Brunelleschi vs. Ghiberti: the Fray in Firenze

The Baptistery of Battistero di San Giovanni is located in front of  Firenze’s (Florence’s) Cathedral or Duomo, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.  It is a Romanesque octagonal structure with three sets of double bronze doors.    The commission for the first set of doors was awarded to Pisano in 1330 and they were completed in 1336.  The Pisano doors were originally located on the east side of the Baptistery.  In 1452, the doors were moved to their present location on the south side.

            In 1401, the guild of wool merchants called the Arte di Calimala announced a competition for the second set of doors.  This competition began one of the greatest artistic rivalries of all time and it fueled the creative genius of two of the Italian Renaissance’s greatest artists, Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti.  The competitors were to prepare a bronze panel depicting Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. 

            The panel created by Brunelleschi depicts the strong Abraham holding his son, Isaac, by the throat with his left hand as he is about to slash his throat with a dagger held in his right hand.  The angel reaches out and grabs Abraham’s hand before the mortal slash is rendered.  The ram stuck in the thicket lies in front of Isaac.  In addition, two servants and a donkey are at the bottom of the panel.  “Brunelleschi’s work is by far more dramatic and disturbing, all angles and movement and raw emotion, like nothing that had ever been created before ….” [Walker 22-23]

            “Ghiberti’s panel is more elegant and beautiful.” [Walker 23]  The panel shows Isaac in a classic nude stance, and Abraham appears more gentle.  The angel hovers above them and the ram and donkey appear in a natural setting.  “Whereas Brunelleschi’s piece demonstrates an artist aching to forge a new and more powerful vision of reality, Ghiberti demonstrates masterful perfection of art, as remarkable in its own way for the time and place and age of the artist as is the work of his rival.” [Walker 23]

            The judges had a very difficult time in selecting the winner between Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and the five other participants.  Ultimately, the judges declared a tie between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, and suggested that they both work on the doors as partners.  Brunelleschi would have none of it and withdrew.  His ego so badly damaged that he did not create any other sculpture during his career.  Instead, he pursued a career in architecture, and figured out how to build the dome for Baptistery’s neighbor the Duomo.  “Today, the panels by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi hang side by side on a wall in the Bargello, originally the Palace of the People, later the city’s prison, now its [Firenze] greatest museum of sculpture.” [Walker 22]  Neither panel was ever used in the doors.  Instead, the two panels hang together as a tribute not only to two of the world’s greatest artists, but also to the Frey in Firenze.

Works Cited

Radke, Gary M., ed. The Gates of Paradise Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece. New Haven: Yale University, 2007. Print.

Robinson, George. The Florence Baptistery Doors. New York: Viking, 1980. Print.

Walker, Paul Robert. The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance. New York: HaperCollins, 2002. Print.


2 Responses to “Brunelleschi vs. Ghiberti: the Fray in Firenze”

  1. Ben Hooson Says:

    GREAT post! I liked that it was just as much about the competition for the commission as it was about the piece itself. Great job!

  2. Olivia Spadlowski Says:

    Great Piece. I found it to be very informitive.

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