15th Century Italy was unlike any other place during its’ time. The “rebirth” had given life and vigor to artists and scholars alike. Money flowed through the hands of wealthy Florentines and into the waiting arms of men like Da Vinci, Donatello, and Michelangelo. Commissions paved the way for some of history’s greatest artists to absorb themselves in their work, propelling the art world forward as if shot out of a cannon.
During the Renaissance, the heart of Florence was the cathedral. Sitting across from the Cathedral was the baptistery: the location where the citizens of Florence would go to be baptized. Adorning the entrance to the baptistery were two seventeen-feet tall doors proudly brandishing bronze relief sculptures created by an artist named Lorenzo Ghiberti. Those doors have come to be called the “Porta del Paradiso,” or the “Gates of Paradise.”According to legend, as all good stories begin, these doors were given their name by Michelangelo. It was told that after seeing them he proclaimed, “these doors are so beautiful that they could be the gates to heaven itself.”
Working from 1445 to 1452, Lorenzo Ghiberti created this commission for the guild of wool merchants, one of the wealthiest guilds in Florence. His work was set to be installed on the North side of the Baptistery, looking away from the Cathedral. After its’ unveiling, it was decided that the only proper place for the doors was on the East side, facing the Cathedral. It’s no mystery why the Florentines wanted these doors as close to the Cathedral as possible.Ghiberti’s artistry is on display as one of the greatest pieces of early Renaissance sculpture. Before this period, relief sculptures were simply picture planes, small boxes showing their subject in an almost two-dimensional space. Ghiberti’s work however, allows the eye to fall deeper and deeper into the image, deceived into perceiving great depths special realism. This illusion of depth would become known as linear perspective, and it would become as tantamount as Da Vinci’s paintbrush was for art during the Renaissance age.Thirty years before Ghiberti’s “Porta del Paradiso, a man by the name of Filippo Brunelleschi had devised a mathematical system called linear perspective. Linear perspective was the idea that objects could follow precisely drawn lines toward one singular point out on the horizon, called the vanishing point, and like railroad tracks, objects would begin shrinking into the distance until they disappeared.Ghiberti displays his grasp and perfection of Brunelleschi’s formula not just once, but ten times over. Panel by panel, from one piece to the next, figures appear to diminish from forms almost entirely in the round, to objects that more closely resemble line drawings.
Not only is Ghiberti’s use of perspective on display, but the beauty and realism in the figures is almost mesmerizing. Garments swiftly and gracefully flow from the curves of the bodies as they stand in contrapposto, one foot slightly in front of the other as the body elongates and twisting. Ghiberti’s choice to render the figures this way was a celebration of the classical style, an era of art and architecture whose influence is evident in every facet of the Renaissance period.