In 1401, Bartolo informed Ghiberti, who had left Florence during a brief outbreak of the plague, that the Baptistery in Florence was commissioning a second set of bronze doors. The first set, produced by Andrea Pisano 70 years before, was a widely recognized triumph of bronze casting; the new commission would be the most important in Florence since Pisano's. According to Giorgio Vasari's 16th-century Lives of the Artists, Bartolo advised Ghiberti that "this was an opportunity to make himself known and to show his skill, besides the fact that he would make such a profit from it that neither would ever again have to work on pear-shaped earrings."
The competition was organized by the Calimala, a guild of wealthy wool-cloth merchants who supervised the decoration of the Baptistery. Seven finalists, including Ghiberti, worked for a year to depict in bronze the story of Abraham's call to sacrifice his son Isaac. In the end, it came down to two artists, Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. As can be seen in their rival entries (opposite), Brunelleschi's version emphasizes the violence, while Ghiberti devised a calmer, more lyrical composition.
To our eyes, the Brunelleschi seems more powerful and "modern." But Brunelleschi's determination to cram as many attention-grabbing devices into one work may have seemed willful to 15th-century Florentine jurors. Certainly, Ghiberti's craftmanship was superior; unlike Brunelleschi, who soldered his panel from many separate pieces of bronze, Ghiberti cast his in just two, and he used only two-thirds as much metal—a not-inconsiderable savings.
The combination of craft and parsimony would have appealed to the practical-minded men of the Calimala. By his own account, Ghiberti won the competition outright; but Brunelleschi's first biographer says that the jury asked the two men to collaborate and Brunelleschi refused. In any event, in cooperation with Bartolo (Ghiberti, only about 20, was still too young to be a member of a trade guild and required a co-signer) and a distinguished studio of assistants that included Donatello, Ghiberti took on the job. It would occupy him for the next two decades.
During those years, Ghiberti also found time to start a family. He married Marsilia, the 16-year-old daughter of a wool carder, and soon after, she gave birth to two sons, Vittorio and Tommaso, in 1417 and 1418, respectively. Both became goldsmiths and went to work in their father's studio, but only Vittorio—who took over the business upon his father's death in 1455—stayed with the thriving firm.
Thanks to the acclaim that greeted the doors upon their completion, Ghiberti was assigned another set for the Baptistery. It is on this work—the Gates of Paradise—that his reputation rests today. In what is considered to be the first autobiography by a European artist, known as I Commentarii, Ghiberti recalled the creation of what he rightly judged to be "the most outstanding" of all his works. For the assignment, he wrote, he was "given a free hand to execute it in whatever way I thought it would turn out most perfect and most ornate and richest." With that mandate, he dispensed with traditional quatrefoils—four-lobed configurations—and instead divided the doors into ten square panels, which he surrounded with 24 figures and 24 heads. It took him 12 years to model and cast the main reliefs and another 15 to finish them. Not so much time, really, when you consider that along with the arduous work of detailing the surface of the cast bronze—the punching, hammering, incising and polishing that, collectively, is known as "chasing"—he had to come up with a new syntax for portraying a narrative.
From the first panel, set in the Garden of Eden (page 71, top), he exhibited an exuberant self-confidence with a story line that starts on the left in high relief with God animating Adam, then moves to a central scene of God creating Eve from the rib of a recumbent Adam, and ends on the right with the expulsion of Adam and Eve. Incised in low relief in the rear is the back story: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent. "Up to the Gates of Paradise, the convention was to depict one episode per sculpture," Radke says. "It was Ghiberti's great inspiration that you could have a multiple narrative in these square windows, and that would enliven the work."
The response to the completed doors was nothing less than rapturous—so much so that Ghiberti's earlier doors were moved to allow the new ones to go in the most prominent position, on the east, facing the Duomo. There they would be one of the major artistic attractions of the city for more than five centuries.