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Lippo di Andrea | Scenes from the Life of Saint Cecilia; detail of Death of the Saint | Santa Maria del Carmine (Florence, Italy) | (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; scalarchives.com; artres.com

Lippo di Andrea | Scenes from the Life of Saint Cecilia; detail of Death of the Saint | Santa Maria del Carmine (Florence, Italy) | (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; scalarchives.com; artres.com

Anne C. Leader, Professor, SCAD-Atlanta

While the primary motivation for patrons of religious architecture and decoration was to gain or retain God’s grace, Florentine tomb monuments manifest a conflicting mix of piety and social calculation, reflecting tension between Christian humility and social recognition. Though some city churches still house many tombs, most of the thousands of original monuments have been moved, reused, or survive only in fragments. From the mid-thirteenth-century onward, Florence’s churches, both inside and out, were carpeted with floor slabs, coated with wall monuments, banners, and markers, and filled with stone caskets. Benefactors hoped to secure perpetual intercession for their souls, while preserving and promoting their family’s honor, with families typically installing tombs in multiple locations around the city. My research reconstructs the rich mosaic of tomb markers that once covered the floors, walls, and yards of the Florentine cityscape to bring us closer to how Florentines experienced the deaths and memories of their kin, friends, and competitors in the early modern city.

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Left: Lorenzo Ghiberti | Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401-1402. Right: Filippo Brunelleschi | Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401-1402 | Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise Collection | these images were provided by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore

The competition for the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery at the turn of the fifteenth century was the city’s most prestigious public commission. Seven artists competed by submitting a bronze plaque on the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” to be judged by a committee of thirty-four native-born citizens of Florence. The competition quickly narrowed down to Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. After Ghiberti won, he unabashedly claimed, “To me was conceded the palm of victory by all the experts and by all my fellow competitors. Universally, they conceded to me the glory, without exception. Everyone felt I had surpassed the others in that time, without a single exception, after great consultation and examination by learned men.”

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De gustibus non est disputandum, but was Ghiberti’s entry so clearly superior? As historian Rona Goffen put it in her excellent book Renaissance Rivals, “The committee’s decision was surely influenced by the fact that Ghiberti’s panel weighed 7 kilos [approx. 15½ lbs] less than Brunelleschi’s, savings in bronze that signified considerable savings of money.” The photographs of the backs of the panels clearly show how Ghiberti saved those 7 kilos.

Left: Lorenzo Ghiberti | Sacrifice of Isaac; back of panel, 1401-1402. Right: Filippo Brunelleschi | Sacrifice of Isaac; back of panel, 1401-1402 | Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise Collection | these images were provided by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore

In 2008, ARTstor supported the comprehensive photographic documentation of the Gates of Paradise in their restored state in collaboration with the Museo dell’ Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. The photographic campaign by photographer Antonio Quattrone documented the newly cleaned bronze panels and frieze elements, as well as Ghiberti and Brunelleschi’s competition panels, now housed in the Museum del Bargello in Florence.

Check out the more than 800 glorious images of the doors, including details and side views, in the Digital Library http://library.artstor.org/library/collection/ghiberti. Feel free to weigh in (ahem) on whether you think Ghiberti’s entry won on esthetic issues alone.

–  Giovanni Garcia-Fenech

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