With another blog entry devoted to self-portraits in Renaissance painting, it seems appropriate to spend time looking at the origins of self-portraiture in Renaissance sculpture.
Who, then, is the FIRST to represent himself in sculpture in the Quattrocento?
Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), after winning the competition in 1401 for the design of the bronze panels of the Florence Baptistery doors, works from 1403-1425 on the stories from the LIFE OF CHRIST in panels that eventually are installed in the North Doors of the Baptistery.
He is the earliest artist to put an image of himself in sculpture in Western Art. He advertises himself as the artist who has created the work by placing a high relief portrait in gilded bronze on the left north door of the Baptistery. The self-portrait is placed in the molding just to the right above the panel of the Annunciation, the first panel in the LIFE. (8 panels below the Annunciation are devoted to the 4 Evangelists and 4 Fathers of the Church - more about that in another blog.) The self-portrait is not lifesize but grand nonetheless.
The artist presents himself with a turban to cover his bald head, with slightly bulging eyes, a large nose and simple closed mouth. He dresses up for this portrait, wearing the turban in a fashionable twist and formal clothing that has lace at the collar with two buttons closing a pleated tunic. Ghiberti singles out his own face with tre-foil moldings of bronze. His head juts out in high relief from the background of the door. As his face is close to viewer's eye-level, he seems to project his head there to look out at the public while they look at his door - a protective gesture or welcoming or curious or all three? To the right of his head from the viewer's point of view are the panels of the Nativity on the left door and the Adoration of the Magi on the right door. Lightly engraved inside the quatrefoil and above each scene is the inscription that serves as a signature for Ghiberti on the door:
Left door Right door
OPUS LAUREN TII FLOREN TINI
(the work of Lorenzo the Florentine)
NATIVITY ADORATION OF THE MAGI
The three split-up Latin words are the 2nd EARLIEST SIGNATURE in Florentine Quattrocento art, the first being Ghiberti's signature on his John the Baptist bronze statue. The portrait and signature clearly mark the door's sculpture as his own. He is proud of his art and feels it is important to let others know that he is responsible for it. Even though the letters are not carved in cursive writing, the fact that the artist has engraved these words means this is still a signature that records the name of the person responsible for the bas-reliefs. While Masaccio, another Florentine painter, may have been the first painter to paint his own self-portrait looking at the viewer on the wall of the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, nowhere can we find a place where Masaccio "signs" that work or any of his other works with words or letters that indicate his authorship or name. Ghiberti himself engraves his name alone without self-portrait on the statue of St. John the Baptist (1405-22) for Orsanmichele in Florence (subject of another blog entry).
Here then we have the FIRST example in Western art of an artist placing his signature and sculpted self-portrait together next to each other in the same work of art. Ghiberti's engraved name, town of origin, and the Latin word "work" (opus) together with the bronze self-portrait guarantee his identity as the artist by name and face. Masaccio's painting is 1424-27 while Ghiberti's bronze may be earlier, 1403-1425. Since there is an overlap of dates, it is possible that Masaccio gave Ghiberti the idea for a self-portrait in 1424 or1425 and then Ghiberti carried his own out in sculpted bronze in 1424-25, but it is equally possible that Ghiberti's own sculpted image gave Masaccio the idea for painting himself into the Enthronement of Peter, since the Enthronement is painted last on the wall of the Brancacci Chapel, probably around 1427 and we know Ghiberti completed this door in 1425.
Ghiberti has more motivation than Masaccio to present his face and name. His own identity was a cause of anxiety because his birth father was different from the father who raised him. He purposely avoids his last name in this inscription and prefers to be known only as "LORENZO THE FLORENTINE", aligning himself with the city-state that has given him employment.
But the anxiety about origin catches up with him on the second set of doors. He liked confronting his audience so much on the first door, he repeats the self-portrait with signature on the second set of doors, the EAST DOORS, 1425-52. To the right and below the panel of the Jacob and Esau story he places his own head. At the same viewer's eye-level and across on the opposite door, he sculpts the head of his son, Vittorio, who worked for him in his workshop and who probably finished the frames of the South door.
Here Ghiberti presents himself without turban, bald, smiling, nicely dressed again with tunic and lace, and clearly a man of confidence from years of successful artistic production. The portrait of his son, too, has an air of easy formality. Both wish people to recognize them around town as the artists who worked on the Baptistery, so their portraits are realistic. Their heads turn slightly in towards each other, acknowledging their blood and professional relationship while at the same time appearing to be moving to look at the viewer whose eyes are looking back at them. The turn of head suggests subtle conversation with each other and the crowds below.
Artists in the Renaissance become increasingly aware of their own place in the chronology of the history of art and they wish to promote their own work to have people compare them with the great artists of ancient time. But no ancient artists that I know of left sculpted self-portraits to posterity. Even for Ghiberti the image is not enough - he must leave words in Latin again here to identify himself as the artist of the work: on the left door below the Esau scene and above the Moses scene, Ghiberti engraves his name:
LAURENTII CIONIS DE GHIBERTIS
As God hands Moses the tablets of the 10 Commandments, Ghiberti hands the viewer his signature in writing. Then on the right door above the Joshua scene and below the Joseph scene, at the same level as his name, he inscribes:
MIRA ARTE FABRICATUM
The signature in this case is longer and asks the viewer to acknowledge the work, but it still spans both doors, as does the North door signature. He purposely sets the word "fabricatum" over the strong towers built for the city of Jericho. The Biblical scenes on both doors are central and visible to the standing viewer.
When he begins his doors for the Baptistery, Ghiberti chooses the Nativity and gift-giving scene of the Magi as the subjects with which he wishes to associate his name.
The birth of his art and the gift of it are primary in the North Doors.
As he is finishing the work, he chooses the molding above the Old Testament stories of Moses and Joshua and below the Joseph stories for his name.
He glories in the God-given talent in the panels suggested by the tablets and blessed by Isaac, and he realizes the hard human work that has gone into the production of the panels in the towers of the walls of Jericho and the walls of the temple in the Joseph scene.
God-given talent and human creation are both implied in
LAURENTII CIONE DE GHIBERTIS MIRA ARTE FABRICATUM
What Ghiberti leaves out in the second inscription is his identification as Florentine. While the first left door only mentions Ghiberti's first name, the second set of doors emphasizes his family name over the city-state.
Ghiberti's own birth and hence, his last name, is a worry to him. Born to Cione dei Ghiberti in a village outside of Florence, Pelago, he is transported by his mother soon after birth to live in the household of a goldsmith named Bartoluccio de Michele, where he receives his training. His mother had left his biological father, however, and she marries Bartoluccio after Cione's death in 1406. When the Florentine city government discovers that LORENZO is not "di Bartoluccio" but "di Cione", they force Ghiberti to pay a fine for the deception and to sign documents that legitimize his birth by the original father. Ghiberti's acknowledgement on the public door of the Baptistery, where all Christian children in Florence went to be baptized in the 15th century, is a further documentation of his original birth name. But in the process of awarding the first father with the fame Ghiberti had garnered for himself, he purposely omits the name of the city-state which has pushed him to this revision. His self-portrait turns away from this part of the inscription and towards his son, whose legitimate birth can never be the same source of unease.