Michelangelo likened the gilded bronze doors of Florence's Baptistery of San Giovanni to the "Gates of Paradise." The phrase stuck, for reasons that anyone who has seen them will understand. Combining a goldsmith's delicacy with a foundryman's bravura, sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti condensed the Old Testament into ten panels to produce one of the defining masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. Since their installation in 1452, the doors have withstood a variety of near-biblical catastrophes: a torrential flood, vandalism, overzealous polishing and caustic air pollution. When the doors were finally removed for restoration from the facade of the 11th-century octagonal Baptistery in 1990, they looked dull and grimy. But the worst damage was occurring almost invisibly. Diagnostic studies revealed that fluctuations in humidity were causing unstable oxides on the bronze beneath the gilding to dissolve and recrystallize, creating minute craters and blisters on the gold surface.
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A disastrous Arno River flood in 1966 had knocked five panels off the door frames and left another hanging loose. (A conservator later drilled holes in the panel backs to reattach them with screws.) The restorers' first task was to clean the six panels, successively bathing them in a Rochelle salt solution and water, then applying acetone and drying them with warm air. "It was a great surprise when we took the first panel out and saw how much gold was there and how shiny it was," says Stefania Agnoletti, the conservator in charge of the cleaning. "It was an emotional moment."
After laboriously removing the four additional panels and some of the other firmly embedded gilded elements, the conservators decided it was too risky to continue. To clean the gilded elements still attached, the team adapted laser techniques that they had used successfully to clean stone statues. The drawback of lasers is their tendency to heat surfaces, which would harm the gilding. But scientists in Florence developed one that could beam a more intense ray for a shorter time, and in 2000, the conservators began using it on the doors' gilded sculptures. For ungilded portions, they employed an array of tools that resemble a dentist's arsenal: a small scalpel for thick encrustations, a drill for precise excisions and a little rotating brush for polishing. They hope to finish the work in 2008.
To celebrate the nearly completed restoration, three of the ten panels (and four of the doors' smaller sculptural pieces) are now touring the United States as part of an exhibition organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The show, which opened there and traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, will go on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Oct. 30-Jan. 14, 2008) and end at the Seattle Art Museum (Jan. 26-April 6, 2008). Then the sculptures will return to Florence to be reattached to the door frames and encased in a plate-glass box, into which inert nitrogen will be pumped to prevent future oxidation. The restored doors will be displayed in the city's Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. A shiny replica, installed in 1990, will remain at the Baptistery itself.
Ghiberti's doors were instantly recognized as a masterpiece. As one commentator declared in the 1470s, "nothing like them had been done before on the globe and through them the name of man shines everywhere." The three panels selected for the U.S. tour—"Adam and Eve," "Jacob and Esau" and "David"—show why. By combining several biblical episodes into a single frame in "Adam and Eve," Ghiberti demonstrated his command of high and low relief and introduced a narrative technique new in sculpture—the simultaneous depiction of successive scenes. And with his portrayal in "David" of a pitched battle and a triumphal procession, the artist showed a flair for evoking large crowds within a small area.
The third panel, "Jacob and Esau," is Ghiberti's most masterful. "It best demonstrates his genius," says Syracuse University professor Gary Radke, the curator of the exhibition, because "it shows so many aspects of Renaissance art." The receding tiles of the floor illustrate the recent innovation of scientific perspective, and the arches and pilasters are inspired by Roman architecture as interpreted in Filippo Brunelleschi's spare, monumental churches. (Brunelleschi is renowned as the architect of the dome of Florence's Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, known more familiarly as the Duomo.) Ghiberti also played here with sculptural illusion by extending some of his figures almost off the panel, while depicting others in low relief. The artist apparently shared posterity's high regard for this achievement. "Ghiberti put his own self-portrait and his signature right under it," Radke notes. The self-portrait bust shows a bald man of about 60, with a shrewd gaze and a thin, broad mouth that seems to be smiling with self-satisfaction.
Perhaps because Ghiberti was no radical, his standing has long been subordinated to those of his contemporaries—especially Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello—who appeared to depart more dramatically from medieval traditions. But the view of Ghiberti as a conservative is a misconception; though he retained an allegiance to the restraint and balance of medieval art, he innovatively used physical movements and individual features to reveal mood and character. "He's got both feet in both worlds," says Radke. "You can see him develop new ways to be more expressive and illusionistic, and to include bigger crowds and lots more effects, but he doesn't do it in a wildly revolutionary way. He has a real talent for presenting novelty so that it seems to come out of the recent past."
Ghiberti apprenticed in childhood to goldsmith Bartolo di Michele, who was his stepfather or, possibly, his father. His mother, Mona Fiore, the daughter of a farm laborer, had made what seemed an advantageous marriage in 1370 to Cione Ghiberti, the son of a notary, but, after a few years, left him for Bartolo, with whom she lived in a common-law marriage. (After Cione's death in 1406, they wed.) The facts of Lorenzo's paternity remain in dispute, but in any case the young man was raised as a goldsmith's son and showed a precocious aptitude for the craft.