There is no doubt that those in every city who by their merits obtain fame to become a blessed light to those who are born after them. For there is nothing that arouses the minds of men and makes them indifferent to the hardships of study, so much as the thought of the honour and advantage that the labour may bring them.
This Lorenzo di Cione Ghiberti, otherwise Di Bartoluccio, knew well. He in his first years was put to the art of the goldsmith, but delighting more in the arts of sculpture and design, he studied colours and also cast little figures in bronze.
About this time the Signory of Florence, with the Guild of the Merchants, seeing that there were at that time many excellent sculptors, both Florentines and strangers, determined that they would make the second pair of gates for S. Giovanni, the oldest and the chief church of that city. So they called upon all the best masters in Italy to come to Florence and make trial of their skill, requiring them to produce a subject picture worked in bronze, like one of those which Andrea Pisano had made in the first gate.
Bartoluccio Ghiberti thereupon wrote to Lorenzo his son, who was then working in Pesaro, urging him to return to Florence, for this was an opportunity of making himself known and showing his skill. These words so moved Lorenzo that although Pandolfo Malatesti and all his court were heaping him with caresses, and would scarcely let him go, he took his leave of them, and neither promise nor reward would detain him, for it seemed to him to be a thousand years before he could get to Florence. So setting forth he came safely to his own city.
Many strangers had already arrived and made known their coming to the consuls of the guild. They made the choice of seven, three being Florentines and the rest Tuscans, ordaining for them a certain provision of money and requiring that within a year each one should finish one subject in bronze of the same size as those of the first gate. And the subject was Abraham sacrificing Isaac his son, for they thought that it contained all the difficulties of the art, landscape, figures nude and draped, and animals.
Those who took part in the contest were Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, Donatello, and Lorenzo, all Florentines; and Jacopo della Quercia of Sienna and Niccolo d’Arezzo his pupil, Francesco di Vandabrina, and Simone da Colle, famous for his bronzes, and they all made a promise to finish the work in the time appointed. So each one set to work, and with all diligence and study put forth all his strength and knowledge to surpass the others in excellence, working secretly and keeping concealed what they did that they might not do the same things.
Lorenzo alone, who worked by Bartoluccio’s counsel, and who was required by him to make essays and many models before he resolved upon using them for the work, continually brought in the citizens to see, and sometimes strangers who were passing through, if they understood the matter, that he might hear their opinions; and so it came about that the model was very well done and without any defect. And having made the mould and cast it in bronze, it came out very well indeed, and he, with Bartoluccio his father, polished it with such patience and earnestness that it could not have been better finished.
So the time is come when they were to be exhibited in competition, they were all finished and brought before the Guild of the Merchants for judgment. And when the consuls and many other citizens had seen them, opinions were very diverse about them. And there came many strangers to Florence, painters and sculptors and some goldsmiths, called by the consuls to aid them to give judgment, with others of that trade who dwelt at Florence.
The number of them was thirty-four, each one most skilful in his art. And although their opinions were different, one being pleased with the manner of this one, and another with that, nevertheless they agreed that Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo had composed and finished the subject better than Donatello, although there was good drawing in his. Jacopo Della Quercia had good figures, but there was no finish, although it was done with diligence.
Francesco di Vandabrina’s work had good heads and was well polished, but was confused in the composition. That by Simone da Colle was a good cast, that being his special art, but the design was not good. Niccolo d’Arezzo’s figures were stunted and the work was not well polished. Only the piece which Lorenzo had brought as his specimen, which may still be seen in the merchants’ hall, was perfect in all its parts; the work was well designed and well composed, the figures were graceful and their attitudes very beautiful, and it was finished with so much care that it had no appearance of having been cast and worked upon with iron tools, but seemed rather to have been breathed into existence.
Then Donatello and Filippo, seeing the care that Lorenzo had taken with his work, withdrew into a corner, and talking together resolved that the work ought to be entrusted to Lorenzo, for it seemed to them that it would be both for public and private good that Lorenzo being young, for he was no more than twenty, should be enabled to bring forth those greater fruits of which this was a promise; and in their judgment he had executed it more excellently than the others, so that it would be rather the part of envy to take the work from him than a virtue to give it up to him.
Therefore the work being entrusted to Lorenzo, he made a wooden frame of the proper size, and worked all the ornaments and decorations of the gate, and those that were to surround each compartment, and having dried the model in a house which he had bought over against S. Maria Nuova, where now stands the weavers’ hospital, he made a great furnace, which I can remember to have seen, and cast the frame in metal. But as fortune would have it, it did not come out well; however, without losing courage, or being dismayed, he made another mould so quickly that none knew of it, and cast it again, and this time it came out excellently well. And so continuing his work he cast each subject by itself and fitted it into its place.
And the work was brought to perfection without sparing time or fatigue, and the composition of each portion was so well arranged that it deserves that praise which Filippo had given to the first part, and yet greater. And so he was honoured by his fellow citizens and greatly praised by the artists both of his own land and strangers. The work with the ornaments round, of animals and festoons of fruit, cost twenty-two thousand florins, and the gates weighed thirty-four thousand pounds.
After this, the fame of Lorenzo went on increasing every day, and he worked for an infinite number of persons, making for Pope Martin a clasp for his cope, with figures in high relief, and a mitre with leaves of gold, and among them many little figures which were held to be most beautiful. Also when Pope Eugenius came to Florence, to the council held in 1439, and saw the works of Lorenzo, he caused him to make for him a mitre of gold, in weight fifteen pounds, and the pearls of it weighed five and a half pounds.
And when Florence saw that the works of their great artist were so much praised, it was determined by the merchants to entrust to him the third pair of gates of S. Giovanni. And although the one he had made before had been by their orders made with ornaments like those on the gates of Andrea Pisano, yet seeing that Lorenzo had surpassed his, they gave him leave to make it in any manner he liked, so that it should be the most highly adorned, the richest, most perfect, and most beautiful that could be imagined. Neither was he to regard time or expense, but as he had surpassed all other sculptors, so was he to surpass all his other works.
Lorenzo, therefore, began his work, and put into it all that he knew. And in truth, it may be said that the work is perfect in everything, and is the most beautiful work in the world that has ever been seen in ancient or modern times. And that Lorenzo merits praise we know, for one day Michael Angelo Buonarroti stopped to look at the work, and someone asked him what he thought of it, and if these gates were beautiful, and he answered, “They are so beautiful that they might well be the gates of Paradise.” Praise truly just, and given by one who could judge!
Lorenzo was aided in polishing and finishing the work after it was cast by many young men who afterwards became excellent masters, as Filippo Brunellesco, Paolo Uccello, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, and others. And besides the payment which the consuls of the guild gave him, the Signory bestowed upon him a good estate near the abbey of Settimo. Nor was it long before he was received among the Signory, and honoured with the supreme magistracy of the city. For which grateful conduct the Florentines deserve to be praised, as they have deserved to be blamed for the little gratitude they have shown towards others.
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