If, as we have reasoned in another blog, the Renaissance in Italy starts in Florence, then it is in the octagonal structure of the Baptistery in Florence, that the Renaissance begins.
It is also the very building for which we have a documented art contest in the beginning years of the 15th century. Fitting place, then, to mark the beginning of a new artistic vision in Italian culture. The art contest was held in 1401 for the decoration of the doors of this building, and the contest was won by a goldsmith named Lorenzo Ghiberti over Filippo Brunelleschi. Since all beginnings have pasts, it is also natural that the Baptistery already had doors on one side (the South side) before the Arte di Calimala took it upon themselves to pay for the decoration of the other two doors on the north and east by Ghiberti. What this guild and Ghiberti chose as subjects for the decoration of the Baptistery doors says much about the culture in which they lived. How Ghiberti renders these bronze panels says much about the change from Gothic to Renaissance art. The style of the panels will be discussed in another blog, as will the stories on the north and south.
The Baptistery is an octagonal building that is sheathed in marble from Prato and Carrara. Three sets of doors form entrances on three sides and one side has no entrance because the altar is placed on that side. The decorative program for the doors selects 3 subjects for display together with particular role models: The patron saint of the city, John the Baptist, has his story told first, on the South doors, by Andrea Pisano in 1330 in bronze quatrefoils. Below those stories are 8 single quatrefoils with a female figure in each.
The main protagonist of the NEW TESTAMENT, Christ, has his story told by Ghiberti on the North doors between 1403-1425, also in quatrefoils. (These doors are the ones closest to Via Cavour.) Below the quatrefoils with Christ's stories are 8 quatrefoils each with a single figure of a man at a desk with a lectern.
And the stories from the beginning of the Bible, all from the OLD TESTAMENT, have a place on the East doors completed last by Ghiberti from 1425-52, this time in gilded bronze squares.(These doors are those directly across from the Cathedral doors.)
For this blog entry, I wish to examine the quatrefoils of single figures below the stories on the north and south doors and to relate them to the east doors.
On the South doors Pisano sculpts 8 female bronze VIRTUE figures labelled below John's story. The left door presents on the upper layer of 4:
SPES (HOPE) FIDES (FAITH)
Left door lower tier of 4: FORTITUDO TEMPERANTIA
holds a sword that she is putting back into its sheath
holds a sword and balance scales holds serpent in right hand and mirror in left
All of the figures underneath the stories in the panels nearest the viewer represent ideals that are favored by the community. What are the ideals chosen for display on this South door?
3 theological virtues mentioned in Corinthians 13:
SPES - hope - the least judgmental of the virtues, the positive desire of all humans to aspire to live happily
FIDES - faith - a virtue to be expected on a Christian house of worship, holds the cross, symbol of the Crucifixion, and the chalice for the wine of the mass that transubstantiates into Christ's blood; represents belief that Christ died for people's sins and that the wine of the mass is Christ's blood given in sacrifice
CHARITAS - charity or love - generosity of spirit (hence, the heart) and provider of bounty (food) in the shape of the cornucopia
1 virtue added:
HUMILITAS - humility -the need for human beings to be humble; in this case the woman covers herself completely and holds a candle, faces towards faith, hope, and charity in deference.
lower tier: 4 of the cardinal virtues
FORTITUDO - fortitude, literally, physical strength, with protective devices of helmet, club, shield
TEMPERANTIA - temperance, which here means restraint from violence since the sword is going back into the sheath, a closing down of anger, a moderation of ire, careful decision-making
IUSTITIA -justice, revenge upon evil with a sword, a balance of wise choices in court cases, judgments that are sound, fairness in laws
PRUDENTIA - prudence, knowing yourself well (in the form of the mirror), knowing limits, being aware of danger (in the shape of a snake), but also being astute and self-protective like the snake
(there being a long tradition referring to the astuteness of the snake "astutia serpentis" or "prudentes serpentis" coming from Christ's words in Matthew about the importance of being as simple as the dove and as astute as the serpent.)
