Friday, March 2, 2012

Florence, 1400

The city of Florence around the year 1400 was on a real role.  The horrors of the Black Plague which had devastated the 14th century were over, and the city was making a lot of money based most importantly on its wool industry.  Florence imported raw wool, cleaned and dyed it, and sold the finished product for a hefty profit.  And what do you do with extra wealth?  Well, for one thing you work on finishing the cathedral you have been building since 1296.  Everything except the dome was finished by 1418, and that final feat of beauty and engineering by 1436.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, 1296-1439, Florence Italy

Another building the Florentines were spending their extra money beautifying was the Florence baptistry, a beautiful hexagonal building from the 11th century.  In 1401 the guild of wool importers i.e. the wealthy business tycoons of Florence, sponsored an art competition.  The artist who won would receive the commission to make the brand new set of bronze doors with sculptural relief for the baptistry entrance.  For the competition, artists were supposed to create a single quatrefoil, or bronze 4-lobed panel depicting the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac.

Here are the two top contenders:  Which do you think should have won?

Lorenzo Ghiberti, The Sacrifice of Isaac (competition panel), 1401

Filippo Brunelleschi, The Sacrifice of Isaac (competition panel), 1401

I personally like the second panel, by Brunelleschi, a bit better.  Notice how he chooses to illustrate the most dramatic moment of the story, as the angel grabs his arm to stop Abraham from cutting his son's neck not a moment too soon.  Isaac looks like a skinny, frightened boy, and Abraham strong and determined, notice how Abraham's cloak is swinging behind him as if he is moving resolutely forward.

Compare the Ghiberti.  Instead of a scared little boy, Isaac is depicted, rather oddly in my view, as a male nude of classical beauty with a serious set of muscles.  Abraham's body language is more graceful; it's almost as if he is performing a dance step.  And the moment Ghiberti has chosen to portray, a few seconds before the knife touches Isaac's throat and the angel puts out his hand, isn't as dramatic as Brunelleschi's moment.  Ghiberti does have a much more interestingly shaped rocky landscape, I will admit, veering up as it does, on the left of the scene.

Fascinatingly, Ghiberti won the contest!  What were the judges thinking?  This is a wonderful chance for art historians to see what aesthetics early Renaissance Florentines valued, and it turns out they wanted figures like classical Greek sculptures, figures with grace and elegance.  Dramatic realism, at this time and place in history, just wasn't as important.  In a different century, perhaps Brunelleschi would have won, but not in 1401 Florence.

Don't feel too sorry for Brunelleschi though.  He later won another competition to design the great dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore (the same one in the first picture on this post).  And he was one of the most prolific artists and architects of the era.


  1. I'm with you — Brunelleschi wins, hands down! In addition to the points you raise, I find the Brunelleschi panel ever so more effective in design, firmly drawing the viewer's eye right to the heart of the scene. Ghiberti's panel feels too cluttered; my eye is drawn to the left of Adam where I can't even quite make out what I'm seeing.

    - abba

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