One of the scholarly bonuses of the restoration is the new insight provided into Ghiberti's work methods. Not until the panels were removed did conservators realize that Ghiberti had cast each of the two doors, including the frames, as a single three-ton bronze piece. "Before him, nobody in Italy was able to create something in bronze so big in dimension, not since the end of the Roman Empire," says Annamaria Giusti, the director of the Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietre Dure, which is overseeing the restoration. It remains a mystery how Ghiberti learned the technique. He did not discuss it in his autobiography. "He loved to present himself as a self-made artist," she observes.
Indeed, his doors arguably afford more insight than his writings into Ghiberti's slyly playful personality. In the temptation scene in the "Adam and Eve" panel, for example, Ghiberti imported a symbol of wisdom from Roman mythology—Minerva's owl—and placed it in the apple tree. Riffing wittily in "Jacob and Esau" on the story of how the smooth-skinned Jacob impersonated his hairy brother to dupe their blind father, Ghiberti placed a pair of dogs in the foreground: one is chased with wavy lines to mimic Jacob's fleece covering, and the other is left perfectly smooth. Then there is the fascinating "Joshua" panel, which remains in Florence. To portray the crumbling of Jericho's walls before Joshua's army, Ghiberti incised deep cracks in the fortifications. Cracks! Along with holes, cracks would be the bronze artist's greatest fear. Only a man like Ghiberti, who rose immediately to the summit of his profession and stayed there, would be so insouciant as to simulate dreaded cracks in his bronze casting.
Arthur Lubow lives in Manhattan and writes frequently on the arts. His article on American artists in Paris ran in January.