These values represent sometimes restrictions on human behavior (prudence, temperance, humility), sometimes inspirations for human behavior (faith, justice, charity), and sometimes just wishes for the well-being of the citizens (hope, fortitude). Viewers who could not read the letters could understand the concepts by the attributes held by the female figures.
WHY ARE THEY ALL WOMEN? They are female figures because the Latin nouns they represent are all feminine, even Fortitudo.
When Ghiberti comes to imitate Pisano's arrangement on his opposite door produced in 1403-25, he places 8 male figures to balance those female virtues: 4 Evangelists and 4 Church Fathers.
These represent actual MALES who existed (or are thought to have existed) in history:
Left door (upper layer of 4):
ST. JOHN (the Evangelist) ST. MATTHEW
converses with an angel, his symbol
Right door upper level: ST. LUKE ST. MARK
the corner of the desk
Lower tier 4, left door:
ST. AMBROSE ST. JEROME
reads two books, has whip in lap writes in one book, translates from anotherwears bishop's miter (Bishop of Milano) no bishop's miter (translated Bible into Latin)
lower tier right door:
ST. GREGORY ST. AUGUSTINE
had pen in right hand, has bird near ear right hand points to self, lifts book with left,
no miter, Gregorian chant author has bishop's miter (Bishop of Hippo)
The choice of 4 Evangelists, John, Matthew, Luke and Mark, is an appropriate one for this door since they are the four writers of the New Testament books of the Bible where the LIFE OF CHRIST is told. They form the underpinning literally and literarily of the bronze panels placed above them. The choice of the 4 Fathers of the Church, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory, and Augustine, is also appropriate in that they are the leaders of the early church who establish the texts, both read and sung, for the liturgy used in the Baptistery. One, Ambrose, actually baptized another, Augustine, so they appear for that additional reason.
In the pairing of 8 FEMALE VIRTUES with 8 MORAL MEN, it is clear that Ghiberti and the programmers who helped design the doors felt the need for a balance of feminine and masculine models for baptized Christians to follow, models of wisdom for the whole community. Hardly surprising in a city where the spoken language has only masculine and feminine nouns (no neuter). The sexualized noun structure in oral Italian is mirrored on the first two doors created, even if the nouns on the south door are Latin. The contributions of both men and women to the society are also acknowledged on these doors, an auspicious decoration for a building whose function was the recognition of and inclusion into society of the happy results of the unions of men and women. The men on one door and the women on the other protect the sacred space where both male and female infants, the children that come from the unions of men and women of the Christian community are brought to the altar for blessing.
What happens, then, when we look at the third east door that portrays the oldest of all the stories chosen?
“Cominciai con Dio che creo l’uomo e la femina.”("I began with God who created man and woman" - my trans.) The balance of masculine and feminine can be found in this panel as well as several others on the door, including the final panel of the Meeting of Solomon and Sheba.
