Ingrid Rowland

title.none: Paolucci, The Origins of Renaissance Art (Rowland)

identifier.other: baj9928.9706.007 97.06.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ingrid Rowland, University of Chicago,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Paolucci, Antonio. The Origins of Renaissance Art: The Baptistery Doors, Florence. New York: George Braziller, 1996. Pp. 171. $60.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-807-61413-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.06.07

Paolucci, Antonio. The Origins of Renaissance Art: The Baptistery Doors, Florence. New York: George Braziller, 1996. Pp. 171. $60.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-807-61413-0.

Reviewed by:

Ingrid Rowland
University of Chicago

One of the immutable features of life for the Christian citizens of the Florentine commune was baptism in the sunken pool of the octagonal Romanesque building erected for that purpose in the eleventh century. Placed before the entrance of Florence Cathedral and dedicated, appropriately, to John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, the Baptistery of S. Giovanni has remained one of the focal points of Florentine civic identity ever since. When the silk guild, the Arte di Calimala, decided in 1330 to commission a set of bronze doors for one of their city's most beloved buildings, they acted in their capacity as "guardians of the works of San Giovanni," to quote the fourteenth-century chronicler Giovanni Villani, himself the very guildsman entrusted to supervise the whole undertaking.

In the hands of the sculptor and goldsmith Andrea Pisano, the Baptistery's first set of bronze doors took shape as a proud challenge to the twelfth-century bronze cathedral doors of rival Pisa; hung in 1336, they bespoke the wealth, faith, and optimism of Florence on the eve of the Black Death.

Not until 1401 would the Florentine Calimala muster the confidence to commission another set of bronze doors for San Giovanni; this time staging a competition among artists that resulted in Lorenzo Ghiberti's victory over such stellar contenders as Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello. Ghiberti's work for the Baptistery would extend over the next half- century, culminating in a second set of doors (designed in the 1440's, finished 1452) whose gorgeous craftmanship earned them their nickname "The Gates of Paradise."

The Origins of Renaissance Art presents good color photgraphs of all three Baptistery doors, together with photographs of the marble statues that stand above them, thus allowing readers to see them as one continuous project, connected with 120 years of Florentine social and artistic history, to be sure, but also with the merchant commune's particular theological concerns. Antonio Paolucci's introductory essays, to the whole Baptistery project and to each of the doors in turn, are short and evocative, providing suggestive hints that allow the images to tell their story in more tranquil circumstances than one usually finds today before the doors themselves, craning to see their upper registers, dodging belligerent tour groups, all the while filtering out a babel of shouted spiels, roaring buses and sputtering motorini. (Especially now that the Gates of Paradise have been moved to the nearby Museo dell' Opera del Duomo and are replaced by copies.)

Paolucci deftly interweaves the Florentines' view of their own artistic and political history as continual progress toward greater and greater fulfillment with their similar take on religion: just as Andrea Pisano's Gothic doors depict the life of John the Baptist, the New Testament character who explicitly acts as a forerunner of Christ, so Lorenzo Ghiberti's first set of doors usher in Renaissance style in order adequately to convey the life of Christ--if this evolutionary scheme is enshrined in Giorgio Vasari's sixteenth-century Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, it is already present in Florentine thought long before that. "In San Giovanni historical memories and symbolic meanings are more pervasive than elsewhere," Paolucci states, and his insightful analysis, taken together with the photographic documentation of a stunning artistic assemblage, allows his readers to grasp the point for themselves.