surpass one another in excellence, keeping their work hidden and most secret, lest they should copy each other's ideas. Lorenzo alone, who had Bartoluccio to guide him and to compel him to labor at many models before they resolved to adopt any one of them Lorenzo alone was ever inviting the citizens, and sometimes any passing stranger who had some knowledge of the art, to see his work, in order to hear what they thought and these opinions enabled him to execute a model very well wrought and without one defect. And so, when he had made the moulds and cast the work in bronze, it came out very well; whereupon, with his father Bartoluccio, he polished it with such love and patience that nothing could be executed or finished better. And when the time came for comparing the various works, his and those of the other masters were completely finished, and were given to the Guild of Merchants for judgment; but after all had been seen by the Consuls and by many other citizens, diverse opinions were expressed about them. Many foreigners had assembled in Florence, some painters, some sculptors, and others goldsmiths; and they were invited by the Consuls to give judgment on these works, together with the other men of that profession who lived in Florence. They numbered thirty-four in all, each well experienced in his own art. Now, although there were differences of opinion among them, some liking the manner of one man and some that of another, nevertheless they were agreed that Filippo di Ser Brunellesco and Lorenzo di Bartoluccio had composed and completed their scenes better and with a richer abundance of figures than Donato had done in his, although in that one, also, there was grand design.

In that of Jacopo della Quercia the figures were good, but they had no delicacy, although they were made with design and diligence. The work of Francesco di Valdambrina had good heads and was well finished, but was confused in the composition. That of Simone da Colle was a beautiful casting, because the doing of this was his art, but it had not much design. The specimen of Niccolo d' Arezzo, which was made with good mastery, had the figures squat and was badly finished. Only that scene which Lorenzo made as a specimen, which is still seen in the Audience Chamber of the Guild of Merchants, was in every part wholly perfect. The whole work had design, and was very well composed. The figures had so graceful a manner, being made with grace and with very beautiful attitudes, and the whole was finished with so great diligence, that it appeared not made by casting and polished with tools of iron, but blown with the breath. Donato and Filippo, seeing the diligence that Lorenzo had used in his work, drew aside, and, conferring together, they resolved that the work should be given to Lorenzo, it appearing to them that thus both the public and the private interest would be best served, and that Lorenzo, being a young man not more than twenty years of age, would be able to produce by this exercise of his profession those greater fruits that were foreshadowed by the beautiful scene which he, in their judgment, had executed more excellently than the others; saying that there would have been more sign of envy in taking it from him, than there was justice in giving it to him.

Beginning the work of that door, then, for that entrance which is opposite to the Office of Works of S. Giovanni, Lorenzo made for one part of it a large framework of wood, of the exact size that it was to be, with mouldings, and with the ornaments of the heads at the corners, round the various spaces wherein the scenes were to be placed, and with those borders that were to go round them. Having then made and dried the mould with all diligence, he made a very great furnace (that I remember seeing) in a room that he had hired opposite to S. Maria Nuova, where to-day there is the Hospital of the Weavers, on the spot that was called the Aia, and he cast the said framework in bronze. But, as chance would have it, it did not come out well; wherefore, having realized the mischief, without losing heart or giving way to depression, he promptly made another mould and cast it again, without telling anyone about it, and it came out very well. Whereupon he went on and continued the whole work in this manner, casting each scene by itself, and putting it, when finished, into its place. The arrangement of the scenes was similar to that which Andrea Pisano had formerly made in the first door, which Giotto designed for him. He made therein twenty scenes from the New Testament; and below, in eight spaces similar to these, after the said scenes, he made the four Evangelists, two on each side of the door, and likewise the four Doctors of the Church, in the same manner; which figures are all different in their attitudes and their draperies. One is writing, another is reading, others are in contemplation, and all, being varied one from another, appear lifelike and very well executed; not to mention that in the framework of the border surrounding the scenes in squares there is a frieze of ivy leaves and other kinds of foliage, with mouldings between each; and on every corner is the head of a man or a woman in the round, representing prophets and sibyls, which are very beautiful, and demonstrate with their variety the excellence of the genius of Lorenzo.