Ghiberti's version shows God the Father with an entourage of angels in heaven sending down an angel of wrath through the gate to punish the first humans by exiling them from Paradise. Eve looks up at the angel while covering her genital area with leaves and Adam cowers behind her, keeping his own nudity covered by her body.While Ghiberti exposes the full beauty of the female body in the central scene of Eve's birth, he also pushes her nearly nude body to the foreground in the scene of the fall, so that all viewers can be nourished by its beauty; her body on the right is in such high relief, it is nearly free-standing sculpture. The nudity of the male and female Adam and Eve is a reminder to all humans that they come into the world naked, like the infants baptized in the building. The nudity is also a reminder to all viewers that the conjoining of naked bodies is what produces the infants who end up baptized inside the building. Ghiberti chooses to mute the cries of Adam and Eve upon expulsion (God delivers the punishment second hand and Eve's face is turned up so we can't see her expression; we can't see Adam at all). His scene, though similar in the positions of the three figures and the simple architecture of the gate, is very unlike the same scene depicted by Masaccio during the same period in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine; as Masaccio treats the theme, Adam and Eve are consumed with woe for their transgression because they realize that now that they are cast out of the Garden, they will no longer have eternal life, they know for the first time that they will experience death:
The sin of the Original Couple, while not omitted in Ghiberti's version, is sidelined literally, and it is the beauty of the naked bodies of the two joined together in the center that stands out in the scene. The masculine and the feminine are on display in balanced, rhythmic lines that speak of grace more than disharmony. Human sin is much more forgiveable in Ghiberti's view of life, perhaps a wisdom gained by his own experience of growing up in a family where his mother had left his biological father for the goldsmith who trained him. He acknowledges the problems caused by original sin in designing this set of doors to be read from the top down in imitation of the Fall, while his north doors are read from the bottom up, as Christ's story and his Resurrection lift all sinners up from the depression of death. But throughout the narratives illustrated by Ghiberti on the East side, men and women are presented as "made in God's image," with the potential for divinity in their aspect and lives.
The end of the series of Old Testament stories on the East door is the panel at the farthest and lowest right with the subject of the MEETING OF SOLOMON AND SHEBA. In less high-relief than Eve, the male and female figures are joined by hands in the center of a vast architectural space. In Ghiberti's rendering, the story resembles a wedding in a cathedral, complete with groups of followers divided into bride and groom pews.
In the East doors the artist begins and ends with the masculine and feminine distinctions, the propagating elements in the grammar. The child looking up at the pair in the Solomon and Sheba scene is the last reminder of the baptismal expectation for the viewer upon entering the building. What is a positive view of parental balance is presented in a drama that has a new Renaissance emphasis on symmetry, equal number of feminine and masculine protagonists, imitation of nature in perspective and anatomy, and an idealization of what is most noble about the human condition. The sin of Adam and Eve can be washed away in the civilizing ritual of the community's baptism, that baptism at once the hope and confession of the other entrances to the building.
(My thanks to Professor Jan Mathias Papi, who checked on the North Door panels and found out they are now (except for St. Luke) in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence for cleaning- October, 2013.)
SHORT SUBJECT SUMMARY FOR BAPTISTERY DOORS:
SOUTH - ANDREA PISANO -1330 - EARLIEST Baptistery doors -gilded bronze
28 PANELS ALTOGETHER, 14 PANELS EACH DOOR STORIES OF THE LIFE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST - 10 STORY PANELS EACH DOOR, 20 story panels altogether
read from top to bottom, left to right not crossing over doors
8 VIRTUES at bottom -3 THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES plus Humility and 4 CARDINAL VIRTUES
SPES (HOPE) FIDES (FAITH) CHARITAS (CHARITY) HUMILITAS (HUMILITY)
FORTITUDO TEMPERANTIA IUSTITIA PRUDENTIA
(FORTITUDE) (TEMPERANCE) (JUSTICE) (PRUDENCE)
NORTH - LORENZO GHIBERTI - 1402-1425
28 PANELS ALTOGETHER, 14 PANELS EACH DOOR STORIES OF THE LIFE OF CHRIST
10 STORY PANELS EACH DOOR, 20 story panels altogether/ Read from bottom to top left to right crossing over the two doors, beginning lowest left corner with Annunciation - read 4 panels across all the way RIGHT THEN START AGAIN ON LEFT AND READ ACROSS up to the last panel (Emmaeus) in upper right corner
8 PANELS AT BOTTOM - 4 EVANGELISTS OVER
4 FATHERS OF THE CHURCH
JOHN MATTHEW LUKE MARK
AMBROSE JEROME GREGORY AUGUSTINE
EAST - LORENZO GHIBERTI (Frame -Vittorio Ghiberti) - 1425-52
OLD TESTAMENT STORIES
10 PANELS ALTOGETHER - read from top to bottom left to right across the two doors
l large panel per door - 5 panels per door