Monday, August 8, 2016



LORENZO Ghiberti (1378-1455), the Italian Renaissance sculptor, is an artist
who wishes to promote his name and his workshop in the early years
of the 15th century. After he wins the contest for the bronze Florentine Baptistery
doors in 1401, he inserts into the framing of the panels on the North doors (1403-25),
his own self-portrait and name. We have discussed his signature
OPUS LAURENTII FIORENTINI and his sculpted head there in a
separate blog entry:
Lorenzo then produces a self-portrait and a portrait of his son, Vittorio, on the East doors
made between 1425 and 1452:

Lorenzo feels proud of his work as a bronze sculptor, but he also is a good businessman. He understands that placing an image of himself and his son on the doors is a way of guaranteeing income for the future, for himself, his family, and his workshop.
        His deliberate self-advertisement extends to large-scale bronze sculpture as well,
a fact that has been rarely pointed out. In fact, his bronze statue of St. John the Baptist, carried out between 1414 and 1416 for a niche of Orsanmichele, has inscribed on the robe of the saint his own signature again. Which signature is created first, the one on St. John's robe or the one on the Baptistery north door (1403-25), might be hard to determine. What is clear, though, is that Lorenzo Ghiberti is the FIRST Italian Renaissance sculptor to leave his name inscribed on a piece of sculpture as a record that he is the artist of the work.
         While his signature on the Baptistery is documented in the literature, very little is said about
his signature on the bronze statue of St. John the Baptist, even in the latest catalogue published
about the statues of Orsanmichele. An examination of the statue and his signature tells us much.
The statue of St. John is commissioned of Ghiberti by the Arte di Calimala, the wool guild of the city. The Calimala were the wealthiest guild, responsible for the biggest industry of Florence, the refinement and dyeing of wool for shipment all over Europe. They were entitled, therefore, to order a statue of the most important saint for the city, the patron saint of Florence, St. John the Baptist. They also had enough money to order a statue made of the finest materials.
Unfortunately for the guild, since St. John the Baptist eschews the material world in his life in the desert, John's story does not normally lend itself to a display of material goods.  But Ghiberti did not let that get in the way of promoting the industry of the guild that had hired him. In Ghiberti's rendition in bronze St. John is holding the cross staff, his attribution, and he is dressed in as many wool robes as Ghiberti can swathe around the figure. The animal skins shown on the chest under his robes are signs of John's ascetic life after his baptism of Christ in the Jordan, a desert life where he lived with the animals and dressed himself in their pelts.

In John's proper left hand he holds a scroll on which are written in Latin abbreviation the words
attributed to John when he was asked his identity by the Pharisees (John 1:23):
"I am the voice of one calling in the desert. Make straight the way of the Lord."
"Ego sum vox clamantis in deserto. Parate viam dni (domini)."

The wildness of his life in the desert and his abandonment of civilization in pursuit of spiritual
truth are emphasized in the inlaid eyes Ghiberti places in his face; the eyes are facing different
directions, as if the saint were somewhere else, not on the earth, away in a spiritual plane by himself.

The ferocity of the eyes and the crazed look they produce are necessary in this image of St. John
in order to convey his devotion to the ascetic life of a prophet, far away from society. In many medieval and Renaissance painted versions of St. John, his clothes are rags or in tatters, or insubstantially cover his body, as indicators of this eschewment of the material world.

In Ghiberti's hands St. John wears long and beautifully-rendered robes, made even more luxurious in the great deep folds of the wool material conveyed in the swags of bronze that Ghiberti used for the statue. He shows off the wealth of the wool guild in the amount of bronze used for the robes, and he advertises in the cloak's swirls and folds the wool material that gave them the wealth in the first place. In a sense, in the figure of St. John he presents and sells to the street the main product made by the guild. 
The staff is missing in this photo; it has been reconstructed for the piece in the museum.
Ghiberti's St. John the Baptist was originally made for the guild's niche on the outside of Orsanmichele (the original is now on the second floor of the building, a copy rests in the niche.)

The city's patron saint, like the statue of St. George around the corner, guards the staircase
leading up to the grain supply for the city, the most important corner of Orsanmichele, the building that functioned both as a church and as a grain storage unit for the whole city.
           A public statue and visible from the street, much as the Baptistery doors were. A perfect
place for Ghiberti to remind viewers of his artistic talent. He chooses the very material of the guild in which to place his signature, but because of the darkness of the bronze, the name is difficult to see now. Fortunately the statue can be photographed up close in the museum now, so that Lorenzo's intentions are clear. The closeup photographs taken in situ show each of the letters he incises on
the robe. He leaves his name in order to make sure everyone knows who has produced this great work, THE LARGEST NON-FREESTANDING STATUE IN BRONZE SINCE ANTIQUITY. 
It is an achievement deserving of a signature.
             At this point it is worth noting that Michelangelo, 84 years later, carves his name into the sash across the chest of the Virgin in his Pieta of 1498