Above the aforesaid Doctors and Evangelists, which are in the four squares below, there follows, on the side towards S. Maria del Fiore, the first scene; and here, in the first square, is the Annunciation of Our Lady, wherein, in the attitude of the Virgin, he depicted terror and a sudden alarm, as she turns away gracefully by reason of the coming of the Angel. And next to this he made the Nativity of Christ, wherein the Madonna, having given birth to Him, is lying down and taking repose; with Joseph in contemplation, the shepherds, and the Angels singing. In the scene next to this, on the other half of the door, on the same level, there follows the story of the coming of the Magi, and of their adoration of Christ, while they give Him their tribute; and their Court is following them, with horses and other equipage, wrought with great genius. And beside this, likewise, there is His Disputation with the Doctors in the Temple, wherein the admiration and the attention which the Doctors give to Christ are no less well expressed than the joy of Mary and Joseph at finding Him again.

Above these beginning again over the Annunciation there follows the story of the Baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan, wherein there are seen in their gestures the reverence of the one and the faith of the other. Beside this there follows the Temptation of Christ by the Devil, who, terrified by the words of Jesus, stands in an attitude of terror, showing thereby that he knows Him to be the Son of God. Next to this, on the other side, is the scene where He is driving the traders from the Temple, overturning their money and the victims, doves, and other merchandise; wherein the figures, falling over each other, have a very beautiful and well conceived grace in their headlong flight. Next to this Lorenzo placed the shipwreck of the Apostles, wherein S. Peter is issuing from the ship and is sinking into the water, and Christ is upholding him. This scene shows an abundance of various gestures in the Apostles, who are toiling to save the ship; and the faith of S. Peter is recognized in his coming towards Christ. Beginning again above the story of the Baptism, on the other side, there is His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, wherein Lorenzo demonstrated, in the attitudes of the three Apostles, how celestial visions dazzle the eyes of mortals; even as the Divinity of Christ is also recognized as He holds His head high and His arms outstretched, between Elias and Moses. And next to this is the Resurrection of the dead Lazarus, who, having issued from the sepulchre, is standing upright with his feet and his hands bound, to the marvel of the bystanders. Martha is there, with Mary Magdalene, who is kissing the feet of the Lord with very great humility and reverence.

Beside this, on the other half of the door, there follows the scene when He rides on an ass into Jerusalem, while the children of the Hebrews, in various attitudes, are casting their garments on the ground, with the olives and palms ; not to mention the Apostles, who are following the Saviour. And next to this is the Last Supper, very beautiful and well composed, the Apostles being placed at a long table, half on the near side and half on the farther side. Above the scene of the Transfiguration there is the Prayer in the Garden, wherein the three Apostles are seen asleep in various attitudes. And beside this there follows the scene when He is taken and Judas kisses Him, wherein there are many things worthy of consideration, since we see therein both the Apostles, who are flying, and the Jews, who, in taking Christ, are making most violent gestures and efforts. On the other side, next to this, is the scene when He is bound to the Column, wherein is the figure of Jesus Christ writhing not a little with the pain of the blows, in a pitiful attitude, while there are seen, in those gestures that the Jews who are scourging Him are making, terrible rage and lust of vengeance. Next to this there follows the leading of Christ before Pilate, who washes his hands and condemns Him to the Cross. Above the Prayer in the Garden, on the other side and in the last row of scenes, is Christ bearing His Cross and going to His death, led by a crowd of soldiers, who appear, with strange attitudes, to be dragging Him by force; besides the gestures of sorrow and lamentation that the Maries are making, insomuch that one who was present could not have seen them better. Beside this he made Christ on the Cross, and Our Lady and S. John the Evangelist seated on the ground, with gestures full of sorrow and wrath. Next to this, on the other side, there follows His Resurrection, wherein the guards, stunned by the thunder, are lying like dead men, while Christ is ascending on high in such an attitude that He truly appears glorified, by reason of the perfection of His beautiful limbs, wrought by the most ingenious industry of Lorenzo. In the last space is the coming of the Holy Spirit, wherein are very sweet expressions and attitudes in those who are receiving it.