made for the basilica of St. Peter's in Rome. It reads, "Michelangnus Bonarottus Fiorentini Facebat" (Michelangelo Buonarotti the Florentine Made this.) Michelangelo had added his signature, according to his biographers, after he had overheard someone saying in front of the statue that it had been carved by a Lombard artist. He wanted to make sure that anyone who saw it knew it had been carved by him and that he was Florentine. Michelangelo would have known of Ghiberti's signatures - the one on the Baptistery north doors where he also writes the word Florentine and the one carved into the hem of the robes of John the Baptist. Michelangelo was following in the tradition set forth by his predecessor, Lorenzo Ghiberti.
           So what is Ghiberti's signature on the St. John?
It is simple:
            OPUS LORENTII 

Because LORENTII is so close to the word FLORENTINI perhaps Ghiberti didn't feel he had
to repeat his identity as Florentine, especially as the niche was in Florence and paid for by the
Florentine guild members. But it is curious that he does not give his last name. As we have explained in the other blog entry, he grew up in a small village outside of Florence, Pelago, with a father whose name was Bartoluccio di Ghiberti, and then moved when his mother moved, to live with the goldsmith, Bartoluccio di Michele, in town. So his leaving out his last name is a way of avoiding the problem of having two fathers - one biological and one actual. Contemporaries sometimes refer to him as Lorenzo di Bartolo, which avoids the problem, too, but, the lack of his last name is conspicuous in a society where pride in family identity was paramount (as we can see from Michelangelo's signature.)
             In modern times we are used to artists calling themselves by one name, Adele or Madonna,
for example, but in the 15th century, it was important for artists to identify themselves either by their
father's name, as in the example Taddeo di Gaddi or Bartolo di Fredi (Taddeus of Gaddi or Bartolo of
Fredi, father's names) or by their place of birth, as in Gentile DA Fabriano (Gentile FROM Fabriano (a place near the east coast in Umbria) and Leonardo DA Vinci (Leonardo FROM VINCI, a place between Florence and Pisa in Tuscany). In Leonardo's case his identity is compromised if he uses his father's name because he was illegitimate, so the use of place name is extremely convenient.
             The same avoidance of the father is evident in Lorenzo Ghiberti's signature on this
major work of art. (Many thanks to my dear friend Jan Papi for checking on the letters before I could
get to Florence myself to photograph them.)
Here is the photographic documentation for Lorenzo's signature on the robe:
The letters are marked out in individual circles that
are produced in raised bronze and the letters themselves are raised in slight relief from the
plain background.
The artist chooses a V shape in which to situate the letters.That way the signature swoops down from the saints right hip, through the folds in the cloth, and swoops back up through the cloth hem to finish above the saint's proper left knee. Since the viewer from a distance would only see the letters as decorations on the hem of the saint's robe, the artist can humbly insert his own name into a sacred work without disturbing the visual whole of the saint's body. When the work was first exhibited, the letters would have been more prominent and more legible. (My thanks to Professor Alistair Duckworth for some of the closeup photos of the signature.)

O   P    U   S  are the letters that begin the signature, the Latin for "The Work of"; they appear near the right hand of the saint. In the photograph the O and V (for U) are seen to either side of the fingers.
He leaves space between the letters.
In the next photo are the encircled V and S of OPUS and the beginning letters of L and A :
Each letter is encircled by a perfect circle of raised bronze, a roundel framing unit.
The next photo shows the LAUR in succession:
Again the U looks like a V.  So far sliding down the left slope of the saint's robe we can
read:  OPUS LAUR before the cloth folds into the body. Emerging on the right side of
the robe are the remaining letters:  ENTII
He has split his name between two sides of the saints body so that his signature extends
the width of the figure, and he stretches out his name down and up so that the record of his
achievement reaches almost the whole length of the figure as well.
The next photo shows part of his name R E N T continuing down and up:
He seems to be angling the letters to be seen from a viewer looking from the front below.
The letters TII are presented in the next photo:
                                                                                       OPUS LAURENTII
      P                                                                            THE WORK OF LORENZO



                L                           I

                  A                       I

                     V                T

                         R         N

How neatly he has measured his own success, his first name extending the length of his city's
patron saint's robe, set out more importantly than the word OPUS, which is half hidden
under the fingers of the saint. Ghiberti's sense of himself as an individual artist is displayed
in a puzzle for the viewer to put together, much the way he himself put together the puzzle
of creating a huge work in bronze when it hadn't been done for centuries. His signature
has to be sought out, circle by circle, perhaps in order to tone down his own success that has been
splashed out over the body of a saint whose success was measured in spiritual terms.

Fortunately for the modern viewer Lorenzo wanted his hard work documented for history.

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