This work was brought to that completion and perfection without sparing any labor or time that could be devoted to a work in bronze, seeing that the limbs of the nudes are most beautiful in every part; and in the draperies, although they hold a little to the old manner of Giotto's time, there is a general feeling that inclines to the manner of the moderns, and produces, in figures of that size, a certain very lovely grace. And in truth the composition of each scene is so well ordered and so finely arranged, that he rightly deserved to obtain that praise which Filippo had given him at the beginning nay, even more. And in like manner he gained most honorable recognition among his fellow citizens, and was consummately extolled by them and by the native and foreign craftsmen. The cost of this work, with the exterior ornaments, which are also of bronze, wrought with festoons of fruits and with animals, was 22,000 florins, and the bronze door weighed 34,000 libbre.

This work finished, it appeared to the Consuls of the Guild of Merchants that they had been very well served, and by reason of the praises given by all to Lorenzo they determined that he should make a statue of bronze, four braccia and a half high, in memory of S. John the Baptist on a pilaster without Orsanmichele, in one of the niches there namely, the one facing the Clothdressers. This he began, nor did he ever leave it until he delivered it finished. It was and still is a work highly raised, and in it, on the mantle, he made a border of letters, wherein he wrote his own name. In this work, which was placed in position in the year 1414, there is seen the beginning of the good modern manner, in the head, in an arm which appears to be living flesh, in the hands, and in the whole attitude of the figure. He was thus the first who began to imitate the works of the ancient Romans, whereof he was an ardent student, as all must be who desire to do good work. And in the frontal of that shrine he tried his hand at mosaic, making therein a half-length prophet.

The fame of Lorenzo, by reason of his most profound mastery in casting, had now spread throughout all Italy and abroad, insomuch that Jacopo della Fonte, Vecchietto of Siena, and Donato having made for the Signoria of Siena some scenes and figures in bronze that were to adorn the baptismal font of their Church of S. Giovanni, the people of Siena, having seen the works of Lorenzo in Florence, came to an agreement with him and caused him to make two scenes from the life of S. John the Baptist. In one he made S. John baptizing Christ, accompanying it with an abundance of figures, both nude and very richly draped; and in the other he made S. John being taken and led before Herod. In these scenes he surpassed and excelled the men who had made the others; wherefore he was consummately praised by the people of Siena, and by all others who have seen them.

The Masters of the Mint in Florence had a statue to make for one of those niches that are round Orsanmichele, opposite to the Guild of Wool, and it was to be a S. Matthew, of the same height as the aforesaid S. John. Wherefore they allotted it to Lorenzo, who executed it to perfection; and it was much more praised than the S. John, for he made it more in the modern manner. This statue brought it about that the Consuls of the Guild of Wool determined that he should make in the same place, for the niche next to that, a statue likewise in bronze, which should be of the same proportions as the other two, representing S. Stephen, their Patron Saint. And he brought it to completion, giving a very beautiful varnish to the bronze; and this statue gave no less satisfaction than the other works already wrought by him.

The General of the Preaching Friars at that time, Maestro Lionardo Dati, wishing to leave a memorial of himself to his country in S. Maria Novella, where he had taken his vows, caused Lorenzo to construct a tomb of bronze, with himself lying dead thereon, portrayed from nature; and this tomb, which was admired and extolled, led to another being erected by Lodovico degli Albizzi and Niccolo Valori in S. Croce.

After these things, Cosimo and Lorenzo de' Medici, wishing to honor the bodies and relics of the three martyrs, Protus, Hyacinthus, and Nemesius, had them brought from the Casentino, where they had been held in little veneration for many years, and caused Lorenzo to make a sarcophagus of bronze, in the middle of which are two angels in low-relief who are holding a garland of olive, within which are the names of those martyrs; and they caused the said relics to be put into the said sarcophagus, which they placed in the Church of the Monastery of the Angeli in Florence, with these words below, carved in marble, on the side of the church of the monks:


CLARISSIMI VIRI COSMAS ET LAURENTIUS FRATRES NEGLECTAS DIU 
SANCTORUM RELIQUIAS MARTYRUM RELIGIOSO STUDIO AC FIDELISSIMA 
PIETATE SUIS SUMPTIBUS NEREIS LOCULIS CONDENDAS COLENDASQUE 
CURARUNT. 

And on the outer side, facing the little church in the direction of the street, below a coat of arms of balls, there are these other words carved on marble:

HIC CONDITA SUNT CORPORA SANCTORUM CHRISTI MARTYRUM PROTI ET 
HYACINTHI ET NEMESII, ANN. DOM. 1428. 

And by reason of this work, which succeeded very nobly, there came a wish to the Wardens of Works of S. Maria del Fiore to have a sarcophagus and tomb of bronze made to contain the body of S. Zanobi, Bishop of Florence. This tomb was three braccia and a half in length, and two in height; and besides adorning it with diverse varied orna- ments, he made therein on the front of the body of the sarcophagus itself a scene with S. Zanobi restoring to life a child which had been left in his charge by the mother, and which had died while she was on a pilgrimage. In a second scene is another child, who has been killed by a wagon, and also the Saint restoring to life one of the two servants sent to him by S. Ambrose, who had been left dead on the Alps; and the other is there, making lamentation in the presence of S. Zanobi, who, seized with compassion, said: "Go, he doth but sleep; thou wilt find him alive." And at the back are six little angels, who are holding a garland of elm-leaves, within which are carved letters in memory and in praise of that Saint. This work he executed and finished with the utmost ingenuity and art, insomuch that it received extraordinary praise as something beautiful.

The while that the works of Lorenzo were every day adding lustre to his name, by reason of his laboring and serving innumerable persons, working in bronze as well as in silver and gold, it chanced that there fell into the hands of Giovanni, son of Cosimo de' Medici, a very large cornelian containing the flaying of Marsyas by command of Apollo, engraved in intaglio ; which cornelian, so it is said, once served the Emperor Nero for a seal. And it being something rare, by reason both of the size of the stone, which was very great, and of the marvellous beauty of the intaglio, Giovanni gave it to Lorenzo, to the end that he might make a gold ornament in relief round it; and he, after toiling at it for many months, finished it completely, making round it a work in relief of a beauty not inferior to the excellence and perfection of the intaglio on the stone; which work brought it about that he wrought many other things in gold and silver, which today are not to be found. For Pope Martin, likewise, he made a gold button which he wore in his cope, with figures in full relief, and among them jewels of very great price a very excellent work; and likewise a most marvellous mitre of gold leaves in openwork, and among them many little figures in full relief, which were held very beautiful. And for this work, besides the name, he acquired great profit from the liberality of that Pontiff. In the year 1439, Pope Eugenius came to Florence where the Council was held in order to unite the Greek Church with the Roman; and seeing the works of Lorenzo, and being no less pleased with his person than with the works themselves, he caused him to make a mitre of gold, weighing fifteen libbre, with pearls weighing five libbre and a half, which, with the jewels set in the mitre, were estimated at 30,000 ducats of gold. It is said that in this work were six pearls as big as filberts, and it is impossible to imagine, as was seen later in a drawing of it, anything more beautiful and bizarre than the settings of the jewels and the great variety of children and other figures, which served for many varied and graceful ornaments. For this work he received infinite favors from that Pontiff, both for himself and his friends, besides the original payment.


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